Editor’s Note: This is part three in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
When presenting a history of the city’s rivers, it is important to not only provide details about major floods, but also measures that were made to combat potential floods.
The 1880 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” notes that prior to the great flood of January 1850, “nothing had been attempted in the matter of protection from flood or high water.”
Capt. John Sutter and the Indians, who showed him where to build his fort, recognized that the proposed location for the new Sacramento City was in a natural flood plain that was regularly inundated in the winter months.
Flood control became an immediate concern of the citizenry and politicians.
The Saturday, Jan. 19, 1850 edition of the Placer Times included the following words: “A week ago last night, our city experienced one of the most terrific southeast storms known in this region, which had the effect of swelling the Sacramento (River) by Wednesday afternoon, so that the water commenced running over the slough on I Street, at various points between First and Third (streets). On Thursday morning, the entire city, within a mile of the embarcadero, was under water. The damage to merchandise and to buildings and the losses sustained by persons engaged in trade is very great – vast quantities of provisions and goods having been swept away by the rushing waters. The loss in livestock is almost incalculable; many persons have lost from 10 to 50 yoke of cattle each, and horses and mules have been carried down the stream in great numbers.”
It was obvious to all people concerned that flooding in the area needed to be stopped and the waters held at bay.
But there were some people who found a “gold lining” in the inundation.
The Times also reported in its Jan. 19, 1850 edition that “large numbers (of people) have been washing gold within the limits of our city during the week, without any great degree of success.”
It was also noted in the 1880 county history book that “waters had scarcely begun to recede from the city (following the January 1850 flood) when surveyors were employed to survey lines for and make a location of the proposed levee.”
A levee commission was established on Jan. 29, 1850 and one of the commissioners was Hardin Bigelow, who on April 1, 1850 became Sacramento’s first elected mayor, largely because of his support of building levees.
The need for building levees was immediate, but the funds for doing so were nonexistent.
Bigelow arranged for the city to borrow funds beyond the city’s $10,000 limit, and he also provided $6,000 from his personal assets.
With this money, the city was able to construct temporary embankments, which held off the anticipated second flood of 1850 and demonstrated the need and efficacy of levees.
On April 29, 1850, voters approved a special $250,000 tax assessment for a permanent levee that was built between September and December 1850.
The contract for the levee was given to Irwin, Gay & Co. on Sept. 6, 1850 and the labor began several days afterward.
Although the levee was not yet completed by Oct. 25, 1850, on that date, the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta California referred to Sacramento City as “our sister, the Levee City.”
The levee, which commenced to the south at the high ground near Sutterville, ran for about nine miles along the northern and western boundaries of the city. And with this levee, the people of Sacramento City felt safe.
But less than a year and a half later – on March 7, 1852 – new raging waters broke through the sluice gate at Lake Sutter, breached the levee and once again inundated the city.
As a result, Sutter’s Fort, the knoll at the current site of Cesar Chavez Plaza and Poverty Ridge on the southeast side of the city stood as islands in a lake that in low spots reached 12 feet deep.
While once again the economic devastation was extensive, according to an article, titled “Sacramento defies the River: 1850-1878” by Marvin Brienes, “No lives were lost, and warnings before the levees gave way enabled many Sacramentans to remove their most valuable goods to high ground.”
Three days after the city was flooded, Mayor James Richmond Hardenbergh called for a new levee to be constructed on I Street, from the Front Street levee to 5th Street, from 5th Street along the edge of Lake Sutter and then to the levee of 1850, along the American River.
The proposal was adopted by the common council and this $50,000 project was completed after about two months of labor in November 1852.
Although local citizens were once again feeling safe in the Levee City, this feeling lasted only three weeks, as the American River levee was broken on Dec. 19, leaving a 40-foot-wide crevice.
Eventually, 150 feet of the levee was destroyed and Sacramento City was under water.
In its Dec. 25, 1852 edition, the Daily Alta California reported the following: “The water was running through Eighth Street, some six feet deep. Several lives were supposed to have been lost. One man was seen floating down the river on the top of his house. At the foot of L Street, a whole block is afloat; the Eagle Saloon is washed away and is floating round.”
As mentioned in the previous article of this series, on New Years Day 1853, the water level of the Sacramento River was 22 feet above the low water mark and two feet higher than the great flood of 1850.
By Jan. 2, 1853, floodwaters once again entered the heart of the city.
Frustrations mounted for the city’s “burned out and flooded citizens,” as one local man described the area’s residents.
In an early January 1853 letter to the editors of The Sacramento Union, the man wrote: “Our city government has been in operation nearly three years, has expended more than two hundred thousand dollars upon the levee, and very large sums for other purposes. Our taxes have been greater perhaps than those of any other city in the world; our city debt is now very large; and after all this taxation and expenditure, the city has not received a benefit commensurate with the costs. We have received nothing like a fair equivalent for our money.”
On July 29, 1853, a city ordinance “for widening, altering and improving the levee, and providing for the payment of the expense” was approved by the mayor and common council.
The cost was set at no more than $50,000 and the work, which was completed by the latter part of 1853, was paid for in scrip known as the “Levee Scrip.” The levee along Burns Slough at the eastern end of the city and down R Street was separate from this approximate sum and was paid for through a loan.
The levee system, which later underwent various improvements, proved to be a successful barrier against major floods in the city for several years. But that level of prosperity quickly changed on Dec. 9, 1861.