Visitors step back into Old Sacramento’s history in Gold Rush tour

Cherilyn Neider looked like she’d time-traveled from the mid-1850s to materialize Sunday in the Sacramento History Museum. The tour guide was striking in the formal evening wear of the day – a white satin gown trimmed in blue velvet and embellished with satin roses, topped with a blue velvet shawl and matching snood.

The visitors had assembled Sunday morning for the Gold Rush Experience Tour, a time capsule of Old Sacramento from 1848 to 1861. It promised to captivate with “stories about miners, merchants, politicians, Pony Express riders, and all the disasters they overcame to help make Sacramento what it is today.” It didn’t disappoint.

In conjunction with the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation, the Sacramento History Museum sponsors a number of tours, including its popular underground and ghost tours. The newest, the Gold Rush Experience, is still being finessed after its Oct. 17 “soft launch” and will continue through Dec. 13 and pick up in March. Private tours can be arranged in January and February.

“Every year we add something new,” said museum director Cristina Swanson. “We’re planning a full-on launch of the Gold Rush Experience in the spring because it deserves the same marketing we give the Underground Tour.”

Last year, more than 20,000 people came to Old Sacramento for the museum’s tours. The Underground Tour opened in 2010 and paved the streets with figurative gold. “It saved us by giving us a sustainable source of income that helped keep the museum doors open,” Swanson said. The tour literally takes visitors to areas beneath streets that were raised 9 1/2 feet to solve seasonal flooding.

“Our Historic District is important not just to California and American history, but to world history,” said Steve Rossi, Gold Rush Experience tour manager. “The world rushed to California in 1848 and ’49 in a migration unparalleled in human history. In one year alone, over 120,000 people showed up just in Sacramento. The (Old Sacramento) buildings tell a huge story, from success to tragedy.”

It’s largely a tale of devastating floods and fires and a deadly cholera epidemic, but also of the perseverance of Sacramento’s founders.

Neider started the one-mile, nine-stop tour with “My name is Charity Hayward and I was born in 1826,” part of a persona she kept up throughout the one-hour tour for locals as well as folks visiting from Chicago and Canada.

The group moved outside to the shade of towering trees and listened to Neider recount the familiar (to most Californians) story of Swiss pioneer John Sutter and how an employee, James Marshall, found gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in Coloma in 1848.

A less familiar part of the story, at least to some, was the bit about how Samuel Brannan broke an exaggerated version of the discovery in his newspaper, the California Star. If you bent over, you could pick up gold, he lied. In one year, California’s population increased twelvefold. The real money turned out to be not from gold, but from “mining the miners” by supplying them with everything from gear to whiskey. Lots of whiskey.

The group came to a canvas-and-timber replica of the Eagle Theater where in the winter of 1849, a sudden storm flooded the original building packed full of spectators. Undeterred, the audience of men stood on their chairs to watch the show but had to abandon the building before it was torn from its foundation and last seen floating down the Sacramento River.

So the tour went, pausing at the neighborhood’s storied buildings, now largely a honky-tonk of souvenir and candy stores, T-shirt shops and restaurants.

There was the What Cheer House, whose proprietor hired orphans to steal the luggage of newcomers fresh off the ships at the nearby docks. The outraged victims would chase the young thieves into the hotel lobby, where they would find the owner “scolding” the children, then telling them something like, “So sorry, sir, but now that you’re here you can buy supplies, rest your head and have a drink.”

Over there was the Lady Adams Building, named after the German merchants’ disassembled ship from which it was built. Because of its layered roof of tin, sand and brick, it was one of only four buildings that made it through the fire of 1852.

The tour also stopped by the grand Orleans Hotel, where dancer-actress Lola Montez performed and where Mark Twain lived in 1866. It burned down in 1852, but was rebuilt of fire-resistant brick later that year, just in time for a gala reopening on New Year’s Day 1853. But this being Sacramento, the city flooded that day and the guests had to row boats to the party.

Near the end of the tour, the group paused across the street from the Schroth Bath House in Sawdust Alley, where the owner used solar-heated water to fill his tubs.

“A bath was $1, but because he changed the water only after 10 baths, he charged on a sliding scale,” Neider said to the cringing group. “The last bath was only 10 cents.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Gold Rush Experience Tour

When: 10:45 a.m., and 12:15 and 1:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 13. Check the website for updated tour schedule. To book a private tour, email Steve Rossi at srossi@cityofsacramento.org or call 916-808-1946.

Where: Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St.

Cost: $15 adults, $10 ages 6-17

Information and tickets: 916-808-7059, www.sachistorymuseum.org