Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.
From Novato, we headed back east into central California to visit the state capital. Located at the junction of the Sacramento and the American Rivers, it has had its share of flooding since its founding in 1850 by John Sutter Jr. and Samuel Brannan. John Jr’s father John Sutter Sr. was the illustrious owner of both Fort Sutter , which was the hub around which the city was formed, as well as Sutter’s Mill in nearby Coloma, where his partner, James Marshall, found the first gold nuggets in 1848. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the strike a secret but to no avail. Brannan was a successful California industrialist and a LDS member who tried – and failed – to convince Brigham Young to come to California instead of Salt Lake City.
While there, we took time to visit with my nephew Mark and his wife, Darlene. They’ve been residents of the area for many years, so we swapped dinner at our place for local knowledge. Right after we got there, we had to take time out when Allie had a bout of a recurrent problem. We were lucky, as is often the case, to find a vet who relieved it quickly.
Mark and Darlene’s primary recommendation was to visit Old Sac. We drove down to that earlier section and spent most of a day absorbing its culture and sidestepping its plethora of tourist retail. The buildings and atmosphere are enchanting. Along the riverfront is the railroad station and beyond it, a paddle wheeler. The train yard is active; several blocks from the station is a real working roundhouse turntable that, on that day, was u-turning the Spookamotive, a Hallowe’en attraction taking passengers — mostly young children — back and forth along the bank. We had a bite of lunch at an old saloon, where they served 25¢ glasses of Sarsaparilla.
In all, we visited 6 museums and historic locations, some in Old Sac and some elsewhere.
The historic Wells Fargo History Museum on Second Street is actually a working branch bank. A docent skilled in banking will help you and another skilled in history will inform you. Actual transactions, however, take place at its indoor ATM. This office in the ground floor corner of the restored B.F. Hastings merchant building — whose long-ago tenants included the California Supreme Court – is a memorial to the company’s original purposes. It includes a model of the famous stagecoach and the implements for processing prospector’s gold discoveries. There’s also a larger WF museum in town, with an original stagecoach.
The Sacramento History Museum was also in the Old Sac area. As you might expect, gold plays a major part in defining the city’s roots; the first exhibit one encounters involves nuggets beautifully presented in cases. They are embedded in quartz – the discovery of quartz was Marshall’s first clue that led him to the lode at the mill. Other industries are covered, too, with agriculture playing a key role. Suspended from the ceiling was a two-story reproduction of a conveyor system in a canning plant. Emphasis, too, was placed on the McClachey Family. The scion, James, founded the Sacramento Bee in 1857 (actually he took over a five-day old newspaper). His office is recreated. His children, C.K. and V.S., took over upon his death, and his great-grandson, James B., ended the dynasty upon his demise in 2006. The company survives, publishing 30 newspapers in 15 states, and it became a “dolphin swallowing a whale” when it purchased Knight-Ridder in 2006. P.S. Does anyone besides me remember TV sets with magnifiers in front of the tiny screen?
A very special exhibit was the May Hollister Woolsey Trunk. May was born in 1866 and died of encephalitis in 1879. Her parents’ grief was immeasurable; they sought spiritualists to try to reach her, and they sealed all of her belongings in a trunk under the staircase of their home. Discovered by a new owner one hundred years later, it contained over 600 mementos and provides a wonderful snapshot of late 18th century Sacramento.
We weren’t finished with Old Sac. The aforementioned turntable is connected to the roundhouse, which now, with expansion, contains the Sacramento Railroad Museum. Everything here is indoor and life size, spanning numerous eras. There is some scenic construction, but the real appeal is being able to touch and board these behemoths. The scenes included working on the railroad and the train entering a small town, both shown below. I was at first confused by and then fascinated by the cab-front oil-burning locomotive #4294. It originally had its cab in the stern but was rebuilt to provide better visibility and less fumes. It wasn’t the only such model – others were built this way from scratch.
Not far away was the California Auto Museum. Sorry, folks – it seems that trains, planes and automobiles are frequently the subjects of our exploration. But this place has some exceptional examples — old, middle aged and newer. Included below: the featured Porsche exhibit, a ski-car conversion, Mrs. Henry Ford’s personal Lincoln, and a collection from my era — including an Edsel! Enjoy or skip the pictures as you prefer.
A lot of the area’s history came together again for us at the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. We were fortunate to arrive just in time to witness the ceremonial firing of The Sutter Gun.
It’s a small cannon, four pounder on a carriage and has two carrying handles on the top. Its history is compelling. Cast in Russia in 1804, it was used during Napoleon’s siege of Moscow. It came to America via Alaska and was housed at Fort Ross, a Russian-occupied area of Sonoma County.
But did we see the real Sutter Gun?
John Sutter came to California in a very roundabout way. Born in 1803 on the German-Swiss border, he tired of his early involvement in the printing trade and dreamed of becoming an agriculture baron. And so he did. He left his family and sailed for America, where he settled in Missouri for a short time. Then he hitched up with a trapping party, bringing him to Hudson’s Bay headquarters in Vancouver. From there he sailed to Honolulu, where he cajoled a group of wealthy businessmen into backing a trip to California to set up shop. In April, 1839, he sailed to Monterey – by way of Alaska – and discussed with Governor Alvarado the possibility of establishing his agriculture business. Chartering three ships, he then sailed on to the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers, where he secured a land grant of over 40,000 acres by becoming a Mexican citizen. He built Fort Sutter and began farming, with the help of Hawaiian, Mexican and Native Americans working for him.
Oh yes, The Gun…
Sutter acquired The Gun when he bought Fort Ross from the Russians, and he brought it to Fort Sutter to defend the Fort. He added the carriage with giant wheels and constructed a limber — a wagon carrying all its accessories and amunition. Thus, it was a true artiliary field piece. At that time, the Mexican government sent a governor, Micheltorena, to California to collect taxes to finance their war against the U.S. over Texas. The governor’s band – a motley assortment of criminals released to fight — lay waste to much of the area, angering the Californios, the established Mexican and Spanish in the territory. They rose up, and Micheltorena sought help from Sutter, who was a captain in the Spanish army. Sutter reluctantly provided himself, his militia and The Gun. But the thugs ran off as soon as real ammunition came their way, the Californios obtained reinforcement, and the battle was lost. The Californios sent Micheltorena packing and spared Sutter because he was a local just doing his loyal duty. They sent him home and kept The Gun; in fact, they buried it in a secret place when they disbanded and went home.
Charles Weber, a German who was also a released POW of the conflict, knew where The Gun was buried. He led the American Army to it, and it was used in every California battle of the Mexican War. In one battle, desperately outnumbered, the Americans loaded the cannon with langridge, a collection of nails, pieces of chain and scraps of sharp iron. Using three crews, they fired at the rate of four times a minute, mowing down the oncoming cavalry and saving the day.
At the end of the war, they returned The Gun to Sutter with pomp and circumstance, and he used it primarily as a ceremonial piece. In early 1847, Fort Sutter played host to the survivors of the Donner Party, whose frightful fate in the High Sierra winter is a vivid subject of history. After the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, John went on the road to wrack and ruin. His workers deserted for the gold fields, the horde of prospectors overran his land and stole food from his fields, and partners with whom he attempted to serve the huge onrush badly cheated him. He eventually deeded his holdings to his son, John Jr. to save them from bankruptcy. Sutter Jr. subsequently co-founded Sacramento, as described above. Sutter Sr. moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania in 1871 and died in 1880.
And what of The Sutter Gun?
When John sold Fort Sutter, he moved The Gun to his plantation and saluted ships passing on the river. When he left California in 1865, he donated it to the Pioneer Historical Society of California. It was in a San Francisco museum when it was destroyed (perhaps melted) by the great earthquake of 1906.
However . . .
When Sutter dismantled Fort Ross to furnish Fort Sutter, the sister guns were sent back through Alaska to Russia. In the 1920’s, the Wells Fargo Company went to Russia and unearthed one of those sister guns. It’s now on display at Fort Ross. But it was also used as a mold to cast The Gun that we saw fired at Sutter’s fort.
I am indebted to Steve Beck of the Sutter’s Fort staff for providing this historical perspective.
Finally, we visited the California Museum. It was begun in 1998 as a unique partnership between The Golden State Museum, a nonprofit association, and the State of California. Designed to hold the state archives and function as an educational treasure trove, it developed permanent and cyclical exhibits that told its stories. In 1903, First Lady Maria Shriver took special interest in it and developed a section devoted specifically to the Legacy of California Women. She also established the California Hall of Fame, which inducted its first awardees in 2006. Approximately a dozen Californians are added each year; with diversity from Merle Haggard to Barbra Streisand, Magic Johnson to The Beach Boys, John Muir to Cesar Chavez, Jackie Robinson to Jonas Salk, Dave Brubeck to Jane Fonda, and Joan Kroc to Henry J. Kaiser. Other museum exhibits focus on politics, Native Americans, the Japanese-American internment, the discovery of oil, and Silicon Valley. When we were there, there was also a huge exhibit on skateboarding!
We would’ve done more with more time. But Yosemite was calling, and further delay increased the potential of a snow-out.