Gateway to the gold mines
On 1-80 and Hwy-50, 87 miles East of San Francisco/91 miles West of Lake Tahoe. In the 1850s, Sacramento was the gateway to California’s gold mines and men, machinery – and millions of dollars – streamed through it. The town’s selection as the state capital was crowned in 1874 when, at a cost of $2.5 million, the State Capitol Building was completed. A majestic expression of the Neoclassical style that typified U.S. public buildings of the period, the Capitol building was intended as a symbol of California’s immense independent wealth – a pertinent gesture at a time when the rest of the U.S. was recovering from the Civil War.
Viewed from the grand Capitol Mall which leads to it, the Capitol Building – topped by a 120-ft-high rotunda – remains as impressive as ever. Inside, the State Legislature can be witnessed during its law-making sessions, though more appealing are the free guided tours of the building.
The Capitol Building is a far cry from Sutter’s Fort (http://www.suttersfort.org), 2701 L St, Sacramento’s earliest fixed structure, erected in 1839 by German-born John Sutter. He acquired a considerable land grant (on which the first discovery of California gold was made, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park) from California’s Mexican governors. Several reconstructed workshops stand in the fort’s grounds, as does the State Indian Museum, with a fine stock of basketry, weapons, dug-out canoes, and ceremonial objects.
Up until 1967, when newly-elected state governor Ronald Reagan decided it was a fire hazard and spent several million dollars on a new ranch-style residence, 13 California governors had resided during their term of office at the Governor’s Mansion, 1526 H St. Built in 1877, the house is a fine example of Californian gothic architecture and is enjoyably viewed on hourly guided tours (Wed-Sun, 10 am-5 pm; http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=498)
The reason for Sacramento’s success was the deep Sacramento River, which allowed ocean-going vessels to reach this close to the gold-producing areas. Many of the old riverside buildings, at the hub of local life a century ago, have been restored and turned into the Old Town, a strollable collection of museums, gift shops and cafes. The main attraction in the Old Town is the California State Railroad Museum (www.csrmf.org), 125 I Street, a dazzling collection of gleaming locos and imaginative displays clarifying the crucial role of railways in California’s development. The railways were the first safe way to cross the mountains and deserts that divided California from the rest of the U.S., and their building was instigated by the so-called Big Four, a quartet of Sacramento merchants turned rail barons who outwitted the U.S. government on their way to becoming the state’s richest and most powerful men during the late 1800s. Across the lawn from the railroad museum, the Central Pacific Passenger Station has been returned to its 1870 look, when it was the westernmost stop on the first transcontinental railway.
The California Supreme Court was originally housed in the 1854 B.F. Hastings Building, its offices, and courtroom duly restored on an upper floor. Another Old Town call should be the Sacramento History Museum (http://www.historicoldsac.org), 101 I Street, its hands-on high-tech exhibits relating California’s past in several unusual ways. The California Automobile Museum (https://www.calautomuseum.org), a short walk south of the Old Town, will undoubtedly delight any devoted American-auto buff, but the Model As, Model Ts and V-8s have little relevance to Sacramento. For anyone who is not a car enthusiast, a better bet might be the Crocker Art Museum (http://www.crockerartmuseum.org), 216 O Street, whose crock of 19thC European and Californian art and contemporary photography catches the eye less than the tiled floors and curving staircases. The building is an 1873 Italianate villa financed by Edwin Bryant Crocker (a brother of Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four) and claimed to be the American West’s first art museum.
Cruising on the Sacramento River
Cruises along the Sacramento River depart daily from Old Sacramento’s Front Street dock. The Hornblower Cruises offer a variety of different types of cruises up and down the river (www.hornblower.com).
Detour – Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
On 1-5, 88 miles North of Sacramento. A five-mile car route and a one-mile foot-trail pass through sections of the 10,000-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, an undeveloped area where 175 migratory bird species have been sighted, among them many varieties of geese, egrets and herons.