Sacramento History Museum tells history of California’s capital city |

Sacramento History Museum tells history of California’s capital city

Rich Moreno
Entrance to the Sacramento History Museum in historic Old Sacramento.
Courtesy Janannwa

It’s not surprising that the history of Sacramento, California’s capital city, is intertwined with the founding of Nevada.

For one thing, it was the closest city of any size to western Nevada, where the state’s first non-native residents began to coalesce in Genoa, Carson City and Virginia City. Additionally, at least some of Nevada’s most prominent pioneers, like Maj. William Ormsby, spent time in Sacramento before heading to the future Silver State.

Fortunately, the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento offers an opportunity to learn more about the beginnings of the community, which can be traced to 1839, when a Swiss immigrant, John Augustus Sutter, Jr., established a fort near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers.

Within a few years, Sutter’s Fort had grown into a fairly substantial community, and began to attract other businessmen looking for opportunities, such as entrepreneur Samuel Brennan. That process only accelerated in 1848 after the discovery of gold in nearby Coloma.

The city quickly expanded into a trading center for would-be prospectors stocking up on supplies before heading into the gold fields.

By 1849, California had become a state, with Sacramento granted an official city charter by the state Legislature. In 1854, after designating several other communities as the state capital, Sacramento became California’s permanent state capital.

The Sacramento History Museum, which opened in 1985, is the only museum devoted to Sacramento and Gold Rush history. Housed in a building that duplicates Sacramento’s 1854 City Hall and Waterworks building, the museum offers more than a half dozen permanent exhibits that help tell the city’s story.

For example, the exhibit “Gold, Greed & Speculation: The Beginnings of Sacramento City” explores the first 50 years of the city’s history using historic artifacts and an interactive image collage mural. It tells about the city’s early struggles, which included frequent flooding issues, a squatter’s riot and other challenges, and it profiles some of the city’s pioneers.

The next exhibit, “Historic Print Shop,” describes the old-time newspaper printing process and features authentic, working 19th-century printing equipment, with docents who print “wanted” posters for visitors.

That’s followed by the exhibit, “Coming to California and The Lure of Gold,” which offers the history of the discovery of gold in the American River and accounts of those who risked it all to try to strike it rich in California. The display describes different types of gold mining processes that were used.

“The Community Gallery” exhibit is a permanent showcase showing how Sacramento has changed during the past 180 or so years. It recounts the native Indian culture of the region, riverboat transportation, growing up in Sacramento during the last 19th and early 20th centuries and the development of its municipal infrastructure.

Another of the museum’s permanent exhibits is “The Agricultural Gallery,” which offers displays of vintage farming equipment, colorful cannery labels and a re-creation of a 1920s-era kitchen.

Among the temporary exhibits in the museum are a photo exhibit about the history of the I Street Bridge and “Place and Replace — The Making of Old Sacramento,” which tells the story of Old Sacramento, a place that was once Sacramento’s skid row (in the 1950s) but was redeveloped into a 28-acre historic district now filled with trendy restaurants and shops.

For visitors wanting something more unique, the museum offers a guided Old Sacramento Underground tour, which looks at how the city, once plagued by floods, managed to literally rebuild itself upward.

The museum also contains a wealth of personal information provided by residents of the city that includes historical photos, records and other effects.

The Sacramento History Museum is located at 101 I St. in Old Sacramento, nearly adjacent to the California State Railroad Museum. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults older than 18, $5 for youths between 6 and 17 and free for those 5 and younger.

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Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.