Examining the earliest photo of Sacramento on the anniversary of the city’s incorporation

03/18/2014 12:00 AM

03/18/2014 9:01 AM

It’s generally considered by the historically minded to be the earliest photograph of Sacramento, a daguerreotype of the paddle-wheel steamer New World docked at the waterfront in 1850.

“It was one of the first big steamboats to arrive on the river,” said Mead Kibbey, the man most responsible for bringing the picture to Sacramento.

As Sacramento celebrates 164 years as an incorporated city today, it’s worth unpacking an image so significant to our civic history.

The year 1850 was a big year for the city. While the boat floats on what appears to be a placid Sacramento River, the young city itself roiled with floods, shootouts and disease in 1850.

Troubles started in early January, when a flood caused river waters to lap at second-story window sills and swept away houses, tents and livestock. With no dry ground to bury them in, the dead were sewn into blankets and sunk in the flood waters.

That summer, the nascent city suffered through the Squatter Riots, when citizens died in bloody gunbattles over land claims.

On Oct. 19, the sidewheeler New World reportedly brought some happy news: California had become the 31st state in the Union. Unfortunately, the New World was also said to have carried a passenger who brought the scourge of cholera to Sacramento.

The cholera epidemic would kill more than 600 people – including 17 physicians – in less than a month.

Also in 1850, Sacramento’s charter was recognized by the state on Feb. 27 and the city was incorporated less than a month later, on March 18, according to the Center for Sacramento History.

While the year 1850 certainly had enough Wild West doings to pack a Zane Grey novel, the history of the New World steamboat before it arrived from New York is also fairly exciting. Sacramento resident Kibbey, 92, knows all about that.

Kibbey, a student of 19th-century photographs, got a call one day in the 1980s from a man on the East Coast who thought a boat photo he held showed the Sacramento waterfront.

Sent a copy of the picture, Kibbey was able to confirm that the scene was Sacramento in 1850. Eventually, he learned the history of the boat, a watery life that once involved steaming along the Hudson River in New York.

The New York owner of the boat back then had borrowed heavily and was not able to pay it back, Kibbey said. That sent U.S. marshals calling to take over the vessel.

The owner told the marshals that the boat required regular use to keep it ship-shape. So, with the marshals aboard, the owner set off on the Hudson to keep all the parts moving and in working order.

Unbeknownst to the marshals, the owner had secreted extra fuel and supplies on board. He also had an armed crew down below that eventually sent the marshals packing on a small boat, but with no oars so they could not hurry ashore.

“The New World’s owner put on full steam and headed south,” said Kibbey. “There was no (widely used) telegraph those days. So he went all the way to California, stopping for fuel and along the way picking up passengers for the gold fields. By the time he got here he was rich.”

The holder of the photograph wanted $5,000. Kibbey put up half and the Setzer Foundation paid the other $2,500.

The photo is now at the Center for Sacramento History but is not on permanent public display. Kibbey notes that the photo shows leaves on the trees, indicating it was not taken in the winter. Crews alongside are polishing the side of the boat, he said.

“The exact date is well known when they got here,” said Kibbey. “There is a newspaper article about it.”

He harbors some doubt that the New World brought news of California joining the union as well as the cholera.

“By that time, there were a bunch of ships operating,” he said. “But it could have been.”

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