Note: This is part 10 in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
The topic of riverboats on the Sacramento River is undoubtedly a rich part of the river’s history.
These vessels played an important role in transporting freight and passengers.
In the January 1920 edition of the Southern Pacific Bulletin, it was noted that “long before the railroad came, the Sacramento River was the ‘roadway’ along which commerce first traveled.”
Among the earlier vessels to ply the Sacramento River was a schooner known as the “Sacramento.”
In an article in the May 27, 1858 edition of The Sacramento Union, this schooner was described as having been purchased by Capt. John A. Sutter in 1841.
A July 7, 1860 letter written to The Union by a newspaper correspondent known as St. George refers to this vessel, as follows: “The only regular packet running between the embarcadero of New Helvetia (now the beautiful city of Sacramento, capital of the state of California), and Yerba Buena (now the great city of San Francisco, the New York of the Pacific) was Captain Sutter’s launch, ‘Sacramento,’ a schooner of seventeen tons. She was built by the Russian American Company, I think, at Sitka, for the sea otter service at Bodega and Presidio Ross, and sold to Capt. Sutter in 1839. I last saw her laying (sic) at Washington (now part of West Sacramento), opposite our city, in 1858, roofed over and used as a house for salmon fishers.”
In being that the 1858 Union article and 1860 St. George letter differ as to when Sutter acquired the Sacramento, it should be recognized that this event occurred in 1841.
The 1858 Union article noted that the Sacramento remained in operation until as late as 1848-49, and “after performing a number of important offices during the (Mexican) War, was, in the spring of 1848, the first to take down to San Francisco the tidings of the gold discovery.”
It was also mentioned in the same article that the Sacramento continued to be the largest schooner on the Sacramento River “up to the period when the commerce with the mines began.”
According to St. George’s letter, Sutter also had another line, which ran from New Helvetia to his Hock Farm agricultural settlement along the Feather River. The riverboat of this line was referred to as the “‘White Pinnace’ – an open boat, rowed and poled by six nude (Indians).”
The aforementioned 1920 edition Southern Pacific Bulletin article referred to the first steamer to travel on the Sacramento River.
That vessel, which was known as the Sitka, made its way from San Francisco to today’s city of Sacramento in 1847.
Nearly four decades later, The Union received a letter, dated Feb. 6, 1885, from a Mrs. James Greyson of Sebastopol, Calif., who claimed to have been a passenger aboard the Sitka.
The letter included the following words: “In the San Francisco Call of January 24th, I see the request for the name of the first steamer that plied on the Sacramento River, and being a passenger on the occasion of the first trip, I feel myself competent to give the information desired. She was a beautiful steam yacht, bearing the name of Sitka. She was, I believe, presented by the Russian government to Captain (William Alexander) Leadsdolph (Leidesdorff, Jr.). She left San Francisco on the 15th of December 1847 and arrived at the embarcadero on the Sacramento (River) on the 24th of the same month.”
Different dates for this voyage were presented in another account of the Sitka in the St. George’s aforementioned 1860 letter.
The 1860 letter noted that the vessel left San Francisco on Nov. 28, 1847 and “arrived at New Helvetia December 4th – six days and seven hours out.”
Also included in St. George’s account were the following words: “I made the first and only trip on Captain William A. Leidesdorff’s little Russian steamer from San Francisco to New Helvetia (today’s Sacramento). She had no name, but has since been called the ‘Sitka.’
“I have the notes I took at the time to be published in (the San Francisco newspaper) The California Star. I was the Sacramento correspondent for the paper, but did not publish them, as my friend, Captain Leidesdorff, was very sensitive at that time on the subject of steamboats.
“The day after her arrival from the Sacramento (River), she was sunk by a south-easter in what is now Battery Street (in San Francisco). She was raised and hauled up with an ox team in Bush Street, above Montgomery (Street), the engine taken out, and she was made a schooner yacht, christened the ‘Rainbow,’ and ran as a packet on the Sacramento River after the discovery of gold.”
The 1890 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” also describes the Sitka, which is referred to in some 19th century and early 20th century references as the “Little Sitka.”
It was mentioned in that book that the steamboat arrived at the Port of San Francisco aboard a Russian bark from Sitka on Oct. 14, 1847.
Leidesdorff, who had been in business with the Russians at their American settlement for seven years, purchased the steamer from the Russians for his hide and tallow commerce.
The Sitka was described in the 1890 book as being “long, low and what the sailors termed very ‘crank.’”
It was also noted in the book that the weight of a person on her guards would throw one of her wheels out of service.
Various historic accounts refer to the Sitka as having made two trips in California.
According to the 1890 county history book, on Nov. 15, 1847, the Sitka left Yerba Buena Island – in the San Francisco Bay – where she had been reassembled, and took a voyage to Santa Clara, “with indifferent success.”
The book also notes that during its second trip, the Sitka, after making its way up the Sacramento River in the latter part of 1847 and arriving safely, took a long time to return to San Francisco.
This portion of the book reads: “Nearly a month elapsed, however, before her return; and in the meantime, various were the jokes and jibes ‘launch’-ed at her and on the proprietor, who nevertheless persisted that he would yet ‘make the smoke fly on the bay,’ and hand the name of his first steamboat ‘down to dexterity,’ as he pronounced the word.”
But, as previously noted, the Sitka made two trips in California before being dismantled.
Note: This is part 10 in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
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.”
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.
Just as the indomitable Sacramento City was beginning to cope with and protect itself from the common natural disasters of flooding, man had a hand in placing new obstacles in the path of this growing city.
The Gold Rush brought population, prosperity and even the state Capitol to Sacramento, but it also resulted in new environmental challenges and a new source of flooding that ultimately led to dramatic changes in flood control.
These changes began with increasing the heights of the levees, filling in creeks and sloughs, rechanneling tributaries and expanding the breadth of the Sacramento River through the creation of weirs and bypasses.
The property and economic devastation of the flood of 1861-62 left the people of Sacramento with a feeling that nature and the rivers had done their worst. And then the unthinkable happened, as the American River rose to its highest level in 1867.
This same flood caused the Sacramento River and its many tributaries to overflow their newly created levees and destroy the hastily prepared dams and modifications that were put in by local districts and privates citizens.
These new high water marks established throughout the region called for a more coordinated flood control effort on the part of cities and agricultural areas within the Sacramento Valley.
One of the first big engineering endeavors was to take the big bend out of the west end of the American River that flowed into Sutter Lake, near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers. This is part of the current location of the Union Pacific railyard, which is located north of the California State Railroad Museum.
The rechanneling project began in 1864 and was completed four years later. As a result of this new channel, the American River met with the Sacramento River one mile further north. Even after raising the levees and rechanneling the American River, the city experienced another flood.
The citizenry was perplexed in how the rainfall could be less, the snowmelt could be slower, the levees could be higher and yet the river could still overflow its banks.
The answer to this conundrum was found in the very phenomenon that gave the city its existence.
Gold brought wealth, people, and then it brought floods.
As the easy to reach placer deposits of gold dried up and deep hard rock mining became expensive, the miners turned to water power to seek their fortunes.
Hydraulic mining was used in small scale ventures in the 1850s, but by the following decade and into the 1870s, huge companies used enormous water cannons known as monitors to demolish large hills and even small mountains in their quest for gold.
After the gold was removed, the rest of the detritus was sent into streams, which flowed into larger waterways that filled the channels of the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
It became apparent to the engineers and many others that it was not rising waters that were causing the floods, but it was instead rising river bottoms choking the channels, causing the flooding and impacting navigation.
According to the 1957 book, “The Geography of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California,” by John Thompson, “By 1866, debris had ended the infamous side-by-side steamboat races along the Sacramento River.”
It also had a dramatic effect upon the farmers and their land, because the mining refuge left from the floods was not the same as the rich alluvium left by the natural annual rise and fall of the river that enriched the soil and increased production.
Instead what came down from the mines were rock fragments of varying sizes and elements. These waters carried mercury, cyanide and other poisons, which could sterilize the soil, kill crops and harm animals and even people.
Despite the obvious harm from hydraulic mining, the companies refused to halt or even limit this activity.
The hydraulic monitors allowed mine owners to hire a few men to perform work that once required hundreds of workers.
The friction created by this conflict of ideas caused a rift and debate among miners, farmers, environmentalists, navigation companies and recreationalists that lasted for decades.
Not everyone was going to be able to realize their objectives, so something would have to change.
The financially powerful mining industry and its strong political lobby was able to ignore the pleas of a concerned citizenry based on the concept that California and its Sacramento Valley were a state and a region born of the Gold Rush.
But as the waterways continued to fill with debris and mining slush, and levees failed and agricultural production decreased, it became apparent that channels, overflows and drains could not solve the problems created by hydraulic mining.
The unnatural flooding of the Sacramento River and its tributaries became a national, rather than a regional problem.
The mining interests were so powerful that they were able to defeat all legislative attempts to control the pollution and destruction. But 1878 became the proverbial “last straw.”
A city that had already endured several inundations and had gone to great lengths to protect itself from more flooding, once again found itself underwater, as Sacramento experienced another major flood on Feb. 1, 1878.
The 1880 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” presented various details about this flood.
Included in the book were the following words: “At 2 o’clock on the morning of that day, a break was reported in the levee near Lovedall’s (sic) Ranch, on the Sacramento River, the city and Sutterville. Almost immediately thereafter, a section of the levee, some twelve feet in width, washed out, having been completed honey-combed by gophers. The noise of the torrent pouring through the crevasse could be heard distinctly at a great distance. (That evening), the Sacramento (River) was twenty-five feet, 2 inches above the low water mark, higher than ever before known.”
Sacramentans were tired of floods, tired of mining – which was no longer the center of economy – and tired of politics and politicians who thwarted meaningful attempts to control these unnatural inundations.
Concerned citizens found a way to circumvent the powerful mining lobby by controlling navigation rather than extraction to stop the devastation of the hydraulic mining. But it took another six years to accomplish.
How the city finally controlled the problem and one of the most exotic solutions of how Sacramento tried to deal with the problem will be covered in the next article of this series.
Editor’s Note: This is part four in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
As a city of two rivers, Sacramento has a long history of trying to protect itself from the very entities – it waterways – that provided its birth and its life’s blood for the future.
In explaining this point, The Sacramento Bee, on Dec. 11, 1861, published the following words.
“Ever since the planting of Sacramento at the confluence of two mighty rivers, she has had to fight for existence with an energy and constancy which have developed her nerve and muscle and proved her vitality beyond that of any city of modern times.”
Sacramento, which was once referred to as the “Levee City,” experienced about an eight-year period of prosperity in regard to avoiding major floods within the city limits.
The great flood of 1853 forced businesses and residents to acknowledge the dangers of Sacramento’s rivers overflowing their banks. But this period of inactivity and a lack of inundation lulled the citizenry into a false sense of security.
In 1861, this false sense of security, along with much property, dreams and visions for the future, were again awash in a flood, the likes of which had never been seen in historic California.
As a precursor to the great flood of 1861, the level of the American River reached its highest point since 1853 – about 18 feet above the low water mark on March 27 of the same year.
During that evening, the wing dam on the east side of the city at Rabel’s tannery was swept away and the levee at that site was damaged.
As a result of the same storm, water from Sutter Lake overflowed and cut a channel through Front Street to the American River.
Furthermore, bridges along the same river from the capital city to Folsom were either swept away or useless as a means to cross this waterway.
But surprisingly, this storm was considered to have produced only minor property damage and no loss of human life.
The lack of extensive loss was due to the fact that the floodwaters receded rapidly. But the damage done to the wing dam at Rabel’s tannery would come back to haunt the city.
The rains of December 1861 came faster and were heavier than any ever experienced in the Sacramento Valley.
Both the Sacramento and American rivers, as well as all rivers to the north, rose above their previously recorded high water marks.
Once again, the big bend in the American River at Rabel’s tannery became the weak link in the chain of Sacramento levees that some politicians suggested at the time had cost as much as $1.5 million.
The irony of the flood is that the levees that were built to protect the city became dams that held the waters within its boundaries and inundated the city.
On Dec. 10, 1861, The Sacramento Union described the disaster, as follows: “Sacramento was yesterday subjected to suffering and damage from the deepest and most destructive flood of those to which she has been exposed. It came, too, with the rapidity of a hurricane. In a few hours after the water crossed the levee, the whole city was underwater. The flood precipitated itself upon us without warning, and found people totally unprepared. The levee is now an injury, instead of a benefit, as it confines the water in the city, and has caused it to rise higher by probably two feet (more) than it would have done had no levee existed on the south side.”
Only a few places of high ground were spared the destruction of the flood of mid-December to mid-January 1861.
These locations where the floodwaters did not intrude included Sutter’s Fort and Poverty Ridge, which was roughly located between 20th, 23rd, P and W streets. Poverty Ridge was given its name due to the impoverished appearance of the people who took refuge there with their belongings and their animals during Sacramento’s periodic inundations.
The third location was a small mound along 10th Street at the site of today’s Cesar Chavez Plaza.
The rest of the city found itself underwater, ranging from a few inches to several feet.
Because the wing dam had been washed away from the great bend of the American River at Rabel’s tannery, the river broke through the A Street levee on the north side of the city, rushed down Burns’ Slough, passed Sutter’s Fort until it washed up against the R Street levee on the south side of the city.
The R Street levee held back the waters, just as it was designed to do, only from the wrong side.
The continual rush of waters, fed by more and more rain, hit the levee and rebounded back into the city proper where it continued to swing back and forth between the north and south levees, causing Sutter Lake to overflow and leaving destruction in the water’s wake.
The aforementioned Dec. 10, 1861 edition of The Union reported: “Several persons were drowned; and, had the water broken in during the night, the loss of life must (sic) have been fearfully great. Horses, cows, hogs, fowls, etc. have drowned, but how many we have no means of ascertaining. The damage to property has been great and may be greater. Thousands tonight are houseless, while hundreds of families are in second stories, without the means of making fires.”
The waters calmed, but the rains did not abate until February 1861 and some of the puddles from the flood did not dry up until the following August.
It was during the flood that Leland Stanford had to be taken by rowboat to his inauguration as governor.
If the three previous major floods had only sparked a desire for protection, the great flood of the winter of 1861-62 opened the citizenry’s eyes to the death that could be brought from life-giving waters.
The “Levee City” had then become a community with indomitable spirit, which led to major changes in how Sacramento approached and prepared for flood control.
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.
Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
Despite its many benefits, the Sacramento River – as well as the American River – has undoubtedly been a continuous threat to local residents since the founding of Sacramento City.
But as presented in the first article of this series, local flooding did not suddenly begin with the idea of establishing a city somewhere within the boundaries of today’s Sacramento.
One of the city’s most notable floods, the 1852-53 flood, included a rise in the Sacramento River that resulted in the water level, on New Years Day 1853, being 22 feet above the low water mark and two feet higher than the great flood of 1850.
An article published in The Sacramento Union on Monday, Jan. 10, 1853 noted that due to “very severe” and “unremitting” rains during the previous Thursday and Friday, the levels of the rivers were once again raised.
The same article described the inundation of the city at that time, as follows: “It did not come up to the mark which it attained on New Year’s Day; however, by several feet. On I Street, it reaches along the depressed ground, between 7th (Street) and the base of (today’s Cesar Chavez) Plaza, but no further down. On J (Street), it extends to 4th (Street), and unfortunate (sic), K (Street) is, as usual, pretty well submerged. The movement of small boats are (sic) confined entirely to J (Street), above 5th (Street), and from that around into K (Street) and the low ground back of and below the business part of the city.”
The area referred to in this article included all of what is known today as Old Sacramento and the site of the present day Interstate 5, including the area commonly referred to as the “boat section.”
The citizens of Sacramento City battled many hardships during the early years of the city, as the area was not only afflicted by floods and fires, but also by the tragic Squatter Riots of August 1850 and a cholera epidemic that took the lives of many locals in October and November of the same year.
The riots, which claimed the lives of several people, including Joseph McKinney, Sacramento County’s first sheriff, occurred as a result of disputes regarding land that the Sutters owned, sold or gifted.
According to the 1880 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” cholera was brought to Sacramento from San Francisco on Oct. 20, 1850.
It was reported in the 1890 book, “An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California,” that at some point during the disease’s approximate 20 days of terror in Sacramento, the average daily mortality figure in the city reached about 60.
This number was likely higher, considering that the same book noted that many deaths were concealed and unreported.
Sutter’s Fort, once the center of trade and commerce for the region, became a hospital to house the suffering cholera patients away from the city proper, which was built along the waterfront.
Despite the suffering that many local citizens endured during the city’s first decade, one of Sacramento’s greatest disasters was still yet to come.
On Dec. 9, 1861, a heavy storm resulted in most of the city becoming saturated with floodwaters, as people frantically took refuge to higher ground.
An article in the May 24, 1866 edition of The Union recounted the magnitude of this particular winter’s flooding and noted that on Jan. 10, 1862, “there were few citizens of Sacramento, however tall, who could have stood on J Street – the Broadway or Montgomery Street of the capital – and held their chins much above the overflowing and irresistible flood, which had broken upon the city.”
A further indication of the magnitude of that flood is presented in the 1913 book, “History of Sacramento County, California.”
The reference reads: “Judging from the tales of the pioneers, the flood in the winter of 1862 must have covered not only the river bottoms, but also a large portion of what is familiarly known as ‘the plains,’ for the writer has heard old settlers tell of transporting their provisions and other merchandise from Sacramento during that winter on flatboats or barges almost to the then-town of Elk Grove. An idea of the immense volume of water that found its way to the sea on that occasion may be gained from the fact that it not only covered the great tule basin of Yolo County, but also a large portion of the plains east and south of the city to a width of many miles.”
Some journals written at that time chronicled the flood of January 1862 as turning California’s Great Central Valley into a lake 300 miles long and 40 miles wide.
The immense flood led to the city taking action to re-channel the rivers.
This action, which did not occur until 1868, will be further detailed in this series.
One other large flood occurred in the Sacramento area in the 19th century.
That flood began near the Lovdal ranch, just below the city, on the morning of Feb. 1, 1878 and within the city, it eventually reached as far as 6th and R streets.
Furthermore, as a result of the 1878 flood, the road to the city cemetery at today’s Broadway at 10th Street became impassable.
An article in The Union’s Feb. 7, 1878 edition revealed that a positive note occurred in the town of Courtland as a result of this flood.
It was mentioned in the article that the inundation in the Sacramento area was so great that it caused the river’s level below the city – at Courtland – to be lowered by four inches.
But on a negative side, Courtland’s grain crops were lost as that area’s lowlands were still underwater by April 10, 1878, the day that the floodwaters were determined to be no longer a threat to the city of Sacramento.
Also causing a negative impact in the 19th century was the fact that the continuous flooding in the area resulted in rapid changes that made the waterway hazardous for navigation, leading to many shipwrecks that plagued sailors, merchants and the city’s residents.
As mentioned in part one of this series, the Riverside-Pocket area was also inundated with floodwaters in February 1904.
This flood began at the sharp turn of the Sacramento River, near what is today the intersection of Riverside Boulevard and Sutterville Road.
The San Francisco Call noted two days after the incident that the floodwaters covered about 10,000 acres of “the richest land in the state.”
The profound words of a survivor of tragedies in the early years of Sacramento were presented in the 1913 county history book, as follows: “What with floods and fires, insurrection and the plague, the very stars seemed to fight against Sacramento in her infancy, and the foundation of her latter prosperity was laid upon the ashes of her pioneers.”
In regard to the great flood of 1861-62, which was the last flood to invade the city’s business district, it was noted in the 1913 county history book that since the time of that flood, the settlers had learned the lesson that safety could be found “in high and wide levees, properly constructed to withstand the wind and water.”
But it was also noted in the same book that “after the flood of 1862, it became evident to the businessmen of the city that it was unsafe to depend entirely on the levees.”
Editor’s Note: This is part one in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
In being a city of two rivers, Sacramento has a history that is very much tied to each of these tributaries. And, undoubtedly, the river most directly associated with the Pocket area is the Sacramento River.
The Pocket area itself is partially bordered by this river and its levee, which has received much attention lately due to the controversy surrounding a city proposal to extend public recreation access along the river.
Certainly, no event in the Pocket’s history made the area’s residents more aware of the Sacramento River’s existence than the Edward’s Break – the devastating levee break that flooded about 10,000 acres in the Riverside-Pocket area in February 1904.
The significance of the Sacramento River in the city’s history is so great that it would be impossible to present a thorough account of the city’s beginnings without referring to this river.
And by its name alone, the Sacramento River is important to the history of Sacramento, since the city took its name from this important waterway.
As the largest river in California, this 375-mile river has its source near Mount Shasta.
The river then meanders down the center of the Sacramento Valley and runs between the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento.
It continues its way into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where it is fed by other watercourses to become the Carquinez Straits and ultimately flows into the San Francisco Bay.
How the river was formed is a complex series of geological events, which include uplift and erosion of the Sierra Nevada and Coastal Mountains and the eruption and creation of Mount Shasta.
For more than 100,000 years, the Sacramento River has been cutting through deep deposits of sediment from the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada.
As previously mentioned, the city of Sacramento was named after the Sacramento River.
In 1808, the Spanish organized an expedition to go into the interior of California to explore rivers north of the Cosumnes River, which they discovered two years earlier, and to search for suitable locations for missions and pueblos.
This expedition was led by Spanish army officer Jose Gabriel Maraga, who gave names to many of the topographic features that he discovered on his journey.
At that time, the Spanish army in California was inextricably linked to the Catholic Church, thus almost all the names chosen by Maraga were taken from Catholic nomenclature.
Maraga named the largest of these tributaries El Rio de Sacramento, which translates as the River of Sacrament. The Sacramento River was thus named in honor of the “offerings of Christ.”
On Oct. 9, 1808, Maraga wrote in his diary: “Today, we broke camp and moved to the river discovered yesterday, which we named the Sacramento. They have measured this river at 169 varas (about 5,577 inches or about 465 feet) across.”
For some unknown reason, the only entry missing from Maraga’s diary, which was kept from Sept. 25 through Oct. 23, 1808, was the entry for Oct. 8 – the day that he discovered the Sacramento River.
During the following 40 years, the Sacramento River remained the quiet home of salmon, wildlife and native people of the area.
In 1848, bright, metallic flakes were found in a tributary of the Sacramento and for the river and its valley, its future changes were dramatic.
It appears as if the word, “rush” from the famous Gold Rush of 1849 has much significance in the naming and location of the city.
Furthermore, little effort was given to the naming of the city’s streets, which received basic alphabetical and numerical names.
Sacramento City was built in a “rush” with little regard for expansion or flooding.
In fact, the very sands contributed to by flooding were responsible for the location of the new city, because the sand provided a low spot for large ships to beached, loaded and unloaded.
Neither Captain John Sutter nor the Indians who lived in the area before him regarded the eventual location of the city as habitable.
Sutter, guided by the local Indians, had his fort built in one of the few high ground sites in today’s city of Sacramento.
Even the city that Sutter had planned – Sutterville – was being built on the high ground in the area of today’s William Land Park.
The problem with this location was that its high banks that prevented flooding, also kept ships from landing.
As a result, Sacramento City was born almost overnight, because it was the one spot where large vessels could land and unload supplies, feeding the frenzy of the Gold Rush.
When it comes to presenting the city’s river history, it is certainly essential to include details pertaining to the topic of flooding.
While visiting Sacramento on Feb. 25, 1878, James W. Marshall, whose discovery of gold on the South Fork of the American River led to the Gold Rush of 1849, was interviewed by a Sacramento Record-Union reporter.
In speaking to the reporter regarding the topic of high water, Marshall referred to the 1845-46 flood, which covered all the Indian mounds in the Sacramento Valley.
Marshall described this flood as being so great that it came within two feet of entering Sutter’s Fort.
And in relating the 1845-46 flood to the then present times, Marshall estimated that the water of that flood would have reached at least four or five feet above the high grade of the city.
Continuing, Marshall noted that an old Hudson Bay trapper had told him about a flood, which occurred in the Sacramento Valley in the winter of 1830.
That flood, Marshall said, reached a level of five or six feet higher than the level of the 1845-46 flood.
Within a detailed account of the flood of 1849-50 in the Feb. 8, 1873 edition of The Sacramento Union, it was noted that by Jan. 12, 1850 “there was no dry land in town except at the knoll on the public square (today’s Cesar E. Chavez Plaza), between Ninth and Tenth streets.”
Another one of the great floods in the city’s history was the flood of 1852-53.
Having already recently suffered another tragedy – the great fire of Nov. 2, 1852 – Sacramento was flooded as the result of a rise in the Sacramento River from Dec. 20, 1852 to Jan. 24, 1853.
Ruben Unzueta, a 2005 graduate of McClatchy High School, believes he has found his niche in life.
Since his childhood, he has been drawn to the art of making things with wood. And this longtime interest has led to his currently growing recognition as a builder of canoes and kayaks.
One of Unzueta’s earlier memories in his life was the time when his father – also named Ruben Unzueta – told him to stay away from some wood in his family’s garage.
But the younger Ruben Unzueta, as he explained, ignored this parental order.
“I would just see wood and I would want to carve it,” said Unzueta, who turned 25 in February. “I remember when I was 8 years old, my dad was cutting some wood and he left it in the garage and there was a chisel there. And he said, ‘Don’t chisel the wood, because you’re going to cut yourself.’ For some reason, I just gravitated to the wood and the chisel and I started messing with it and I cut myself. But even though I cut myself, I just couldn’t stay away.”
Fast forwarding to today, it is not uncommon for Unzueta to be driving down a Sacramento street and suddenly pull over to pick up some wood that catches his attention.
After picking up such random pieces of wood, Unzueta brings them to his home to store for one of his future projects.
Fortunately for Unzueta, he has the ability to recognize, as well as locate materials for his boat-building projects that do not take away from his limited funds as a young person who is paying for college out of his own pocket.
Unzueta explained that in addition to large pieces of wood, his boat building projects also require small pieces of wood.
“With the kayaks, I’m using actual branches and twigs,” Unzueta said. “I’ll just go down Freeport (Boulevard) to the river and there are overgrown trees and bushes down there and I’ll just cut the branches I need to make the ribs for the boat.”
And sometimes one can also be a little lucky, as was the case with Unzueta, who is also using some leftover wood from a project that was performed by a man who was working for his father.
Overall, Unzueta prefers using fresh wood that can be found for free around Sacramento. And for him, acquiring such wood is much more than just a means to save money on materials.
Much of the wood for Unzueta’s projects needs to have moisture, so that the wood can be more easily bent. Lumber available at a lumber mill has been dried to the point that it has lost much of its ability to bend.
Boat building, Unzueta explained, is a skill that requires much time and patience.
“Shaping and bending the wood, that’s what really takes a lot of patience and time,” Unzueta said. “If I go too fast, I’ll break the wood. If I go too slow, (the wood) won’t form the way I want it to. I’ve really got to measure how I’m doing it. It’s really a skill sort of thing. You’ve just got to be one with the wood.”
A confident builder
While Unzueta has gained confidence as a boat builder, he has also shortened the amount of time it takes him to build these watercrafts. He can presently build a canoe in two weeks.
In addition to wood, materials used in the making of Unzueta’s boats include canvas and homemade nets.
Unzueta said that he hand ties these small nets, which he connects to inner parts of the boats to be conveniently used as places to set miscellaneous items.
The nets are very special to Unzueta, since he was taught how to make the nets from his grandmother, Rosa Muniz.
“My grandma is from Michoacan, Mexico and she lived right on the border of the biggest lake in Mexico,” Unzueta said. “The town was known as a fishermen’s town. She wanted one of her grandsons to learn how to make (fishermen’s) nets, because this is part of our (family) history. All our family had been fishermen as far back as she could remember. She taught me how to make nets and I incorporate that into the boats.”
Although Unzueta has become a skilled canvas and wood canoe and kayak (which by definition is also a canoe) builder, he said that he initially began making ukuleles.
“I wanted to play a Mexican (stringed) instrument called the jarana, but I couldn’t find anybody here who made them,” Unzueta said. “I (thought), ‘What am I going to do?’ The closest thing (to the jarana) was a ukulele. So, I went to Kline Music (at 2200 Sutterville Road), where my sister (Rebecca) works, and I asked if I could pull down a ukulele and take some measurements on it, so I could see how to make it.”
Unzueta said that he collected some wood, including a branch he found at William Land Park that would be used for the instrument’s neck. And using information that he read in a book, he built his first ukulele.
Unzueta had previously taken guitar classes at Kline Music and creating his own ukelele meant he now owned an instrument, which he said had sort of his “soul and personality in it.”
Among the ukeleles that Unzueta has built was a very Land Park ukulele, which he made entirely with broken tree branches from William Land Park. He sold the instrument to a local resident for $100.
Becoming a boat builder
Unzueta explained how he eventually became a boat builder.
“I go for walks with my dog a lot right there where the (Le Rivage) Hotel is at and I would see the water (of the Sacramento River) and would go, ‘Wow, I would like to be on the water,’” Unzueta said. “I didn’t really have any money to buy a boat. I just got to thinking, ‘I made my own ukulele, so I’m sure I can make myself my own boat.’”
After a failure to find a local boat builder, Unzueta turned to the Internet and began researching various kinds of boats.
He became fascinated with an old-style kayak, which drew him to think, ‘Wow, we have all (the materials to build this type of kayak) right here in Sacramento just floating down the river and everywhere.”
Unzueta then followed details in a book about kayak building to construct his first kayak.
Thus far, Unzueta has made two kayaks, as well as five canoes and other wood projects, including masks and swords. He is presently working on another kayak and an outrigger canoe.
He said that he continuously receives positive feedback about his work.
Although he desires to one day own his own boat store to sell his custom-built boats, Unzueta understands that this dream is something that would probably take several years to become a reality.
In the meantime, he is interested in building one-of-a-kind boats and ukuleles for anyone who is interested in purchasing such creations.
And Unzueta said that he guarantees all of his work and will repair any minimal, normal use damage as a complimentary service.
Photographs and additional details about Unzueta’s custom-made boats can be found on his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/lazyturtleboats.
For further information, write to Unzueta at email@example.com.
Certainly, few cities can claim themselves as a river city and for Sacramento, its claim as a river city is at an extremely notable level, considering that the capital city is actually home to two intersecting rivers, the Sacramento and American rivers.
These rivers, which join together near Discovery Park, have played significant roles in the city’s history from providing advantages in transportation and commerce to presenting natural beauty and entertainment opportunities.
And the river most directly associated with East Sacramento is the American River.
What the river offers
The American runs from the Sierra Nevada to El Dorado County through Folsom, Fair Oaks and Carmichael and alongside Sacramento State University before making its way to the Sacramento River, which flows to San Francisco Bay.
Presently the river is known as a convenient, nearby sanctuary away from everyday life within built out communities.
This river, which is the most important tributary feeding the Sacramento River, is often celebrated for its scenic parkway, with a long bicycle trail and pedestrian bridges.
It also serves as a corridor for wildlife, includes dams and provides an essential water supply for this continuously growing metropolis.
Those viewing the river in much earlier times saw miles of cascading cataracts on the middle and north forks of the river.
And when the snow melted at higher elevations in the spring, the American would become a coarse rush of water and sediment that would increase its acceleration while making its way toward today’s Sacramento.
The determination of the river’s progress was such that it would crack boulders and create new islands and sandbars.
Respecting the power of the river
During the time when indigenous Indians lived in large numbers along this river, they carried with them an understanding of the river and its natural benefits and dangers.
With their understanding and respect of the physical power of the river and its propensity for flooding during the springtime, these indigenous people would settle on mounds and other places beyond the reaches of the flood plain.
These natives partook in the many benefits of the river from its salmon to the blackberries and grapes, which grew near its banks.
Many oak trees in the area provided an additional food source through their acorns.
Also important to the natives were willows, vines and bamboo-like grasses that were used as materials for housing and baskets.
Some of the first visitors
Historical records suggest that Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga was the first European to reach the American River
Moraga visited the Sacramento Valley during the years of 1806 to 1808 in search of Indians who had escaped from California missions and to punish the Indians who had helped Indians escape from those missions.
Since the Valley Indian population was so dense and the Indians were knowledgeable of their surroundings, Moraga was generally not very successful in these efforts.
Naming the river
As he did with many other places he encountered during his journeys, Moraga named the river, which would eventually be known as the American River. Moraga is credited for giving the river its first non-Indian name. But what exactly that name was has often been disputed.
In his diary, Moraga refers to having named the river, “Rio de las Llagas,” which in English means “River of Sorrows.”
An interpretation of this name could be that Moraga gave the river this name because of his own sorrows due to his lack of success with the Indians who were hostile toward him while defending their homes.
The confusion with the name “Rio de las Llagas” exists due to the fact that a man who accompanied Moraga as part of the expedition recorded the name, “Rio de los Lagos,” which translated to English means “River of the Lakes.”
One should also consider this latter Spanish name as possibly being the actual name that Moraga gave the river, since he was in the region in August and this waterway would have then had the appearance of a series of lakes joined by the main current.
Despite its many changes, the river still has various islands and sandbars with a series of pools.
Many people who use the present, paved, multi-use trail along the river are familiar with the name Jedediah Smith due to the trail’s official name, the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. This popular trail extends 32 miles from the city of Folsom to Old Sacramento.
By whatever name Moraga called the river, that name was relatively short lived, since Smith led a company of fur trappers into the area in the 1820s and as a result of this visit, the river received a new name.
Smith and the other Americans, who traveled with him in the area from 1826 to 1827, probably camped for an extended period of time near the present day community development, Campus Commons, which is located east of the Guy A. West Memorial Bridge.
These men camped on the riverbanks to rest and gather supplies before becoming the first non-Indian people to cross the Sierra.
River of the Americans
The natural crossing of the river at that time was near the site of today’s H Street Bridge and a natural levee was located at the approximate site of Fair Oaks Boulevard.
After Smith and the other men departed from the area, the local natives, who by then spoke Spanish as a unifying language due to their connection with the mission Indians, began referring to the waterway as “Rio de los Americanos.”
This name, which is literally translated as “River of the Americans,” eventually became known as the “American River.”
This name likely remained in use because it was also the name used to identify the river by the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers who came to the area from Oregon during the 1830s. These trappers frequently visited the region during that time to exploit the river’s rich beaver and otter population.
The continuously increasing number of Hudson’s Bay Company trappers in the area brought diseases for which the natives had no natural defense. It has been estimated by some historians that diseases brought to the area during a large trapping expedition in 1833 and 1834 resulted in an epidemic that killed 70 percent of the area’s Indian population.
Not surprisingly, the negative circumstances resulting from the trappers’ presence on their land caused the Indians to have a rush of emotions, including fear, anger and anxiety. These emotions caused the Indians to harbor resentments against the trappers and have a greater hostility toward Western civilization.
Despite the devastating decrease in the native population, the remaining locals continued to deny the Hudson’s Bay Company from establishing a permanent outpost in the lower Sacramento Valley.