Near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, in a wide valley traversed for many centuries by the native Maidu tribe, John Augustus Sutter in the early 1840s established a trading post which quickly came to serve the Gold Rush. At its heart, the beginnings of Sacramento amounted to the establishment of the region’s first shopping center.
Sacramento’s history as a city took root at Sutter’s Fort, which is crucial to any list of top sites that history buffs should visit as they soak in the region’s rich history. Other historic sites include an early businessman’s elaborate residence, today part of the city’s art museum, as well as the humble and quaint downriver town of Locke, founded by the Chinese laborers who worked in the groves and fields.
That study in contrasts speaks to the hopes, dreams and lives of the people who built the region and its history.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park 310 Back St., Coloma (530) 622-3470
This is where it all began: On Jan. 24, 1848, James W. Marshall was building a sawmill for Sutter on the south fork of the American River when he noticed flakes of gold in the water. The resulting Gold Rush drew 80,000 immigrants from across the nation and around the world – and changed California’s history forever.
Today, the old village is a ghost town 50 miles east of Sacramento, a fascinating collection of restored buildings from the 1850s, as well as a National Historic Landmark District. The restored sawmill, where Marshall discovered the gold, is a California Historical Landmark.
Sutter’s Fort 2701 L St., Sacramento (916) 445-4422
After Marshall discovered gold in the American River at Sutter’s sawmill, he brought the first samples to Sutter in this two-story adobe compound. That was in January 1848. As word spread, the Gold Rush began – and the rest, as they say, is history.
“This fort has taken on mythic significance to the history of California,” Sacramento city historian Marcia Eymann told The Sacramento Bee for a 2011 article. “It was significant in its time for all of the immigrants that it welcomed to California and because of its demise following the Gold Rush.
“It is the beginning of Sacramento.”
Today, the restored Sutter’s Fort is part of the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park complex, on a sprawling patch of greenery in the midst of Sacramento’s leafy midtown neighborhood.
Old Sacramento Historic District 28 acres on the east bank Sacramento River near I Street Bridge.
Visitor Center, 1002 Second St., Sacramento (916) 442-7644
Along these restored streets – listed as a National Historic Landmark District – the early settlers of Sacramento flocked to what was in the 1850s the bustling town’s first business district.
There are museums here now, and shops and restaurants and all sorts of touristy attractions. But the serious devotee of history should consider Old Sacramento as more than a time-warped tourist trap: Here, the Transcontinental Railroad was founded and the Pony Express had its terminus.
Here, the growing town of Sacramento came to thrive, stoked first by the Gold Rush, then agriculture and shipping.
“These few blocks tell many important stories about the Gold Rush, the Pony Express, the telegraph, the railroad, flooding, fire, commerce, ethnic diversity, early state and local governance and more,” Dr. Robin Datel, a Sacramento State geography professor, told The Bee in 2011.
Crocker Art Museum 216 O St., Sacramento (916) 808-7000
Edwin B. Crocker – wealthy banker and landowner, chief counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad and California Supreme Court justice – was a pillar of early Sacramento society. And the home that he and his wife, Margaret, purchased in 1868 and remodeled shows exactly what society meant in those years. With its elaborate Victorian facade and rich interior woodwork, it included a bowling alley, huge ballroom and a billiards room. An Italianate-style gallery was completed next to the mansion in 1872 to hold the couple’s extensive art collection.
This was how the other half lived in late 19th century Sacramento.
The Crockers dreamed that Sacramento should have its own art museum. After Edwin’s death, his widow donated much of their art collection and the gallery to the city in 1885 as the E.B. Crocker Art Gallery. The original house was purchased by the city after Margaret’s death. A soaring, modern building was added in 2010 – but the lovely original buildings remind visitors of the standard of living and the striving for culture that early Sacramento society yearned to embrace.
California State Capitol (and museum) 10th and L streets, Sacramento (916) 324-0333
Sacramento became the permanent seat of California’s government in 1860, a full decade after California became the nation’s 31st state. It wasn’t until 1874 that construction of the Capitol was complete – but the new state Capitol was worth the wait.
With its design based on the U.S. Capitol, California’s soaring, domed Capitol houses the state Senate and, on the opposite side of the building, the state Assembly. On the ground floor inside the rotunda is a statue called “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella.”
And up and down the first-floor hallways are a series of restored rooms: the historic replicas of state officials’ offices from the early days of California’s existence as a state.
Locke Historic District Two miles south of Sacramento on River Road (916) 776-1661
California became rich because of its farmland – and it took thousands of immigrant workers to till the fields. In the Sacramento River Delta south of Sacramento after the turn of the century, Chinese labor made the state bloom.
The tiny hamlet of Locke was established by a handful of Chinese merchants in 1912, when Asian immigrants weren’t allowed to own land in California. They built a dry goods store, a gambling hall and a restaurant on land owned by George Locke.
A fire in nearby Walnut Grove burned the homes of hundreds of Chinese workers in the fall of 1915. They flocked to Locke, with families filling boardinghouses and starting their own businesses in this town built by and for Chinese immigrants. Residents worked in the pear orchards or in the canneries on the river.
“This Chinese hamlet on the Sacramento River is highly picturesque, its antique charm bound up with the state’s and country’s history of anti-Asian discrimination and exclusion,” Datel told The Bee.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990, Locke is considered the nation’s largest intact Chinese American rural community.
Today about 50 residential and commercial buildings remain, as well as about 80 residents. Sacramento County bought the district in 2002.