Gold and the 49ers: The Birth of Old Sacramento

The California Gold Rush caused the town of Sacramento to boom in the mid-1800s. Today, Old Sacramento is home to retail shops, boutiques and restaurants.
By: Kris Bordessa
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When James Marshall plucked a shiny gold nugget from the south fork of the American River in early 1848, he changed the course of history. Employed by John Sutter to build a lumber mill that would supply Sacramento with building materials, Marshall instead set in motion the California Gold Rush and the greatest mass movement of people in the Western Hemisphere. The mill site was situated along the river in the Coloma Valley, originally home to Nisenan Indians, who would find their way of life markedly changed in a very short amount of time. Within months, the hillsides around Coloma were peppered with the tents and huts of the men who came to strike it rich. By the end of 1848, California’s non-Indian population had grown to 20,000; by 1852, it had soared to 223,000.

Fifty miles away, the town of Sacramento boomed. Riverboats traveled between San Francisco and Sacramento, bringing immigrants who had come from as far away as Europe, Latin America and Asia. The riverfront teemed with forty-niners outfitting themselves for the last leg of their journey to the Mother Lode. By July 1849 more than 100 structures -- some made only of canvas -- stood along the embarcadero. Hotels, theaters, shops and saloons were hastily erected and enterprising merchants thrived as the flood of people arrived. Daily stages carried passengers east to shantytowns like Coloma, Placerville, Nevada City and Jackson, making Sacramento a major transportation hub.

Sacramento’s waterfront location made it prime commercial real estate, but it also provided the new city’s greatest fault: flooding. In the early 1860s after yet another devastating flood, wagons hauling thousands of cubic yards of dirt slowly raised the street level. Today, this area is known fondly as Old Sac and if you look, you can still see the original street level beneath the boardwalks.

In 1863, workers began the construction of the transcontinental railroad in Sacramento, which would connect the region to the Midwest and eventually the East Coast. Chinese immigrants contributed much of the labor for the construction of the railroad over the harsh terrain of the Sierra Nevadas.

Old Sac covers about 28 acres of land along the Sacramento River, from the Tower Bridge to the I Street Bridge. Cobbled streets and wooden sidewalks coupled with refurbished historical buildings lend a historical charm to the area, now home to retail shops, boutiques and restaurants. The California State Railroad Museum pays homage to the men who made a different kind of history by helping to complete the transcontinental railroad. Numerous steam engines are on display here, and on summer weekends, steam train rides depart on the hour for a 6-mile-long nostalgic ride. Several other museums are situated within Old Sac, including the Schoolhouse Museum and the California State Military Museum. Nearby Sutter’s Fort, which was abandoned soon after the Gold Rush started, has been restored to its 1847 condition and is now a State Historic Park.

The California Gold Rush changed the course of history for the many men and women who arrived in search of gold. Ironically, the man who set this historic event in motion, James Marshall, died near penniless.

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