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River City and Valley Life

River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region

Christopher J. Castaneda
Lee M. A. Simpson
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    River City and Valley Life
    Book Description:

    Often referred to as "the Big Tomato," Sacramento is a city whose makeup is significantly more complex than its agriculture-based sobriquet implies. InRiver City and Valley Life,seventeen contributors reveal the major transformations to the natural and built environment that have shaped Sacramento and its suburbs, residents, politics, and economics throughout its history.The site that would become Sacramento was settled in 1839, when Johann Augustus Sutter attempted to convert his Mexican land grant into New Helvetia (or "New Switzerland"). It was at Sutter's sawmill fifty miles to the east that gold was first discovered, leading to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Nearly overnight, Sacramento became a boomtown, and cityhood followed in 1850.Ideally situated at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the city was connected by waterway to San Francisco and the surrounding region. Combined with the area's warm and sunny climate, the rivers provided the necessary water supply for agriculture to flourish. The devastation wrought by floods and cholera, however, took a huge toll on early populations and led to the construction of an extensive levee system that raised the downtown street level to combat flooding. Great fortune came when local entrepreneurs built the Central Pacific Railroad, and in 1869 it connected with the Union Pacific Railroad to form the first transcontinental passage. Sacramento soon became an industrial hub and major food-processing center. By 1879, it was named the state capital and seat of government.In the twentieth century, the Sacramento area benefitted from the federal government's major investment in the construction and operation of three military bases and other regional public works projects. Rapid suburbanization followed along with the building of highways, bridges, schools, parks, hydroelectric dams, and the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, which activists would later shut down. Today, several tribal gaming resorts attract patrons to the area, while "Old Sacramento" revitalizes the original downtown as it celebrates Sacramento's pioneering past.This environmental history of Sacramento provides a compelling case study of urban and suburban development in California and the American West. As the contributors show, Sacramento has seen its landscape both ravaged and reborn. As blighted areas, rail yards, and riverfronts have been reclaimed, and parks and green spaces created and expanded, Sacramento's identity continues to evolve. As it moves beyond its Gold Rush, Transcontinental Railroad, and government-town heritage, Sacramento remains a city and region deeply rooted in its natural environment.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7918-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. INTRODUCTION: The Indomitable City and Its Environmental Context
    (pp. 1-10)
    Steven M. Avella

    Sacramentans, like all city dwellers, live each day with the realities of their natural setting. Embraced by two rivers, area residents swim, fish, inner-tube, and sail up and down the sometimes treacherous waters of the American and the Sacramento. They note the rivers’ low flow in the hot summer months and (especially since Hurricane Katrina breached critical levees and inundated New Orleans) worry about their rapid rise during the rainy season and when the Sierra Nevada snow-melt cascades down the mountains and into the flat valley. Sacramentans know that their city, sometimes referred to as the Big Tomato or, in...

  2. Part I. Boomtown Sacramento

    • CHAPTER 1 John A. Sutter and the Indian Business
      (pp. 13-30)
      Albert L. Hurtado

      John Sutter, as he frequently explained to anyone who might listen, was a man of no small ambitions. Though he arrived in the Sacramento Valley all but destitute, with a tangled record of past financial failure, he expected to accumulate a fortune by building a profitable, flourishing business enterprise in this most remote borderland of Mexican California.¹ Some people would have seen the valley as a wilderness, a place unsettled and untamed, but it was far from that. While Hispanic peoples had only explored this isolated region, native peoples had lived there and exploited its resources for untold generations. Now...

      (pp. 31-60)
      Kenneth N. Owens

      Two hundred miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the Sierra Nevada range extends over four hundred miles north and south, defining an eastern boundary for most of northern and central California. The Sierra is an immense granite mass fractured and uplifted along its eastern edge, raised by ancient tectonic pressures, topped by ridges and peaks that form a virtually unbroken barrier to the passage of plants, animals, and peoples across its heights. The passage from the high arid deserts on the east side to the Sierra summit is abrupt; early travelers who headed across the Great...

    • CHAPTER 3 “We Must Give the World Confidence in the Stability and Permanence of the Place”: PLANNING SACRAMENTO’S TOWNSITE, 1853–1870
      (pp. 61-76)
      Nathan Hallam

      Capt. William Dane Phelps of Gloucester, Massachusetts, arrived in the Sacramento Valley in July 1841. A merchant in the California hide and tallow trade, Phelps had taken leave from his business along the coast to visit John Sutter at New Helvetia, where a team of Indian laborers put the final touches on Sutter’s adobe fort overlooking the American River. While touring the grounds, Phelps also met John Sinclair, a Scottish immigrant who settled lands north of Sutter. Over dinner, Sinclair proposed a hunting expedition to the Feather River, sixteen miles to the north, where herds of tule elk grazed along...

    • CHAPTER 4 Railroads and the Urban Environment: SACRAMENTO’S STORY
      (pp. 77-100)
      Richard J. Orsi

      Sacramento’s railroad era dawned on January 8, 1863, on Front and K Streets at the downtown edge of the Sacramento River. City leaders, railway officials, and practically all the citizenry had gathered to celebrate the “groundbreaking” on the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), the Pacific link of the nation’s first transcontinental line. Unknown to the joyous throng, the natural setting and the event’s program foretold railroads’ central environmental influence on the struggling city. After days of winter rains, the rising river already lapped over shipping docks and a low levee, converting the bank and adjacent Front Street into hub-deep quagmires and...

  3. Part II. Valley Reclamation

    • CHAPTER 5 The Perils of Agriculture in Sacramento’s Untamed Hinterland
      (pp. 103-116)
      David Vaught

      In the decade after the gold rush, few areas in the Sacramento Valley seemed less hospitable to prospective farmers than Putah Sink. This grizzly-infested, swamp-ridden region of several thousand acres in Yolo County, twelve miles west of the city of Sacramento, had discouraged all previous settlement, from Patwin Indians, to Spanish and Mexican rancheros, to Anglo explorers. As late as 1862, a federal surveyor deemed the land “unfit for cultivation” for its “impenetrable thickets of underbrush.”¹

      Yet, between 1855 and 1860, a new state law sparked a small-scale land rush on Putah Sink. More than one hundred settlers purchased “swamp...

      (pp. 117-134)
      Todd Holmes

      Steamboats slowly made their way up the streets of Sacramento on the night of January 9, 1850, rescuing the wet and stranded from floodwaters that had quickly turned a riverport town into a sea of death and destruction. Days earlier, blue skies had greeted the residents of Sacramento, no doubt strumming the same chord of optimism that had driven these gold seekers to the surrounding mines the previous year. Many believed they had seen and survived the worst a northern California winter could muster, as heavy November and December rains resulted in only minor flooding throughout the town. The storm...

      (pp. 135-157)
      Anthony E. Carlson

      In August 1903, the Trans-Mississippi Commercial Congress met in Seattle, Washington. Dedicated to promoting economic growth in the western United States, the congress adopted resolutions pertaining to water, forest, mineral, and rangeland conservation. One of the most strongly worded resolutions implored the federal government to develop the Sacramento River valley. Decades of ineffective local policies and conflicting water laws delayed flood control, irrigation, and wetlands drainage, causing the valley to languish as the country’s biggest untapped source of wealth. The sheer scale of the valley’s environmental problems, the congress concluded, justified intervention by the embryonic administrative and regulatory state. Once...

      (pp. 158-182)
      Paul J. P. Sandul

      In 1808, well before Sacramento became a diverse multicultural metropolis (the twenty-seventh largest in the nation) housing about 1.4 million people by the start of the twenty-first century, Spanish army officer Gabriel Moraga reached the site of Sacramento by trekking upstream along a big river. Moraga’s horseback expedition had already spent two years exploring the California Central Valley for Europeans, despite the fact that the land had already been discovered, explored, and even settled by native Americans for thousands of years. As one local historian wrote, “The air was like champagne, and the Spaniards drank deep of it, drank in...

  4. Part III. Government Town

    • CHAPTER 9 Unseen Investment: NEW DEAL SACRAMENTO
      (pp. 185-199)
      Gray Brechin and Lee M. A. Simpson

      In a letter published in theFresno Beeon May 19, 1940, W. H. McConnell of the small Central Valley town of Parlier urged others not to take their city parks for granted: “No doubt few of us know how much the young children, tired mothers, and older men seen daily in the city parks and playgrounds enjoy what the New Deal under President Roosevelt has made possible. . . . Few realize what the [Works Progress Administration, or WPA] through the recreation department is trying to do and has done in establishing park playgrounds for children. Show your appreciation...

      (pp. 200-215)
      Rand Herbert

      The military has played a dominant role in both the urban and environmental development of the greater Sacramento region. During World War II, Sacramento was home to three major military facilities that served and supported the war effort and persisted through the cold war era. A fourth had a much more limited period of activity before becoming an outpost for one of the three main facilities. Of the four, two served the US Army Air Corps and were created before World War II: Mather Field was a creation of the Great War, while the Sacramento Air Depot (later McClellan Air...

    • CHAPTER 11 Recalling Rancho Seco: VOICING A NUCLEAR PAST
      (pp. 216-238)
      Christopher J. Castaneda

      On June 6, 1989, Sacramento County voters decided that the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station (RSNGS) should be permanently closed. The initiative, known as Measure K, gave local citizens the opportunity to vote on whether or not the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) should continue operating Rancho Seco or permanently decommission it. The ballots were counted, and while 97,945 voters (46.6 percent) wanted the plant to continue generating electric power for the region, 112,415 others (53.4 percent) cast ballots against the plant’s continued operation. Soon after the vote count was officially reported, SMUD’s general manager began the process of closing...

  5. Part IV. Reclaiming the Past

    • CHAPTER 12 Dreams, Realizations, and Nightmares: THE AMERICAN RIVER PARKWAY’S TUMULTUOUS LIFE, 1915–2011
      (pp. 241-266)
      Alfred E. Holland Jr.

      Sacramentans proudly hail the American River Parkway as their region’s crown jewel. The nearly thirty-mile-long swath of riparian habitat straddling its namesake river realizes a thinking man’s good idea dating from 1915. A second person reiterated and expanded that idea in 1927 and again at midcentury. After four decades trying to break out of bureaucratic circles, a state bureaucrat and streamside resident built a dream on the parkway idea and mobilized a cadre of fellow insiders to apply public pressure at the city and county levels when rapid suburban development encroached on the wild and ravaged lands bordering the river....

      (pp. 267-289)
      Tanis C. Thorne

      The Thunder Valley Casino owned by the United Auburn Indian Community (UAIC) opened its doors on June 9, 2003, to an enthusiastic crowd that backed up traffic more than seven miles. Located thirty miles east of Sacramento in the Interstate 80 corridor, the casino is positioned to intercept much of the gambling traffic going from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reno. Thunder Valley is a convenient distance from I-80 along Highway 65 and neighbors the city of Lincoln, the fastest growing city in California in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Since about 1990, the rural landscape in...

    • CHAPTER 14 The Invention of Old Sacramento: A PAST FOR THE FUTURE
      (pp. 290-312)
      Lee M. A. Simpson and Lisa C. Prince

      Old Sacramento, a twenty-eight-acre National Historic Site nestled between Interstate 5 and the banks of the Sacramento River, reflects the evolution of urban environmental politics and the historic preservation movement. Home to a thriving business district in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the district slid into a traditional skid row that, by the middle of the twentieth century, seemed an ideal candidate for slum clearance and urban renewal. That the district survived is testament to the tenacity and vision of a variety of individuals who, far before their time, recognized that history and historic structures could be a valuable...

  6. EPILOGUE: Sacramento, Before and After the Gold Rush
    (pp. 313-320)
    Ty O. Smith

    To drive or walk in Sacramento’s downtown core is to witness the clash of time. New high-rise buildings blend with old brick façades, and multiple generations of advertising messages peek from behind peeling paint and maintain a faded vigilance over the bustling metropolis. On a building near the corner of Twelfth and J Streets hangs an example of one of Sacramento’s many public art projects. Pasted to the side of the Masonic Temple is a huge version of Charles Christian Nahl’s famous gold rush era painting,Sunday Morning at the Mines.This painting illustrates the extremes of camp life, with...