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Sacramento: The River City

The Sacramento River was a blessing for the area – but frequent flooding was its curse.

By:  |  November 4, 2019  |    455 Words

(Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Sacramento is the capital city of California, but it wasn’t the first. There were several other capitals before the “River City” became the chosen one.

John Augusta Sutter was born in Germany but raised in Switzerland. The governor of Alta California, Juan Bautista Alvarado, granted permission for Sutter to settle in what is now known as Sacramento as long as he became a citizen of Mexico, which he did. From 1840 to 1841, he built Sutter’s Fort, which is still standing today and was the beginning of the city.


During the gold rush, Sacramento, California, grew from nothing to a large city in just a few years. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1839, he called the colony he had built Nueva Helvetia, meaning “New Switzerland.” At first, the town was home to fellow Swiss immigrants and American pioneers. Then the Gold Rush filled the area with people hoping to strike it rich. It wasn’t easy trying to grow crops in Nueva Helvetia. In 1843, heavy rains ruined the crops at Sutter’s Fort, and the next year a severe drought was the cause for loss. In 1845, the crops failed again, this time because Sutter was away fighting in one of Alta California’s civil wars.

Sutter was a soldier and also a businessman. At one point, he owned more than 48,827 acres in the area. He also built a mill in Coloma, where gold was first discovered by his chief carpenter, James W. Marshall, on January 24, 1848.

Sam Brannan, a local merchant, decided to take advantage of the gold seekers and opened a store near the Sacramento River. The waterfront property proved profitable as the Gold Rush brought business to the area and people traded for mining tools and other goods.

Commercial success continued until disaster struck when the townspeople realized the area was prone to severe flooding. In 1850, the first recorded flood devastated the city and again in 1852 high waters wiped out the new area. Not ready to give up on such a prime location, people began a huge project in 1853. The idea was to raise the entire city above the flood level. Obviously, the idea was met with much criticism, and it took another terrible flood in 1862 before the decision to take on the project was finally approved.

pony express sacramento

(Getty Images)

The result is a historical underground city that can still be seen today in Old Town Sacramento.

Interesting Facts

  • The only city in the world with more trees than Sacramento is Paris, France.
  • Sacramento is home to the original Pony Express; the mail delivery system that used a buggy and horses to transport mail all the way to Missouri.
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