GOLD RUSH: Extra! Extra!

River trade gave birth to city, then floods came

By Carlos Alcala
Bee Staff Writer
Published March 2, 1998

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Plunk the new city where two rivers come together and -- Presto! -- instant trade center.

Sacramento in the mid-1800s had ready access to the Mother Lode, up and down the Central Valley and through the Delta to San Francisco.

But along with the birth of Sacramento came the birth of Sacramento floods.

flood
A January 1862 scene shows a flooded K Street, looking east from Fourth Street. Dirt was used to lift street levels above flood stages.

Sacramento history archives photo
Before white settlers arrived, the area's American Indian inhabitants would retreat from shore during the rainy season. The newcomers never got the idea.

John Sutter had enough sense to build his fort on a slightly higher piece of ground, at today's 25th and K streets, but even that wasn't completely free from flooding. Visitors who came to the outpost between Christmas and New Year's in 1841 could land their boats just 11 yards behind the fort.

Other Sacramentans stuck to the lowlands.

A man named McVickar even proposed establishing a grogshop in a flood-prone area . . . but 20 feet up in a sycamore tree. He reasoned folks could climb up a ladder when it was dry -- and canoe in when it wasn't.

That idea didn't pan out, but building continued near the river.

The result was disaster in 1850, the year of developed Sacramento's first great flood. At the time, the area held more than 6,000 residents.

During the second week of January, water rushed in from surrounding waterways, covering the city for a mile east of the normal bank of the Sacramento River -- roughly to the present-day Convention Center at 12th and J streets.

Much of what is known of that flood was told by Dr. John F. Morse, a historian of the time.

He wrote that people drowned in their beds and the city hospital was inundated, the sick abandoned until one large ship came to rescue them. A man known only as "the Dutchman" earned about $2,000 in gold dust -- which he always kept on him -- by ferrying the dead to burial sites.

But on one trip with a coffin and a colleague, his boat began to sink. While his colleague clung to the coffin, the Dutchman was pulled under by the weight of his gold.

After renewed flooding in March 1850, Sacramentans built miles of levees from the Sutterville area to the south, up the Sacramento until it met the American, and along the American to high ground.

That worked. Temporarily.

In 1852 and 1853, the city went under water again. Again, the levees were improved. The city grew, doubling its population from the 1850 level. For eight years, citizens thought they were safe from flood.

But the winter of 1861-62 found Sacramento under water again. In January, water from the American River washed through the city and spilled over levees into the Sacramento River.

"The city is one vast lake, and boats are busily engaged passing to and fro, conveying people in search of meals and lodgings," wrote The Daily Bee, in a "Flood Sheet" published while its building was under water.

While the homeless bivouaced on the levee, The Bee editorialized that things were not so bad and remarked on the "picturesqueness of the scene."

It was bad enough. After three major floods in less than 12 years, folks decided to do something.

While some favored abandoning the city, or at least moving the state capital to San Francisco, Sacramento undertook literally to raise itself out of the mire.

Sacramentans endeavored to bring street level -- or grade -- above known flood stages by dumping wagonloads of dirt and gravel on the streets, as much as 10 feet in front of some buildings.

Fitful efforts at raising the city by filling in streets had occurred after the 1853 flood, but now Sacramentans went at it with a fervor.

The area raised eventually included I to L streets, and from Front to 11th. Not only streets were filled. What is now Cesar Chvez Park had to be raised after it became a dumping ground.

Skeptics suggested Sacramento would be forever waterlogged.

"If the rising generation does not become web-footed," wrote the Alta Californian in 1864, "it will only be because it will be exempt from the operation of natural law. If Mount Diablo or Shasta Butte were dumped base upwards into the cavity (Sacramento), a level of the height of the surrounding embankments would not be secured."

The height was secured -- subterranean businesses in Old Sacramento today testify to original street levels -- but there were unintended consequences.

Old sidewalks below street level needed to be raised. Until that happened uniformly, people fell from elevated sections into lower levels while walking at night. When it rained, new streets -- as yet unpacked and unpaved -- turned to mud.

A lack of foresight meant that utility lines and water cisterns were left buried far under the streets.

When the next big flood came, in 1867, Sacramentans were no longer victims. They became spectators.

Instead of reporting boats on Sacramento streets, The Bee described watching from the shore as houses from areas east and west of the city were washed away in flooding that the city avoided.


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