Newcastle to celebrate its history with 150th birthday

In 1855, a miner-turned-author named James Mason Hutchings had this to say about the hardscrabble Newcastle: “A little gathering of old shanties called a town, with its poor eatables and flea-y bed, too short to stretch full length and too narrow to curl up on.”

Much has changed since then, but the unincorporated Placer County town of 1,200 residents is still a bedroom community, providing a peaceful – and hopefully less flea-bitten – existence for residents who commute to Sacramento and Auburn.

“Today, it is a wonderful place to live,” said Susie Brown, an organizer of the celebration that will mark the town’s sesquicentennial on Sunday, though the community had been in existence before the arrival of the railroad 150 years ago in 1864.

Organizers hope that people from Placer County and beyond flock to their “Celebration Day,” which will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in downtown Newcastle on Marshall Square.

Entertainment, local food, vendors, historical re-enactments, artifacts on exhibit, walking tours and videos on the town’s history will be part of the event. “We are going to have a full-scale celebration here,” said David Mackenroth, president of the Newcastle Community Association.

Much of the day will recognize the significance of agriculture and railroading in the town’s early days.

The Bee noted on June 6, 1864, that trains of the Central Pacific Railroad had begun to run regularly between Sacramento and Newcastle. About the same time, The Sacramento Daily Union ran a story about a special train that traveled from Sacramento to mark the completion of tracks to sleepy Newcastle.

The 400 train riders spread about the town, visiting its saloons and stores, the railroad turntable and depot, the Union story said. The city of Sacramento, below in the Valley, could be seen “with the aid of a glass.”

About an hour before the train was to head back to Sacramento, the travelers, many of whom hadn’t packed a lunch, got hungry. They proceeded to eat their way through the tiny town. The Union reported: “No special provision had been made for the occasion, but such bread and butter, pies and cakes, crackers and cheese, sardines and oysters, lager and cider, etc., etc., as the place could supply, found a ready market and were effectually disposed of.”

“The railroad put Newcastle on the map,” Brown said. “Customers would come and stay at the hotel, take the stagecoach to Auburn. There was plenty to do here.”

Newcastle was once a boom town in the summer because it was a main rail shipping point for orchards that surrounded it. Sprawling wood-frame buildings hummed with activity during the summer fruit-shipping season.

The fruit sheds and the orchards had hundreds of workers and ranch owners. Trains shipped Newcastle plums and pears, cooled by ice, out by rail to markets all over the United States.

“I would say the height of it was in 1923 when Newcastle sent out 2,547 rail cars full of fruit in one year,” Brown said.

According to news accounts, the Newcastle fruit industry was in serious decline by 1960. The pear crop was decimated by a mysterious disease and small foothill orchards were being supplanted by large corporate entities in the San Joaquin Valley, according to a Bee story.

But Satsuma mandarins – tangy, plump citrus fruits that are easy to peel – have helped fruit production bounce back in Placer County.

Fires swept through Newcastle a couple of times. In 1922, fruit sheds and the post office were burned.

The town once had a large population of residents of Chinese heritage. However, the town’s Chinatown was demolished for the building of Interstate 80.

Japanese Americans also had a bigger presence in the town than they do today. The community was rocked, as were people of Japanese descent up and down the West Coast, when they were forced to move to internment camps during World War II.

“One of the videos we will have playing at the event is a personal account of people who lived here when that happened,” Brown said.