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(photo courtesy of Sacramento History Museum)
(photo courtesy of Sacramento History Museum)

Underground Sacramento reveals Old West flood control plan

California has not always been in a drought-crisis scenario as it is at the present time. Back in the 1850-1860 period, a bit of dry weather would have been extremely welcome, especially in Old Town Sacramento.

The Tour of Old Underground Sacramento led by a docent dressed in the 1850s style will reveal secrets of the underground town which are not easily seen from street level.

The original buildings of Sacramento were constructed near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. The town was constructed on the bank of the Sacramento River just a short distance downstream from the outlet of the American and below a significant bend in the Sacramento River. Both of these geographical features have since been altered due after flooding of the town.

Imagine or visualize a town constructed on a low riverbank with no protective levee. This town had several two- or three-story buildings with streets and docks on the river. However, there was no infrastructure and the concept of indoor toilets and a real sewage system had not reached this remote haven.

In the 1850s, the rivers provided transportation, irrigation water, drinking water and some sewage disposal for the town. Within the town there were outdoor toilets, privys, animals and their waste, decaying vegetation and associated debris.

Then, the rains came and the floods descended. During one single year, the rain fell for 40 days in a row. Low levees were constructed to help keep the water in the river. They did not prevent some flooding and higher levees were built. At various times, over a period of years, the rivers flooded and the water was retained within the levees in the town.

The resulting muddy, debris-filled cesspool stagnated in place for as long as three months. Finally, the levee was opened downstream and much of the water and debris flowed out and down the river. Meanwhile the first or lower floors of the buildings were filled with filth and muddy, polluted waters.

The question was, should the town be abandoned or should the buildings be raised above flood level? Sacramento chose to raise the buildings as much as 16 feet to place them above the flood waters. Much or all of the expense fell on the owners of the buildings.

Details of the methods used to raise and level the buildings are described by the tour guide. The underground tour takes 20 people under the buildings that were raised more than 150 years ago. They were raised by hand, using the best available engineering techniques that were available at that time.

See which buildings were raised and which were not. See the details of the the procedures. Observe the underground foundations and how they were raised and modified. This is an interesting tour, however, unfortunately photography is not allowed during the below ground portion of the tour.

Raising and leveling was not an easy or precise procedure at the time. Some buildings were raised, but not leveled properly. Several owners decided to not spend the necessary money to raise their buildings and they added another floor on the submerged portion. There are artifacts which are still buried in the silt and mud in the basement floor that have not been excavated. There are no shops in the underground old town.

Visitors have a choice of taking the standard underground tour, which is ideal for families with children. Or, they can enjoy the adult tour, which includes a stop at River City Saloon, where guests can purchase a $2 beer or $2 shot of whiskey or a free sarsaparilla with a drink ticket. They even get a souvenir shot glass. Participants must be at least 21 years old.

In addition to touring the underground town, visitors can tack on a “ghost tour” and learn how people lived and died in Old Sacramento. The museum also offers “gold rush” tours where people hear stories about miners, merchants, politicians, Pony Express riders, and all the disasters that helped shape the city’s early foundation.

About the underground tour:

  • It is ADA compliant, so people with mobility issues can navigate the tour
  • Tours run from early April through the middle of December
  • Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children. Kids under 5 are admitted free.
  • When you buy an underground tour ticket, you can purchase a ticket to the Sacramento History Museum for just $3.
  • Reservations are recommended by calling 916.808.7059 or online at

A few bits of trivia about Sacramento:

  • Jonas Sutter owned and operated Sutter’s Fort in the city before he began building Sutter’s Sawmill where Marshall discovered gold in the river.
  • After the discovery of gold, the fort was abandoned and was only saved from destruction by dedicated citizens many years later.
  • The confluence of the American River was moved upstream about 1 mile.
  • The large bend in the Sacramento River was straightened to reduce the tendency for flooding.
  • When the Pony Express was operating a terminal was near Old Town Sacramento. An impressive statue marks the site.
  • There are several excellent restaurants in Old Town today. I especially enjoyed the Ten22.

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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