Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Old Success Story

By Mark W. Danielson

In 1849, gold changed California forever. San Francisco and Sacramento became boom towns. People poured into the state to become rich. On the banks of the Sacramento River, people from faraway places arrived by boat. Bars, hotels, and The Eagle Theater popped up to meet their needs. In the canvas-covered Eagle Theater, men sat on benches on the main floor while women sat in the balcony. Men didn’t speak to women unless they had been introduced by another man, ladies of the evening being the exception. Life was hard with harder consequences for improprieties, but people made the most of their time on Earth. With the exception of what went on behind closed doors, The Eagle Theater and bars were pretty much “it” for entertainment.

This way of life faded when the gold rush ended. The Pony Express brought California out of isolation. Soon, stage coaches and railroads were filled with God-fearing folk who brought civilized families, and built churches and schools. Ladies of the evening were shunned. Sacramento and San Francisco were transformed, but still linked by the Delta King and Delta Queen riverboats. That’s right, the King and Queen traversed the Sacramento River long before the Queen ever sailed the Mississippi. In the literal sense of “The King is dead; long live the Queen!” the Delta Queen lives on our nation’s largest river using parts robbed off her sister ship. Since the Delta King is stationary, both are preserved.

As Sacramento grew, so did the roads that connected it to surrounding cities. Interest in its waterfront diminished leaving the historic riverbank town to fall into disrepair. In the 1960s, some brilliant visionaries and investors convinced Sacramento’s city planners that they should redevelop the area. “Old Sacramento” became a reality in the early 1970s when The Old Eagle Theater, Fanny Ann’s Bar, China Camp Restaurant, The Firehouse restaurant, and a few tourist shops opened. Since then, redevelopment continued with more restaurants and shops opening. The Railroad Museum, one of the best in the nation, became an anchor for the area. The long-neglected Delta King followed, having been refloated from Richmond’s shore and resurrected as an Old Sacramento hotel and restaurant. Today, this two by five block area thrives, providing intriguing eateries, specialty shops, and museums that hint of what life was like during the gold rush period. Boo-Hiss performances at The Old Eagle Theater still draw crowds. Old Sac is a perfect place for authors who are interested in writing historical novels to do research.

If you’ve ever wondered why San Francisco’s football team is named the 49ers and wear gold, the gold rush is why. Should you find yourself passing through Sacramento, stop by and check out Old Town.


Earl Staggs said...

I'd love to visit Old Sac someday. Fort Worth has a similar area called The Stockyards. Originally, this was where cattle drives ended and herds were sent by rail to the north. Several decades ago, after many years of decay, it was rejuvenated and is now FW's biggest tourist spot. There's a cattle drive down Main Street every day with real cows and real cowboys.

Mark W. Danielson said...

You're right, Earl. The FW Stockyards are great. The H-3 Ranch is my favorite Stockyard restaurant. Wish FW would rejuvinate the Stockyard pens and the area near Billy Bob's, though. They still need work.

I'm all for reviving historical areas, no matter where they are. I was in Ontario, CA the other day and had previously written a blog on the historic Gausti winery. Since my visit when I wrote that blog, every one of the historical markers has been stolen -- ripped from the concrete. Seems no matter how hard people try to preserve and educate, there are always those willing to destroy it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

We visited Sutter's Fort near Sacramento, where the California gold rush began, some years ago. Fascinating place with so many preseved artifacts. The Catholic church across the street is beautiful.

Shane Cashion said...

Interesting, Mark. Years ago, I was on the Delta Queen here in St. Louis. I wasn't aware of its history out west.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, there is so much to see in the California gold country. I used to fly a J-3 Cub into Columbia -- a gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills where they serve up fresh sasparilla and you can ride a stage coach. Lots of fun.

Shane, you're not alone. When most think about about taking a Mississippi Riverboat cruise, they think of the Delta Queen. I can't think of a more beautiful stern wheeler.

Ben Small said...

Hmm... Never would have thought of that. Thanks. Good idea!

Mark W. Danielson said...

Ben, there is no better way to explore the past than to visit places like Old Sacramento or in your case, Old Tucson. Whether riding a stagecoach, steam-powered train, or riverboat, the experience stirs our imagination at what prior generations experienced. Taking in the bar scene at Old Sacramento's Fanny Ann's is fun, but a performance at The Old Eagle Theater gives you a sense of what the gold miner's had to look forward to. Back in 1849, the streets weren't paved and it rains a lot, so the smell of mud-caked clothes and oil lamps would have been strong. It's always fun exploring the past, but for most who lived in that era, it was a hard life.