The history that shaped the Sacramento Railyards is at the heart of California’s rich and complicated beginnings. As the area became a new state, California was shaped by powerful forces of innovation, Mother Nature, and even a touch of luck.
Throughout the journey, the Sacramento Railyards were at the heart of it all.
A Stroke of Luck Kickstarts the Gold Rush
In 1848, California’s history was forever set in motion with the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley.
At the time, California had just been transferred from Mexico to the United States through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but it would be two more years before California would become the 31st state of the union.
After James Wilson Marshall found flakes of gold in the American River near Coloma, word spread quickly through the country. Marshall’s discovery would eventually bring thousands of prospective gold miners, entrepreneurs, and savvy developers thousands of hard-traveled miles to seek their fortunes in the areas around Sacramento.
The Gold Rush was on, and the non-native population of California ballooned from an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 by the end of the year. Sacramento’s waterfront location made it a prime trading spot for merchants and miners, and before long gold mining towns were popping up throughout the region.
Innovation and Engineering Forever Change the Landscape of California
Getting supplies and mail to the growing population of California was an arduous task during the Gold Rush days. Whether by river and sea, across deserts or through mountains, it took months for provisions to get to the Golden State.
Fast, reliable transportation from Sacramento to the mining communities was a crucial component to development in the region, and hungry businessmen and entrepreneurs soon realized they could find their own fortune by solving this problem for the growing population of California goldseekers.
One such visionary, Charles Lincoln Wilson, decided to move on this opportunity. Wilson formed the Sacramento Valley Railroad (SVRR) in 1852 and began to lobby the state legislature to get his railroad built. Three years later, construction on the SVRR began, and in 1855 the first passenger train west of the Mississippi made its inaugural trial run from Sacramento to Folsom.
While the first railroad in the west was being built, another innovation was shaping the state of California and setting the stage to revolutionize the mining industry:
In 1853, after years of back-breaking sluice mining and gold-panning, hydraulic mining innovated the industry for bone-weary gold miners.
Suddenly what used to take days or weeks to accomplish took mere minutes and hours.
Hydraulic mining punched giant craters into California mountainsides, blasting away rocks and earth with the jet force of massive amounts of high-pressure water. While this method allowed miners to process more materials, dig deeper into mountains and scale up their operations, there would be a high price to pay for this innovative new technology.
Hydraulic mining tore the mountains to shreds and sent millions of tons of rock, earth, and water into nearby streams and rivers.
Sierra streams, which had previously teemed with fish, salmon, and wildlife, were buried and lost forever. Nearby farmland was ruined as fertile soil was covered from silt and runoff. Rivers widened and rose, which lead to an increasing number of floods throughout the state.
And these floods would play another major role in reshaping California.
Mother Nature Pushes Back, Unleashes Downpour of Fury
Sacramento was no stranger to floods.
In 1850, the fledgling city was damaged by floodwaters not once, but twice. But the result was nothing compared to the devastation and loss that would come along a decade later in the Great Flood of 1862.
From December 1861 to January 1862, California was struck by the greatest flood period in the state’s history. Snowfall in the upper elevations and weeks of continuous rainfall turned California into one vast sea of water.
Nearly one quarter of the towns and property in California were lost, more than 200,000 heads of cattle drowned up and down the state, and the damage for the lost homes, businesses, fields, animals, and mills reached a staggering $10 million.
The great flood ravaged the entire state, but “Sacramento City was the chief sufferer.”
In some parts of Sacramento, the water reached depths of fifteen to eighteen feet. Levees that had been built to keep the water out of the American and Sacramento rivers were, in fact, trapping it in. Dozens of wooden houses were carried off by the raging floodwaters.
Those fortunate enough to live in a two-story building had to transfer anything they wanted to preserve up to the second floor. Those in single-story buildings weren’t as lucky. The water was brown, muddy, and viscous; those who dared travel did so only by boat.
When the flood hit, families were devastated and businesses were destroyed… but it didn’t stop the inauguration ceremony for California’s new governor, Leland Stanford, from taking place. Stanford traveled from his mansion to the capitol building by rowboat for an expedited ceremony. After officially taking office, he rowed back to his home, where he was forced to enter through a second-story window.
Sacramento remained underwater for months. Death and destruction were everywhere.
Slowly, Sacramento and the rest of California began to rebuild. With the painful memory of the flood, and its scars still freshly cut into the city, Sacramento quickly put together a plan to ensure the city would never suffer so harshly at the hands of Mother Nature again.
The first part of this ambitious endeavor would take seven years to complete: raising the buildings downtown up fifteen feet. Today, tunnels under present day downtown Sacramento are reminders of where the original streets and buildings were before the flood.
Additional measures were put in place to rebuild and protect Sacramento from future flooding, but it would take a few titans of industry and a presidential decree to bring that progress to fruition.
Presidents and Titans of Industry All Aboard and Full Steam Ahead for a Railroad-Driven Future
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States. The following year, while the Golden State was picking up the pieces and rebuilding after the devastating flood, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, which would ultimately change the face of the nation.
The Pacific Railroad Act tasked the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies with building a transcontinental railroad that would link the United States from east to west. By the terms of the bill, the Central Pacific Railroad Company would start building in Sacramento and continue east across the Sierra Nevada, while a second company, the Union Pacific Railroad, would build westward from the Missouri River, with the two lines of track meeting somewhere in the middle.
In the West, the Central Pacific would be dominated by the “Big Four”– Charles Crocker, California Governor Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins, ambitious businessmen and politicians who founded the Central Pacific in 1861.
After lobbying for railroad funds in DC, the Big Four came back to Sacramento and requested land to build the railroad.
The City of Sacramento granted the Big Four their land, with one condition. It made sense that the railroad would run along the river, so Sacramento demanded that Central Pacific Railroad build a levee and fill in the existing Sutter Lake as extra insurance against future floods.
In 1863, construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacrament began with a groundbreaking ceremony taking place on Front and K Streets. In the years that followed, the railroads were completed, trains began running, and the American River was rechanneled in an effort to preventing future flood catastrophes. Transcontinental Railroad finally connected the east coast to the west, and the dawn of a new age in the west was born.
In 1870, the Central Pacific Railroad built its first ice-cooled freight car in the Sacramento Railroad Shops, in order to ship California grown fruit all over the country. Shipments of California produce and salmon began to travel to the east coast by train to a country hungry for our sun-kissed agricultural products.
The country would never be the same.
The New Shape of California: How the Railroads Forever Altered the Golden State
With trains running east and west, and California’s fresh produce being shipped across the country in ice-cooled freight cars, a major shift began in the Golden State’s economy.
In its early days, California was fueled by mining and cattle ranching. As the mining slowed, hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle were lost to the flood, and Gold Rush dreams began to fade, two new industries rose up: agriculture and the railroads.
By 1880, agriculture had replaced mining and cattle ranching to become the most profitable industry in Sacramento Valley. But it was the railroads who had become the largest industrial employer in the west.
By 1910, the Southern Pacific Railroad provided 33% of all Sacramento jobs.
Thousands of men worked tirelessly at Sacramento’s railyards; the booming industry had no shortage of employment opportunities from civil engineers and surveyors to construction crew, yard operators, train crews, shop workers, train engineers, telegraphers, railroad police, dispatchers and many more.
The history of California begins in Sacramento, where the Gold Rush began, and where the railroads rose like a phoenix from the destruction and chaos of one of the most devastating natural disasters the state has ever faced. One small stroke of luck brought on a huge migration as miners sought their fortunes in gold, and their innovations changed the landscape of the state - for better or for worse.
When titans of industry laid down tracks that would connect Sacramento to the rest of the country, California was reshaped once again.
Today, the Sacramento Railyards are about to incite an evolution once more, as they did over a century ago. The tracks are being laid for innovation of a different kind, as the Sacramento Railyards redevelopment project sets the stage to create a central hub for innovation, technology, and industry along the river’s edge, reshaping Sacramento and adding a new chapter to the city’s amazing history.