Editor’s Note: This is part eight in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
In the last article of this series, longtime Pocket resident Barbara Lagomarsino described how she became interested in the raising of the streets of Sacramento – an undertaking that created the city’s mysterious underground.
Raising the streets was far from a simple endeavor. The board of trustees of Sacramento City supported the raising of the streets and assumed the obligation to provide the necessary materials. In this case, thousands of yards of soil were to be deposited along streets in front of buildings.
Lagomarsino wrote: “Property owners were responsible for readying the length of streets, fronting on their property, for receiving the fill. Dirt was to be deposited along the streets to depths of about 10 feet, and such vast quantities of earth could not be left in heaps.”
The piles of soil would soon become piles of mud.
Continuing, Lagomarsino wrote: “To contain the dirt, each property owner arranged individually to have a brick bulkhead wall built at the edge of the street line in front of his property. The bulkheads extended from the ground up to the established grade, to which leveled dirt would later be piled in the street.”
Many of these brick bulkheads are still visible in Old Sacramento and whenever there is construction in the core downtown area.
The task of the business owner could seem arduous and expensive, but Lagomarsino wrote: “In the autumn of 1866, a bulkhead was built to high grade for only $3 a running foot.”
And while some of the bulkheads have collapsed, many are still standing more than 150 years later.
But the task of raising a building above the bulkheads was never easy.
Lagomarsino recounted the story of the St. George Hotel, which was raised in 1866.
“Two hundred and fifty (jackscrews) were put into place under that job in early August. It was about two weeks before work on the $7,450 contract was begun. By October, the whole job was finished; 160 feet by 76 feet, weighing about 1,900 tons, the building had been raised 8 feet (with very little damage inside and out).”
These massive modifications to the city’s structures also affected the infrastructure. The soil brought in to raise the streets covered fire hydrants and buried water lines beneath several feet of new soil; this made it difficult for the fire department to respond effectively. And if a water line broke, service was interrupted to the entire city.
Lagomarsino wrote, “In October 1865, a water line under newly raised 2nd Street broke.
Without warning, all water in the city was turned off at 5 o’clock in the evening.”
But it was not only underground water pipes that were affected. Because the streets were raised, buildings could not get proper water pressure from the old delivery system. In August 1867, the city water tank had to be raised 5 feet in order to provide enough pressure to carry water as high as four floors.
Lagomarsino’s research revealed that “most businesses were closed during the raising of their buildings. However, not all buildings were vacated while they were being raised.
In 1864, a wooden tenement in the Chinese section of town in (sic) I Street, between 2nd and 3rd (streets) was being raised during gale winds when it toppled over, scattering its occupants as it fell.” Ultimately, Lagomarsino’s research concluded “such catastrophes were extremely rare. Most buildings were raised without problems and stood solidly afterwards.”
But even in the 19th century, buyers had to beware of nefarious and unscrupulous contractors who could not complete the jobs that they promised they would finish at certain arranged times.
Lagomarsino told the story of a house that was owned by Mary Esqueval on the block bounded by 2nd, 3rd, K and L streets.
Esqueval had arranged for a builder named Joel Johnson to raise her home and make elaborate changes that would significantly upgrade the beauty and condition of the house.
“The whole process was to take two weeks. The total cost was $500 in gold and silver, $100 to be paid when the screws were set, $200 more when the brickwork and sidewalks were finished and the final $200 when the job was completed. Unfortunately, the work was not so craftsmen-like as the agreement suggested it would be. He did not finish the work and she had to hire someone to raise the kitchen as well as to repair damage caused by raising the main house. All doors had to be re-hung; the whole house had to be painted and papered; the roof on the main building had to be fixed; and various other jobs had to be finished. The house settled several inches and developed cracks within a few months after he left the job. Both water and gas pipes were injured. Johnson had obviously not satisfied this customer.”
Shoddy construction was not the only problem with raising Sacramento.
While the responsibility of the city and the property owners was outlined in the raising of the streets and buildings, it was never clearly defined.
For instance, the sidewalks became the responsibility of the individual property owner. Hence, the completion of sidewalks at building level was very inconsistent.
In some cases, the sidewalks were not completed and a gapping hole existed in front of the building.
In other cases, the sidewalks were completed to street level, but the buildings had not yet been raised.
Lagomarsino wrote: “Under the best of conditions, a walk through Sacramento’s rising downtown area could be a hazardous up and down affair, especially at night. Among complaints, made editorially by local papers about dangerous sidewalks during the years of raising was one when a man fell 12 feet off a sidewalk to a vacant lot below. Another one, a man fell off a raised sidewalk onto an unraised street, and another when a man, ‘said to be perfectly sober’ following a sidewalk under construction, walked off the end of it and fell 9 or 10 feet onto the sidewalk below.”
All of this integrated construction to raise the city in order to achieve flood protection took several years and during those years, the streets were a perilous obstacle course for pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. Even today, the dangers of Sacramento’s underground are still visible even if the surface barriers have been gone for more than 150 years.
By 1873, the grading, raising and reconstruction was finished.
The lives of the citizenry and businesses had been disrupted for a decade. But was it worth it to the residents of Sacramento?
The answer may be found in the fact that Sacramento has not experienced any of the devastating floods that were common before the raising of the city and the creation of the underground.
The indomitable city once again displayed its courage, creativity and cooperation in the face of natural disaster.
But is the big flood still coming? The next article of this series will address the ultimate conclusion of the threat from hydraulic mining, some dangers that threatened severe damaged, the introduction of more modern mechanisms for flood control and the efforts of citizens and government agencies to partner in the control of rising waters.
Evidence of the Sacramento underground is still visible in many places and the Sacramento History Museum at 101 I St. in Old Sacramento now offers guided tours of some areas of the abandoned lower city.
Tickets are currently on sale on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and tours leave every half hour. Beginning June 1, tours will be offered daily.
The costs of the tours are $15/adults and $10/youth, 6 to 17 years old.
For additional information regarding these tours, call (916) 808-7059.