Sacramento became a city built upon a city through extensive mid-19th century street raising project
Editor’s Note: This is part six in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
Within a quarter century of its founding, flooding had become the bane of Sacramento. It was a city born out of convenience rather than vision.
From 1839 to 1849, the area was known as “Sutter’s Embarcadero.”
According to local historian Barbara Lagomarsino’s essay, entitled “Sacramento on the Rise,” “A man named McVickar proposed around this time (1848) to build a grogshop right on the river bank – but in the limbs of a sycamore tree, about twenty feet up” and that “access was to be by ladder or canoe, whichever circumstances preferred.”
Sacramento City, as Sacramento was known during its earliest years, was founded by John A. Sutter, Jr., who despite his father’s wishes, established the town at the confluence of the two rivers, instead of on higher ground.
The more visionary John Sutter, Sr. had already planned a city, complete with engineered docks and canals in the more appropriate location of the current William Land Park area.
But the selected location of Sacramento City offered a sandbar that precluded the need for docks and piers. It also left the new city vulnerable to seasonal inundations.
The building of levees, the filling of creeks and the rechanneling of watercourses only set the stage for one of the most ambitious flood control efforts ever attempted.
The indomitable city now had the indomitable task of literally raising its streets above the level of serious flooding.
This endeavor would take time, money and a cooperative effort of paramount proportions.
Since prehistoric times, humans recognized that erecting their housing upon stilts could provide protection from rising waters.
But the concept of raising a large section of the city, including businesses that required walk-up traffic, was a challenge of unparalleled proportions.
The project began simply enough as businesses raised their buildings to protect their valuable merchandise.
The problem then became that a city built upon banks of mud was without sidewalks. And customers, during the muddy winter months and the searing heat of summer, had to trudge up flights of stairs just to reach entrances.
A solution was required that could accommodate customers and protect inventory and citizens from floods.
Stilts solved the problem of protecting the businesses from floods, but one still required a boat to go shopping during the rainy seasons.
The stilts were an insipient beginning, but the ultimate salvation was found in raising the city streets as much as about 15 feet and abandoning the first floor entrances in the business district.
Essentially, Sacramento was to become a city built upon a city.
In addition to stilts, in the 1850s, some street levels were modestly and independently raised on a business to business basis.
But it took the flood of 1861-62 for the citizenry to come to the conclusion that a massive street raising, fortification of buildings and a reconstruction of the sewer system was necessary.
The optimum level to which the streets would have to be raised for protection from flooding equal to the great flood of 1861-62 was referred to as “high grade.” This level varied from a few feet on the edges of the flood prone area to as much as 15 feet in the central business district.
According to an article, entitled “The Uptown Underground,” in the February 1998 issue of Comstock’s magazine, a March 18, 1862 vote determined that the grade level of J Street would be raised two feet above the high-water mark. The motion passed with only two dissenting votes.
And in Lagomarsino’s aforementioned article, she wrote: “Finally, in February 1863, the supervisors passed an ordinance establishing the official street grades of Sacramento’s business district well above all previous high-water marks. This monumental endeavor required a public/private cooperative effort of unprecedented magnitude for the young city.”
In the July 18, 1969 edition of The Sacramento Union, historian Ted Baggelman, in an article regarding the development of the K Street Mall, referred to the 1860s cooperative effort, as follows: “The city pledged to fill in between the bulkheads to the necessary level, pave the street, and construct curbs. The merchants obligated themselves to pay the construction costs for the portion of the eight foot bulkhead in front of his establishment, and bear the costs of raising or altering his building and restoring the sidewalk at the new street level.”
The impact and effect of raising the city’s streets was much more complex than simply hauling in soil and tamping it. It became a complex integration of altering buildings and the water and sewer systems, paving streets, and building sidewalks.
On Jan. 1, 1867, The Union published an article regarding this redevelopment.
It was noted in the article that some streets “have been raised to the ‘high grade’ on the level with the embankments on the waterfront, which necessitates building of bulkheads and raising or reconstructing buildings; and in many cases old buildings have been torn down and new ones built to correspond with the improvements around them.”
The article also mentioned that “the Pacific Railroad Company have (sic) also entered upon the work of filling up Sutter Slough, north of I Street, and grading the ground from First Street to Sixth (Street), for the purpose of erecting thereon buildings for machine shops, car manufactories, etc.” These are the same buildings in the “railyards” area that the city and state are preserving and developing as part of the California State Railroad Museum.
Building owners were forced to decide whether their structures were worth saving or how they could be adapted.
Baggelman considered the owners’ consternation, as he wrote: “Pity the poor merchant who had to move his store up to the second floor, which then became the first floor; or worse yet, the property owner who decided to have his building raised (to the new level), which, at one inch a day took four months to reach the required eight feet.”
An apparatus known as a “jackscrew” was the preferred method of raising buildings, and it was not always an easy or successful endeavor.
In Lagomarsino’s article, she mentioned a raised tenement structure that was on jackscrews in the Chinese section of town, and notes that it collapsed during high winds in 1864.
She also referred to an annex of the Union Hotel, which was located on 2nd Street, between J and K streets, as follows: “(The annex was) perched on dozens of jackscrews, eight feet above the ground, waiting for a new foundation. Before that could be supplied, however, in the middle of the night, most of the building collapsed, leaving a jumble of furniture, bricks and fixtures piled around the jackscrews.”
Fortunately, most of the buildings were raised without incident; although, the process could be expensive when performed by professionals.