Old Sac underground and vintage rail tours set for new season

03/30/2012 12:00 AM

04/01/2012 11:17 AM

Whether you prefer to enjoy Old Sacramento above ground or below, this tourist destination will kick off some of its best-attended activities starting Saturday.

The season for the popular underground tours kicks off Saturday, giving visitors a taste of city life in the 1850s.

Also Saturday, the California State Railroad Museum's excursion train will once again go "choo-choo" and offer its passenger rides on the Sacramento River levee.

The underground tours have quickly become a visitor favorite since launching in 2010. Roughly 15,000 tourists have participated annually in an hourlong trek through Old Sacramento's underground, said tour coordinator Staci Cox.

The tours include some exploring beneath the Hall Luhrs & Co. building, a former wholesale grocer on Second Street that operated in the 1880s. The building also housed a brothel in the mid-1800s.

"Under this building you see evidence of archaeological digs in the 1970s," said Cox. "Some of the items uncovered and displayed give insight of the life of Gold Rush-era residents of that building. There's household items: a Chinese clay pot, combs, brushes, hair dye bottles. The space acts as a time capsule."

These underground spaces harken to the 19th century, when Old Sacramento and downtown were especially prone to flooding. From 1863 to 1877, about two miles of streets that stretch from Old Sacramento to 11th and N streets were raised an average of 9 1/2 feet to prevent the problem.

What tourists find now is a preserved part of Sacramento's past, including exposed retaining walls and historic sidewalks. For those who want to partake, it's recommended that you wear a good pair of walking shoes.

"It's not the smoothest surface around, and it covers some uneven ground," Cox said. "We do spend that hour on the move and there are no places to sit."

Of course, one way to rest those feet is to take the California State Railroad Museum's excursion train, a historic 40-minute ride that chugs alongside the Sacramento River.

These popular train rides have run seasonally since the mid-1980s, with about 85,000 passengers getting on board each year, said Paul Hammond, director of the museum. The train gives the feeling of riding the rails during the 1920s with its renovated Southern Pacific coach cars.

"Those are fairly authentic to the original experience," Hammond said. "There are also a couple of open-air gondola cars, which are converted freight cars that have bench-style seating. If it's a nice day, people certainly like that feeling of being outdoors."

One recent addition to the excursion train is a first-class car called the El Dorado. For an addi- tional price, a ticket on the El Dorado includes a service of cookies, lemonade or tea as the train rolls along.

The route runs from the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot in Old Sacramento to Baths, about three miles south along the Sacramento River, and then back to Old Sacramento.

This rail line, which runs north and south near Interstate 5, was constructed near the turn of the 20th century as an agricultural branch line to carry passengers and freight. Though this line is now used primarily for historical purposes, one client still depends on these rails: Setzer Forest Products Inc. on Third Street near Broadway.

The excursion train runs through Sept. 30, and also transforms into a "Polar Express" during the holidays.

"It's not a complicated ride, and it's not the world's longest, but it is a rare experience," Hammond said. "Unless you're a bike rider or jogger, this is a chance to actually be up on those levees.

"It's one of the most popular excursion rides in the United States."


What: The latest season of underground tours and railroad rides kicks off this weekend. Locals think of this historic area as Sacramento's former downtown and as a tourist mecca. It is both – and a state historic park. Besides the seasonal rides and tours, the site is also home to the California State Railroad Museum, the California State Military Museum, the Sacramento History Museum, the Wells Fargo History Museum, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center and the Delta King steamboat. Buggy rides and the Pony Express statue recall pioneers' dependence on horses.

When: The excursion railroad starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and continues on weekends through September. Underground tours of Old Sacramento start Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and continue on weekends through May. The calendar will expand from June through November. Note that times will vary.

Where: Underground tours, Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St., (916) 808-7059; excursion train, Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot, Front Street between J and K streets, (916) 322-7112.

Railroad cost: $10, $5 for children ages 6 to 17, free for ages 5 and younger. VIP tickets cost $15 and are free for infants under 1 year old.

Tour cost: $15, $10 for children. Check website for family-friendly tours.

Contact: (916) 323-9280, www.californiastaterailroad-museum.org for railroad rides; (916) 808-7059, www.historicoldsac.or for underground tours; www.oldsacramento.com for general information

Events in Old Sacramento

Old Sacramento remains a key spot for some of the city's signature events. Here's a taste of what's coming up this year:

Pacific Rim Street Festival, May 20: A celebration of Asian culture with food, performers and more. www.pacificrimstreetfest.com.

Sacramento Music Festival, May 25-28: Formerly known as the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, this music festival includes traditional jazz, blues, Latin music and more. http://sacjazz.com.

Gold Rush Days, Aug. 31-Sept. 3: Old Sacramento rewinds to the 1850s with period storytelling, crafts, activities and more. www.sacramentogoldrushdays.com.

City of Sacramento Christmas Tree Lighting and Raley's Theatre of Lights, Nov. 21-Dec. 31: Celebrate the holiday season with a Christmas tree lighting and high-tech light show. www.oldsacramento.com.

New Year's Eve Sky Spectacular, Dec. 31: Ring in 2013 with celebrations and fireworks above Old Sacramento. www.nyesacramento.com.

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