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The lowdown on Sacramento’s underground

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The largest storm in California’s recorded history peaked in January 1862, turning the Sacramento Valley into a 250- to 300-mile-long inland sea. Since the previous winter, Sacramento had received 400 percent of its annual average rainfall. The storm moved as far inland as Tennessee, slowing down troop movements in the Civil War.

After 10 inches of rain in December 1861, Sacramento newspapers declared Christmas canceled.

By January 1862, steamboats sailed through what is now Old Sacramento, rescuing people from their homes, and boat-makers charged inflated prices to capitalize on the new demand. On Jan. 10, newly elected Governor Leland Stanford had to travel to the Capitol via boat for his inauguration.

The flooding was so dangerous, the legislature abandoned Sacramento for San Francisco. As residents left for safety, others made plans to raise the streets in an attempt to continue urban growth and thrive as the state’s economic and political center.

This storm inadvertently created Sacramento’s underground. As the streets were raised some 10 feet on average, new underground spaces were created. Some used their underground space as storage, others as lower levels for their stores. A Chinese herbalist used the space to conduct his business.

Sacramento State graduate Heather Downey recently completed her master’s thesis project on the subject, writing an interpretive plan for a Sacramento underground tour. To earn her MA in public history, the 24-year-old also wrote an analysis of why the city decided to raise its streets as much as 14 feet in the 1860s and ’70s.

In an hour-long presentation Tuesday night, sponsored by the Sacramento County Historical Society, Downey presented anecdotes and spoke about the underground to an audience of about 75 people in the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society Building. In collaboration with the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation, Downey is planning an underground tour and exhibit. It will begin July 10 and will start and end at the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento.

Tuesday was Downey’s first speech on the subject. SCHS vice president William Burg introduced the new graduate and HOSF research historian.

She said that some people know nothing of the underground, while many have heard rumors and myths about it. An even smaller group, she said, knows that the underground pathways include glimpses of old storefronts and architectural features leftover from before the street-raising project.

Downey, who was raised in Turlock, said she first heard of the underground a year ago, while volunteering at the Center for Sacramento History. CSH manager and HOSF director Marcia Eymann asked her to help research the underground for HOSF’s upcoming underground tour.

As a result, Downey began her research for the tour, as well as her thesis.

"The street-raising projects and the architectural features that are left over — the underground today — are merely portals from the past, pointing us to this one particular instance between the forces of nature and the power of man," Downey said.

Sacramento was the first city on the West Coast — and the only one in California — to raise its street level, she said. A tremendous feat for a 13-year-old city, it also predated Seattle’s street-raising by 30 years.

"Even though the flooding was obviously very devastating and outsiders were starting to express little faith in their capital city, city dwellers in Sacramento were not giving up on their vision for growth in Sacramento," Downey said.

Sacramentans’ plan was three-pronged: to reroute the rivers, reinforce the levees and raise the central city, she said.

But the plan drew critics like Mark Twain, who commented on the project in 1869.

"The system of raising its buildings has its advantages," he wrote. "It makes the floor shady and this is something that is great in such a warm climate. It also enables the inquiring stranger to rest his elbows on the second-story windows and look in and criticize the bedroom arrangements of all the citizens."

Despite the critics, and thanks to an enormous amount of physical work and commitment by the landowners, Sacramento stayed alive as a city.

"We want people to leave the tour equipped with new eyes to see our downtown district," she said. "You don’t have to necessarily go under the city to see the underground because there are so many above-ground features that point to the street-raising project."

Several skylights into the underground exist around the J Street area downtown. Pinkish quartz squares dot several sidewalks downtown, shedding a little light into a piece of history.

"Old Sacramento Underground: Get The Lowdown" begins July 10 and runs through October. The 45-minute tours will be led by guides with theatrical backgrounds, and will travel between Front to Second streets, both above and underground. Tours will run hourly Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for youth. The tour begins at the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I Street, Old Sacramento, 808-7973.

1. The flood (credit Center for Sacramento History)
2,3. Downey answers questions (credit Jonathan Mendick)
4. Current height of Old Sacramento compared to the Sacramento River (credit Jonathan Mendick)
5. Sacramento History Museum (credit Jonathan Mendick)
6, 7. The underground (credit William Burg)

8. Locations of existing hollow sidewalks in Sacramento

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