State Capitol Building in Sacramento, California
State Capitol Building in Sacramento, California
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Sacramento and the Delta – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Sacramento and the surrounding Delta have been the land of visionaries. First came John Sutter, the Swiss entrepreneur, who carved out a trading and agriculture settlement here in 1839. In 1848, one John Marshall, a sawmill worker for Sutter, discovered traces of gold in a millrace. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of adventurers from around the globe converged on Sacramento. They paid their way to San Francisco or came as deckhands and jumped ship in San Francisco harbor. Taking a steamer, they passed through the Delta and on to Sacramento, where they provisioned for the trip to the mines.

Those with a steadier vision saw that fortunes were to be made in the provisions, when you could sell eggs or apples for a dollar apiece. The Delta itself had some of the richest farm lands in the world. One of these visionaries was a hardware store owner named Leland Stanford, who was fated to become the railroad builder and university founder.

Getting to Sacramento and the Delta

In the 19th century you would have journeyed here by boat, taking a steam paddle-wheeler from San Francisco, through the Delta, and up the Sacramento River to Sacramento, the gateway to the gold mines. As the true gold of agriculture became the obvious treasure, efforts were made to join Sacramento with the East by means of a railroad across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Much of the pleasure of Sacramento amounts to walking about the Old Sacramento area, a monument to the gold and railroad stories.

Today Interstate 80 joins Sacramento with San Francisco to the west and Reno or points beyond to the east. Interstate 5 bisects 80 at Sacramento and continues south along the west edge of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Sacramento has its own full-service airport.

Enthusiasts for the nostalgia of an earlier era, however, will take a more leisurely route between San Francisco and Sacramento. Highway 160 from the East Bay snakes along the levees, passing small towns, such as Ryde, with its restored Ryde Hotel and restaurant.

Sacramento and Delta History

Before the arrival of John Sutter, California Indians flourished here in great numbers. They lived off the herds of tule elk, the migrating ducks, and the salmon. Where the land pushed higher than the marshes, there were thousands of valley oak and black oak trees, whose acorns supplied half of the Native Aemrican diet. Today you can see many Indian artifacts in the State Indian Museum adjoining Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Both the museum and the fort are part of State Parks system.

Sutter named his whitewashed fort after the Latin for his native Switzerland–New Helvetica. You can visit the reconstructed fort at 2710 L Street. Exhibits include the work places of carpenters, coopers, and blacksmiths, the fort prison, and living quarters of the frontier period.

It is worth noting that Sacramento’s early history is not a story of Spanish-Mexican settlements, as is the rest of California to the south. San Francisco and Sonoma were as far north as the Spanish colonial thrust of missions, forts, and settlers reached. In the early 1800s it looked as though the northern part of present-day California might fly the flags of Russia, England, or France, rather than Spain.

The decisive event in the history of the area was, of course, the discovery of gold by John Marshall in 1848. This is properly the story of the Gold Country, another write-up. When miners overran his agricultural lands and destroyed his property, Sutter never fully recovered, eventually dying an impoverished and unappreciated man.

The gold era was brief, only a few years for picking nuggets out of streams and a few decades for blasting gold-bearing quartz rock out of deep underground mines. The former was a democratic chance for any man to strike it rich, and some did, although a dozen died of pneumonia in the cold mountain streams for every one who earned riches. The latter required vast capitalization, leaving the little man out.

Those who didn’t strike it rich turned to agriculture to sustain themselves. In California’s agricultural abundance lay a wealth exponentially beyond the dollar value of gold. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the leisurely drives possible on the Delta levees, where pear orchards, asparagus fields, sorghum plantings, and sugar beet crops stretch before you. The Chinese made a major contribution here, first building the railroad, then settling in as farmers. The town of Locke was founded entirely by Chinese.

State Capitol Building in Sacramento, California
State Capitol Building in Sacramento, California

Sacramento and the Delta Main Attractions

Within the City of Sacramento your main stop should be Old Sacramento, with brief visits also to the State Capitol, Sutter’s Fort, and the Crocker Art Gallery. Within the Delta the main appeal is a drive along the levees, watching the water, or perhaps renting a houseboat for a few days, a favorite form of recreation here.

Old Sacramento re-creates and preserves the Gold Rush and railroad era from 1850-1890. The California State Railroad Museum is one of the finest museums in the country, interpreting the many implications that railroads had on the lifestyle of the West. Old Sacramento includes an historic riverfront area and is a 28-acre national historic landmark. The Gold Rush miners passed through this embarcadero, overrunning Captain John Sutter’s nascent agricultural community in 1848.

Begin an historic tour at the B. F. Hastings Building, 2nd and J streets. The building was once the first western office of the Pony Express and the home of the California Supreme Court from 1855 to 1869.

At I and L streets lies the Big Four Building, where the four merchants, Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, drew up plans to build the Central Pacific Railroad. The Big Four Building now houses part of the California State Railroad Museum. The museum re-creates a Central Pacific Passenger Station built in 1867, the first California station for the transcontinental railroad. The extensive museum includes restored locomotives, re-created waiting rooms and offices, films, and photographs.

While exploring in Old Sacramento, seek out the forlorn bust of Theodore Judah. It was Judah, the engineer, who had the original dream of the railroad and who persuaded the Big Four to build it. Judah, however, was squeezed out in the political struggle over control of the railroad. Also rendered irrelevant by the railroad was the Pony Express, whose riders are memorialized in Old Sacramento with a bronze statue of a galloping rider and horse.

The reconstructed Eagle Theatre, which opened in 1849, was California’s first playhouse.

Several good restaurants will please the diner in Old Sacramento. One is the Firehouse.

After you leave Old Sacramento, stop by to visit the domed State Capitol Building, from 1874. The capitol lies between 10th Street and Capitol Mall.

The Crocker Art Museum at 216 O Street is the oldest art museum in the west. It was built by Edwin B. Crocker, a banker and landowner, in 1873, to house his private art collection.

Sutter’s Fort is at 2701 L Street.

Nearby Trips from Sacramento and the Delta

The appropriate excursion here is through the Delta, which includes 1,000 miles of diked rivers and man-made canals, creating an intricate web of inland waterways to explore by car, houseboat, or bicycle.

Explore small towns on the Delta in a circular trip, driving down one side of the river, from Freeport to Antioch, and then up the other.

Rio Vista has a concentration of wealth from its early days as a shipping center and its present role in agricultural and natural gas production.

Upriver lies Locke, one of the few towns in the West founded by Chinese. Locke is now a ghost of its former flourishing life, with only a few residents. Locke once boasted a theater, six restaurants, and a fluctuating number of brothels. You can visit the Dai Loy Museum, the River Road Art Gallery, or Al’s Place for a steak and beer.

People in the small Delta towns are a gregarious mix of hyphenated Americans, especially Portuguese, Italians, and Filipinos. While their lives are usually passed in such sober pursuits as raising food crops, running resorts, and tending shops, Delta people possess a streak of eccentricity. As an example, Foster’s Bighorn is a restaurant in Rio Vista with an elaborate collection of mounted big game.

One interesting Delta trip is the 20-mile Tyler Loop out of Walnut Grove, which you can make by car, bicycle, or boat. You’ll pass Georgiana Slough, one of the most beautiful Delta waterways, lined with willow, poplar, and oak. Fields of wheat, corn, barley, and asparagus stretch in every direction.

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Sacramento and the Delta: If You Go

Contact the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitsacramento.com.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page

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