6 Events that Changed the Shape of California

Historic photo of the railroad, one of the 6 events that changed the shape of California.

6 Events that Changed the Shape of California

February 8, 2018 | By The Railyards

Countless factors have shaped California over the course of its history, from the small moments in our daily lives to larger-than-life historical events.

California is known for many things: sun-kissed beaches, redwood forests, fertile farmland, cable cars, box cars, and the entertainment industry, to name a few. In its nearly-170 years history, there’s been a number of events that shaped the Golden State. Looking back over the years, which events have had the largest impact on making California into the state that it is today?

Here are 6 events that played a pivotal role in creating the California we know today:

The Gold Rush

Just prior to California becoming a state in the union, the most well known and impactful event in the history of California took place: the discovery of gold in 1848.

It was while overseeing the construction of a sawmill on the American River that James W. Marshall first spotted gold shining in the waters of what is now known as Sutters Creek.

The news of this event spread far and wide, bringing on a population boom of epic proportions.

By the end of 1949, the non native population of California had jumped from just 800 (in early 1948) to 100,000.

With the influx of (mostly) men from all over the world in search of riches, towns popped up throughout the Sacramento area and surrounding foothills. Sacramento was itself a boom town, turning into a bustling city practically overnight.

Rarely do areas see such rapid migration, gaining an immediate and large population over the course of one year’s time.

When California ran out of gold it maintained its population. Many California newcomers remained, forever altering its social, environmental, and political landscape.

The Sierra Club

While the Gold Rush was great for California’s growth, it had a negative effect on the state’s natural resources.

Environmental changes brought on by rapidly growing populations of gold miners throughout California were wreaking havoc on the pristine landscape.

John Muir, and his supporters, had the foresight to see that, without government regulation, scenic California could fall victim to limitless development and be stripped of its majestic beauty.

Establishing the Sierra Club in 1982, Muir and founding members created the organization to "explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth". Their early focus was protecting the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which they have done admirably.

Among the areas they have helped fight to protect are Yosemite, the Coastal Redwoods, and Calaveras Big Trees, to name a few.

This group, which formed to protect wild lands of California, ultimately helped shape it into the state it is today not through change but through preservation, protecting the natural beauty and wonder of the state.

The Transcontinental Railroad and Agriculture

As gold mining dwindled, it gave rise to the success of the cattle industry. A success that was short-lived.

From December 1861 to January 1862, California was struck by the greatest flood period in the state’s history. Weeks of constant rainfall, coupled with heavy snowfall in the Sierras, turned California into a flood ravaged sea. While the whole state was under water, Sacramento suffered the worst.

In these floods over 200,000 head of cattle were lost, destroying California’s most profitable industry.

Following the devastation, Californians rebuilt their homes and businesses, but the ranching industry could not recover from the loss of cattle.

It wasn’t until the “Big Four”– Charles Crocker, California Governor Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins, ambitious businessmen and politicians – founded the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861 that new industries began to take hold in California.

Connecting West Coast to East, the Transcontinental Railroad stretched from Sacramento to Iowa, where it met up with existing railroads branched throughout the East.

While the booming industry at the Sacramento Railyards had no shortage of employment opportunities – in 1910, 33% of all Sacramento jobs were with the Southern Pacific Railroad – the most formative change that came with the Transcontinental Railroad was California’s ability to export its most valuable resource: fresh produce.

The first ice-cooled freight car was built in the Sacramento Railroad Shops, thus enabling California grown fruit to be shipped all over the country. California produce and salmon shipments could now travel by train to the east coast. The demand for California-grown produce boomed and the agricultural industry became a major force in the Golden State.

Today, California agriculture is a $54 billion dollar industry that generates at least $100 billion in related economic activity.

This forever changed not only California’s agricultural industry, but the whole country’s ability to have access to healthy, fresh foods.


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The Railyards History

The Railyards History

The history that shaped the Sacramento Railyards is at the heart of California’s rich and complicated beginnings.


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San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Rupturing the San Andreas fault from north to south of the San Francisco, at a length of 296 miles, the quake could be felt all the way from Los Angeles to Oregon, and even in parts of Nevada. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake immediately demobilized the city’s water main system, making it impossible for firefighters to combat the flames that soon followed.

The numbers tell the tale of devastation:

  • 3,000 lives lost
  • 28,000 buildings leveled
  • 250,000 citizens rendered homeless

While this was a tragedy of epic proportions, it was the rebuilding of San Francisco that truly changed the shape of California.

Developers and builders immediately began rebuilding the leveled city from scratch. Initially rapidly constructed to accommodate the sudden high populations that came with prospectors seeking their fortune, the city was originally just one of many Gold Rush Towns. writ large.

An elegant San Francisco, built to better withstand earthquakes, rose up out of the ashes of the tragic events of April 18, 1906. The iconic California city that is revered throughout the world today would not exist without the devastation brought by the 1906 earthquake.

The Golden Gate Bridge

A national landmark that now serves as a worldwide symbol of the Golden West, the Golden Gate bridge wasn’t always a popular notion.

Many were against its construction, with upwords of 2,300 lawsuits filed against the project prior to its breaking ground.

Environmentalists such as John Muir and Ansel Adams feared that it would mare the natural, pristine beauty.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, with vast investment interests in the lucrative boat system that would ferry souls across the bay, fought the building of the bridge that would provide people a new path to and from the city; they didn’t want it cutting into their stronghold and reducing their profits.

Once all the legal hurdles were traversed, the project broke ground in 1933 and was opened a short four years later, ahead of schedule and below budget, with a celebration that lasted for a week.

And now one could hardly imagine the bay without its Golden Gate. Although it is often enshrouded in a blanket of fog, the bridge shines brightly as one of California’s greatest symbols.

Wildfire Devastation of 2017

October through December of 2017 saw a rash of historically destructive wildfires raging first through Northern and then Southern California.

Governor Jerry Brown was not over exaggerating when quoted as saying “This is truly one of the greatest if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced. The devastation is just unbelievable, it’s a horror that no one could have imagined.”

It is believed that the new growth spurned from heavy rains of the 2016-2017 winter season that then dried out provided massive amounts of fodder for the fires. This coupled with dry autumn conditions and heavy winds in 2017 made for the conditions just right for everything to go wrong.

As of mid December 2017, more than 10,000 structures in California had been damaged or destroyed, a number that sores above an accumulation of the last nine years together. Devastatingly, 43 people were killed by the large wildfires in California, a number that is greater than the last ten years combined.

The destruction from the fires led to another disaster the following month, when mudslides in Santa Barbara sent water and mud rushing into Montecito. The mudslides destroyed over 100 homes, evacuated thousands, and resulted in 20 lives lost. The damaging mudslide has been directly tied to the catastrophic Thomas Fire that destroyed 300,000 acres the prior month.

From moments that brought a population boom, changed the way our cities look, effected industry, and changed the physical landscape, the events that shaped California into the state it is today are vast and far reaching.

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