Gold Rush Days cuts back on dirt – and water

Members of Company F, 2nd Calvary, locally known as the Sacramento Rangers during the 1800s, are passed by bike riders on Front Street in September 2011.
Members of Company F, 2nd Calvary, locally known as the Sacramento Rangers during the 1800s, are passed by bike riders on Front Street in September 2011. Sacramento Bee file

After a last-minute cancellation of last year’s celebration, Gold Rush Days are back in Old Sacramento – cleaner, more environmentally friendly and less dusty.

Past celebrations have coated roads throughout Old Sacramento in a layer of dirt, adding to the old-time effect of the 1850s-themed festivities. This Labor Day weekend, only J Street will be covered.

Just six weeks before last year’s event, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau discovered over 100,000 gallons of water would be used to wash the dirt away, Chief Operating Officer Mike Testa said. Another 3,000 gallons or so would be used every day throughout the weekend to keep dirt matted down and out of guests’ nasal passages.

“When we canceled the event last year, a number of performers needed dirt to do their acts,” Testa said. “We had the luxury of a year to plan around that problem this time around.”

With water in short supply because of California’s drought, organizers decided to cancel the event outright rather than rush to a solution, a move that drew criticism from Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and local business owners.

This year’s event will use between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of recycled water purchased from the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District. Most dirt will be removed using industrial vacuums, with the water meant more as a finishing touch than anything else.

The sanitation district will be gifting the water to the Convention & Visitors Bureau as a gesture of goodwill and community involvement, director of policy and planning Christoph Dobson said.

“We felt like it was a regional event, and it would be reasonable for us to provide water for free,” Dobson said. “Many ratepayers might be people who end up attending the event.”

Only one show, the Pony Express, imperatively needs the dirt. Pony Express horses will sprint from one side of J Street to another with a mochila, or mail bag, to hand off like a relay baton to an awaiting rider.

If the horses were to gallop from one side to another without proper traction, California Division of the National Pony Express Association President Rich Tatman said, the results could be catastrophic.

“If you can imagine having a 1,200-pound animal running down the street with steel shoes on asphalt, it’s like having a 1,200 animal running down an ice rink on ice skates,” Tatman said. “It’s not safe for anybody.”

Other groups will use the dirt for its rustic effect and practicality when the horses are away. Gunfighters re-enacting the 1850 Squatters’ Riots fall hard to the ground when “shot,” and a cushion of dirt provides a small reprieve from the concrete streets underneath.

The dirt was scheduled to be laid down Thursday night around 10 p.m., Testa said, in preparation for the event’s 9 a.m. start on Friday.