Editor’s Note: This is part seven in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
As presented in the previous article of this series, Sacramento became a city built upon a city, as a project of grand proportions was completed in response to the great flood of 1861-62.
In a valiant effort to hold back potential future floodwaters, the streets in the business section of the city were raised above the level of serious flooding.
Among the most knowledgeable people on the topic of the historic raising of the city’s streets is Sacramento native and longtime Pocket resident Barbara (Wassum) Lagomarsino, who was referred to earlier in this series.
In an interview with this publication last week, Lagomarsino, who graduated from McClatchy High School in 1950, said that she spent about two and a half years researching and writing about the early attempts to save the site of Sacramento by raising its business district.
“I started (the project) in 1966 and finished it in the early part of 1969,” Lagomarsino said. “I hired a babysitter. I had four children. One full summer, I spent three or four days a week at the library full time and then another summer, part of it, and then between times checking up on research. At that time, you didn’t have computers and I had boxes and binders and all these things and I was trying to coordinate them. By the time that you get the research done and then you collate the research and try to sort it out, get it ready for writing and you write it, it takes a long time.”
Lagomarsino added that balancing her schedule during that part of her life was additionally challenging, since she was also working as a teacher at Pony Express Elementary School at 1250 56th Ave.
After being asked why she decided to undertake such a project, Lagormarsino said, “(History professor Dr. Joseph A. ‘Joe’ McGowen) was my advisor at (Sacramento State College – today’s Sacramento State University) and so, he had a whole list of things that were possibilities to write about (for a master’s thesis). One of the (ideas) was people know that the streets have been elevated in Sacramento, but nobody knows exactly which streets (were raised) or when (they were raised) or how they did it or anything like that. He said, ‘We know the streets are raised and they’re higher in some places than they are in others, but we really don’t know much of anything about it.’ He didn’t even know. (McGowen said), ‘If you want to go look at (details of the street raising project) and see if you can find something about it, that would be good.’ So that’s what I did.”
Although Lagomarsino was interested in the other thesis topics that were suggested by McGowan, she said that, in her opinion, the topic of raising the streets was undoubtedly his most interesting suggestion.
“It was wonderful to have (McGowan) as an advisor, and, as I said, he’s the one who suggested this as an interesting thing to look at, and it sure was interesting to look at,” Lagomarsino said. “Of the choices he gave me, this by far interested me the most, because it was a mystery, you know. It was more fun. The only other (thesis topic suggestion) that I remember him giving me was the history of eucalyptus in California and why it’s important and how it’s used. I don’t know, because I didn’t write it. Eucalyptus does have kind of an interesting history in California. It was kind of a failure. It was meant to be a godsend and it just didn’t work out that way. It’s something that has been talked about and there has been a lot written about eucalyptus in California. There are different ways you can look at it, different slants, but certainly eucalyptus in California has been written about.”
Lagomarsino explained that acquiring information regarding the raising of the city’s streets was a consistently challenging endeavor, considering that it involved gathering many small pieces of information.
“You had to go through and look for little things that said like, so and so reports that they have filled in one and a half feet or one and a half square yard – I forget what they measured in – of stone from the Rocklin area,” Lagomarsino said. “So, you have to piece little bits and pieces together to find out what went in. It all fits together. You put all those little sentences together and they begin to make a little sense. Each step along the way was satisfying to me. Every time something was put in, that was very satisfying.”
In response to an inquiry as to what was the most difficult thing for her to figure out during her research, Lagomarsino said, “Probably the exact level that the streets were raised, because each level was raised slightly different and you had to go through and read a lot of things to see what (the raised level was of) J Street, between 8th and 9th (streets), or what (the raised level was of) K Street, between 2nd and 3rd (streets).”
And as for what she found to be the most interesting aspect of her project, Lagomarsino said, “I think I learned what it felt like to live in the 1860s. You kind of virtually go back there and live for a while. You get the feelings of the kinds of things that were important then, what was going on, what the entertainments were, what the problems were. You know, living in a different time, that was most important. The most interesting thing was just transforming in time back to the 1860s.”
During her research, Lagomarsino discovered many details of a topic that she felt could serve as a thesis on its own – the problems with sewage and water systems during that era.
“What really fascinated me was the system of delivering water and getting rid of sewage in Sacramento,” Lagomarsino said. “I saw problems at times, because they couldn’t get enough water pressure and had to do various things to try to get enough pressure to be able to feed the city. I never got very far into it. I just thought it would be an interesting thing to look into.”
In explaining the magnitude of the street raising project, Lagomarsino said, “This was a grand thing done by the city and it was on a huge scale at that time. The fact is that they were going to lose the Capitol; they were going to lose the city. They were drowning. In order to keep the Capitol and in order to keep the city, something had to be done to convince the world that it was feasible to have a city situated where two big rivers came together and overflowed periodically.”
Lagomarsino, who expressed her appreciation for the assistance that she received with her project from State Archivist Dr. William N. Davis, Jr., takes pride in her thesis that was approved by McGowan and Henry Wagner of the college’s advisory committee on June 2, 1969.
“I am proud of (the thesis) and it’s had a surprising amount of interest to a lot of different people,” Lagomarsino said. “There was nothing else before, so this (thesis was) the beginning. It was a good project, one I’m very grateful I was able to take part in.”