World Facts Index > United States > SacramentoThe heart of California's capital city at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers is, at first glance, a transplanted Midwestern downtown with its wide, tree-shaded streets of elegant Victorian homes. Sacramento, however, is a city of contrasts, defying expectations that the capital of the largest state in the union must be a bustling metropolis studded with sleek steel and glass towers. There are buildings fitting that description clustered downtown, of course, but unlike most major metro areas that grow from a civic center, several small communities grew together and now comprise Sacramento.
Today, within the sprawling metropolis, the influence of these original settlements still makes themselves felt. Just a few minutes southeast of Sacramento International Airport along I-5, visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of the river meandering on down to the Delta as they arrive in downtown Sacramento. This is where, in 1839, John Sutter and his entourage first set up camp--he later built his fort a mile east, out of floodwater range. With the discovery of gold, this tiny settlement grew explosively. Disappointed gold-seekers came back from the gold fields to profit from agriculture and founded towns in the surrounding fields as processing and transportation hubs. Today, from Davis and Woodland to the west, to the lovingly preserved frontier town of Auburn northeast along I-80, to vacation spots in the Sacramento River Delta, Sacramento is growing in population and sophistication while remembering its colorful Wild West past.
Since its humble beginnings as a tent city, Sacramento's fate has been intertwined with the river of the same name. Today, Old Sacramento is a 12-block neighborhood preserved between the river and the I-5 freeway as a state historic district. More than a just a tourist Mecca, the old stone and brick buildings house entertainment and dining for locals, as well. There's a world-class comedy club, a live theatre, elegant restaurants with sweeping views of the river, candy stores, costume shops, pubs and bookstores to be found along the canopied plank sidewalks. The focal point of downtown is Downtown Plaza, reached from Old Sacramento through a pedestrian tunnel. This open-air market (cooled with suspended 'misters' during the summer) features a megaplex movie theater, department stores, a bookstore, specialty clothing stores and much more. Ethnic restaurants representing the cuisines of every group in the city are perched on the balcony overlooking the performance court. Here busy shopping crowds are regaled by strolling musicians, jugglers, acrobats, mimes and other hard-working entertainers. Beyond the Hard Rock Cafe anchoring the eastern threshold of the plaza, K Street Mall extends several blocks further east, past the Crest Theater, an Art Deco vaudeville theater now restored as a repertory venue featuring art and foreign titles, the Esquire IMAX with its six-story tall screen, vintage record stores, novelty shops, a blues club and several splashy psychedelic murals painted on the dignified walls.
1890-1910 Vintage Buildings
One of the first things visitors notice as they venture into the Midtown district are the trees. Throughout the city there are more than 250,000 of them--deciduous, fruit, flowering and palm. When you see a row of three-story palms gently swaying above a row of quaint Midwestern Victorians along a Midtown street you'll know you're not in Kansas anymore. Many of the trees are elms and oaks planted by homesick easterners that have now grown into huge size. In the summers, when temperatures average in the high 90s, their cool shade is welcome. This district is much more than a residential neighborhood. Along the shady streets you'll find several cutting-edge off-Broadway theaters, a diversity of art galleries, fine and down-home dining, as well as nightspots catering to every taste.
Davis and Woodland
Sacramento's development has always been in easterly directions. Unfortunately, the Sacramento River, which did so much to put the city on the map, had the alarming habit of flooding on a regular basis. The early town was practically erased from the face of the earth several times before levees were built. Today, the Causeway, a section of I-80 on stilts, crosses the Yolo Bypass, a flood-control canal which can expand to the size of a small sea in winter, and connects downtown Sacramento with Davis, a college town 11 miles to the west. Davisites are nothing if not concerned with all things cultural. The University of California, Davis, attracts thousands of students and faculty with a taste for non-mainstream entertainment. On campus and within the small downtown, which has seen a spurt of growth during the past few years yet has preserved its family oriented character, the streets overflow most evenings with townsfolk seeking unique, live events such as poetry readings, live theater, gallery openings and music concerts. There is also an interesting array of restaurants offering Asian, Mexican, European and American cuisines, plus pubs and coffeehouses.
Ten miles north, Woodland offers an Historic District centered around the restored Opera House which offers quality amateur productions of musicals, dramas and comedies. A short stroll away along the leafy streets are movie theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants ensconced in restored Victorian houses. An interesting local history museum in one of the original ante-bellum farmhouses, features a potpourri of memorabilia: treasures such as political campaign buttons and antique stereograph images.
Across the American River this old neighborhood centered on Del Paso Boulevard had once fallen upon hard times as evidenced by its boarded-up storefronts and litter. Today, a virtual renaissance has taken hold. Attracted by cheap rents, artists have arrived during the past few years to open studios. In their wake came the gallery owners. More than a dozen galleries, including Michael Himovitz and MatrixArts, two of the largest exhibiting nationally recognized artists, are now situated within a few blocks of each other. Today, spiffed up and known as Uptown, the area has also attracted interesting restaurants, cafes and other businesses busily renovating the formerly boarded-up buildings. To the east is Arden Fair Mall, with theaters, restaurants and a dizzying array of shopping opportunities.
East of Sacramento proper, the town of Folsom directly traces its history to the Gold Rush. Many of the older buildings are worth a visit. Built in 1860, the Wells Fargo Assay Office was a stage depot and Pony Express terminal. Along a four-block stretch of Sutter Street now designated an historic district are restaurants, coffeehouses and boutiques. The Folsom Zoo, affectionately nicknamed the 'Misfit Zoo,' provides a haven for animals such as bears, bobcats, cougars, wolves, dogs or domestic cats injured in the wild or raised as pets and then abandoned. The recently renovated Folsom Hotel (1885) is a historic hostelry still renting rooms with a saloon offering weekend entertainment.
Thirty miles northeast of downtown Sacramento along I-80 on the way to Lake Tahoe, this small historic town rivals Old Sacramento for charm. Historic neighborhoods were destroyed when the freeway was built, but there has been a recent revival, with many of the buildings restored. Unlike Old Sacramento, there's hardly a square block to be found here--the streets follow old miner's trails back up into the hills. Centerpiece of the town square, the dignified old domed courthouse is an architectural jewel. One of Old Town's most photographed building is the four-story red and white Firehouse; its steep-pitched tower culminating in a cupola is an instant attention-getter. Lots of specialty shops in Old Town sell everything from old gold panning equipment to spinning wheels. You can choose from a large variety of restaurants and cafes also. Awful Annie's is a patio cafe; the Blue Heron Gallery Cafe offers breakfast, lunch and artwork for sale by locals. Housed in an 1855 building, the Shanghai is a popular watering hole locals favor.
The Sacramento Delta
You won't find the kind of grandeur that knocks you over here, like your first view of Yosemite perhaps, but the beauty of this place is distinctive. The charms of the meandering river will more likely grow on you after a time. Most activity here revolves around the levees and the string of small towns built on them. These range from Locke, which was entirely populated by former Chinese railway workers and still boasts interesting restaurants and a small museum--to Clarksburg on the western bank of the Sacramento River, which is home to more than 25 wineries. Further south, Isleton sponsors the annual Crawdad Festival, which features the distinctive Delta creatures prepared in every way imaginable. Houseboating has become, since Erle Stanley Gardner first popularized this mode of river transport in the 1960s, the ideal way for families to vacation in the Delta. Several marinas along the river offer houseboats, floating mini-hotels with all the comforts of home, for short-term rental. Nothing compares to floating down the river or exploring the vast network of sloughs while taking time to fish, swim or sunbathe.
Regardless of which part of Sacramento you plan to visit, rest assured that here along the banks of the river with such a rich past, you will also find a city with a promising future. It is, after all, the address of bustling and productive new enterprises; home to a major university; and, the seat of government for the great state of California.
History of SacramentoSacramento: Found and Named
In 1808, Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga found the Maidu Indians living peacefully in the Northern California valley formed by the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east and the Pacific Coast Mountains to the west. Warm summers, mild winters, a dependable yearly "rainy season" and water from the confluence of two great rivers, resulted in a landscape so verdant and abundant that Gabriel Moraga named the valley after the Holy Sacrament--Sacramento.
Before The Gold Rush
Word of Moraga's lush western valley spread slowly. By the 1830s and 1840s, only a handful of Anglo-American settlers were living in co-existence with the native Maidu and other Indian tribes. While their numbers were few, these first settlers had learned the secret of the Sacramento Valley: If you plant it, it will grow. Both agriculturally and economically, they had no idea how right they were.
Mr. Sutter Comes to California
In 1834, Johann Augustus Sutter (John A. Sutter), a 19-year-old clock merchant's clerk, sailed from Switzerland hoping to find success in America. Sutter's most lofty dream, that of founding a great new city for his fellow European immigrants, led him to California by way of the Sandwich Islands, Alaska and Oregon.
Sutter was sent by the Governor of Mexico to explore the rivers and valleys of Northern California and to establish an outpost on any 26-square mile area he chose.
Sutter and his party came to the confluence of what are today the American and Sacramento Rivers on August 12, 1839 and established Sutter's Fort. Sutter then made a decision that would forever change the history of California and the westward expansion of America.
Deciding more large trees would be needed to build homes for future settlers, Sutter wandered about 40 miles up the American River east of Sacramento and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here, he found plenty of tall evergreen trees and fast-flowing water. It was a perfect spot for a sawmill, which, when completed in 1847, became Sutter's Mill.
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall was conducting a routine inspection of the millrace from Mr. Sutter's sawmill when a certain glitter caught his eye. This time, all that glittered was gold. By May of 1848, the news of gold in Northern California had reached San Francisco and by early 1849, the whole nation had gold fever. The 49rs were coming.
Hoards of miners and people hoping to make money off the miners arrived in San Francisco and made their way to the Sacramento gold. The history of the Gold Country is preserved today not only in Sacramento, but in nearby destinations like the Empire Gold Mine State Park in Grass Valley.
Sacramento Becomes a City
Shortly after gold was found at his father's saw mill in 1848, John A. Sutter, Jr. officially founded Sacramento. Sutter's Engineer William H. Warner laid out a simple grid-pattern city of 31 north and south streets identified by numbers, and 26 east and west streets identified by the letters of the alphabet.
The presence of gold and thousands of gold miners also brought just about every railroad in the new West to the new Sacramento. Vital not only for transporting people, but for getting the gold ore from the mountain mines to bays and ports of the Pacific coast, railroads are commemorated today at the California State Railroad Museum, one of the most popular attractions in Old Sacramento.
Over the early years, Sacramento benefited greatly from its role in transportation. It was chosen as the western terminus for both the Pony Express and Wells Fargo, and as the headquarters of the transcontinental railroad. As late as the 1930s, riverboats like the Delta King glided the Sacramento River carrying passengers along the only water to San Francisco. Today, the beautifully restored Delta King, anchored in Old Sacramento serves as a floating luxury hotel and restaurant.
Sacramento Rises Above the Flood
In spite of being almost completely wiped out by devastating floods in 1850 and 1852, Sacramento was selected as the location for the Capitol of California in 1854. Today, visitors can learn more about the state's history at the California State Capitol Museum.
After yet another massive flood in 1862, an ambitious project to actually raise the city above flood level was undertaken. Evidence of the tens of thousands of cubic yards of earth and miles of masonry work used to raise the streets can still be seen today in Old Sacramento.
Old Sacramento Goes from Slum to Jewel
Over the ensuing years, the Sacramento Valley flourished both agriculturally and economically. But, a gradual shift of commercial and residential growth to the east left Old Sacramento a virtual slum. Recognizing the area's historical importance and related potential as a tourist attraction, a plan to re-develop Old Sacramento started in the middle 1960s. Today, its 53 historic buildings are designated as both National Landmarks and as a State Historic Park. Its many shops, fine restaurants, historic landmarks and museums, plus a full calendar of special events highlighted by one of the largest jazz festivals in the world, now attracts more than five million people a year to the cobblestone streets and boardwalks of Old Sacramento.
The Modern Sacramento
The "New" Sacramento Valley, while maintaining its ties to the Gold Rush also serves as the political hub of the world's eighth largest economy and as home to the second generation of "Silicon Valley" and its related high-tech industrial growth.
From quaint shops on downtown arterials that look more like tunnels through a forest than streets, to upscale shopping malls and renowned cultural attractions like the Crocker Art Museum, all the elements of a diverse and vibrant urban environment come together in Sacramento.
During July, 2000, Sacramento hosted the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials, and the successful NBA Kings, WNBA Monarchs and Pacific Coast Baseball League River Cats lead the way toward a bright future in professional sports.
Want to talk about location? Lake Tahoe, Reno, the wine country of the Napa Valley and the San Francisco/Pacific Coast are all within a two-hour drive of Sacramento.
Great location along with a respect for history and a handle on the future has combined to make Sacramento a highly desired location for spending a day--or a lifetime.
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