Old Sacramento: A Glimpse into the Past

by Nick Hilden  |  Published May 4, 2015

Located in the heart of Sacramento is the city’s Old Downtown district. Featuring restored buildings and other features that are reminiscent of the Old West, this historic neighborhood provides an enjoyable glimpse into a time left behind.

Old Sacramento (Photo: Marlilyn M via Flickr)

I’m not sure what it’s like when you approach from the south or the east, but when you’re coming from the north, the I-5 route into Sacramento is rather exciting. It’s the kind of excitement that you feel when you’re on a rollercoaster, because in California people drive somewhat more enthusiastically than they do in Oregon or Washington.

It comes as something of a surprise, because you’ve been driving through hundreds of miles of a much more placid Northern California. You pass by towns with unlikely names like Yreka and Weed, over the beauty of Shasta Lake, maybe you stop in Redding for gas, and then all of the sudden you’re approaching the point where I-5 jags off east toward Sacramento while the 505 continues on south toward San Francisco – this is where the ride begins.

Suddenly everyone seems to be driving at ninety-plus miles per hour, passing and cutting one another off and honking and I assume cursing, and the freeway – while perfectly normal in span – seems to become twenty lanes wide. As I mentioned, when you’re from up north, where most drivers seem to be ignorant of the fact that their vehicles are capable of surpassing fifty, the chance to put your driving skills to the test provides something of a thrill.

Then the excitement is over, things calm down, and you wind your way another thirty miles before pulling off the freeway, and there you are in Old Sacramento.

Remembrance of Things Past

Located between I Street to the north, Capitol Mall to the south, 2nd Street to the east, and the Sacramento River waterfront to the west, Old Sacramento packs a healthy dose of Old West history into just 28 acres.

Sacramento isn’t just the California state capital – it was also one of the primary epicenters of Old West growth.

Originally explored by the Spanish, the region was first cultivated by John Sutter in the 1840s, who established the colony of New Helvetia two miles north of what would become Sacramento in 1949. The city’s first residents were initially drawn by the promise of working for the vastly-wealthy Sutter family, then the city boomed overnight when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. What began as a blessing turned into a curse as the influx of pioneers overwhelmed the Sutter estates. (For those who are interested, there is semi-fictionalized account of this period called Sutter’s Gold that was written by Blaise Cendrars – definitely worth reading.)

Sacramento grew rapidly, especially when the Opium Wars forced a torrent of Chinese immigrants to seek refuge in the area. Once located in the city’s Old Downtown region, the majority of its original Chinatown has since been demolished, but there are still elements of it to be found throughout the neighborhood.

Early on, the city experienced a number of problems, such as chronic flooding and mysterious fires (almost certainly cause by arsonists who were trying to drive out the Chinese). In the early 1850s, a massive project was undertaken to raise the city above the flood line. To this day, you can still find evidence of the original street level under the boardwalks and in basements.

For a long time, Old Sacramento was known as the worst skid-row east of Chicago, a reputation that took decades (almost one hundred years) for it to overcome.
Old Sacramento has strived to retain its Old Western roots. Featuring wooden sidewalks, vintage construction, Old West building facades, and an array of saloons and shops that present a classically Western vibe, this section of town is a magnet for sightseers.

A Place of Beginnings and Endings

Old Sacramento is home to a number of history’s beginnings and endings. It was where the first transcontinental railroad was founded, and a popular train museum stands there to this day. It was where the much-famed Pony Express terminated its route. It was also the state’s first successful trading post, which probably explains how it eventually became the capital.

Speaking of trains, one of the district’s most popular attractions is a vintage diesel-powered train ride, which makes its way through the neighborhood hourly. The train features closed coach cars, open air gondolas, and a first-class observation car, and tickets range from $5 for youths (kids five and under ride free) to $20 for first-class.

Perhaps equally popular are the restored river steamers, such as the Delta King Riverboat which currently serves as a floating hotel, restaurant, and entertainment venue.
While the Delta King is the largest riverboat, the Fanny Ann’s Saloon is certainly the weirdest. Fanny Ann’s is known primarily for two things – its great burgers, and it’s outlandish décor. It’s kind of one of those things you just have to see for yourself, featuring an array of memorabilia, including the ship’s original cannon.

Seeing the Sights

Old Sacramento lends itself to aimless wandering, but for those who want to learn more about the history of the region there are guided walking tours, ghost tours (because what Old West town would be complete without?), and a tour of its original underground sections. Or, if you simply want to get off your feet and have a look around, there are a number of classic coach rides.

Sure, like any Old West themed town, Old Sacramento has aspects of it that are a bit kitsch. That’s just part of the territory when it comes to raking in the tourist dollars. But it’s also a fun place to spend an afternoon or a weekend and get a glimpse of a time that’s been left behind.