Adult field trip
Underground After Hours fills in the gaps from your childhood Old Sacramento tour
Together we could see the ghosts of Sacramento City.
Along with a group of about 20 tourists who had come as far as Salt Lake City, I stood wearing a dorky headset on a sloping field where the raised ground of Old Sacramento met the floor level of the Gold Rush. Our tour guide, a character called “Miss Odessa,” addressed us through a small microphone atop her lacy dress that looked like a tiered layer cake.
In a mock Southern accent, the enthusiastic actress (real name, Jane Hastings) shared adult storytime. This wasn’t your fourth grade field trip to Sacramento, after all. This was the Underground After Hours Tour, meant for students of history only 21 and older. Since 2013, this mature field trip has regularly sold out a month in advance, according to tour manager Shawn Turner.
I imagined there’d be burlesque dancers lurking around corners and pints overflowing with moonshine. The adult component here turned out to be quite different.
Instead, we watched as the townsfolk came into imaginary relief with their seedy businesses and romantic affairs. Overlooking the field, Miss Odessa shared with us the true tragedy of Samuel L. Garrett, who fell in love with Harriet L. Brickell against her father Amiel’s wishes.
“After they eloped, Amiel tells everyone in town Harriet’s run off with a thieving sonuvabitch,” Miss Odessa explained. So, as one does, Garrett shot Amiel. After it was announced Garrett was to be hung for his crime, Harriet ran around Old Town wailing about killing herself, Miss Odessa said.
“She gets herself a little cake of opium because that’s gonna help a girl.”
The police dissuaded her from her personal mission, but Garrett did hang in front of Sutter’s Fort in 1856. He was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery—across from today’s Target, Miss Odessa said—along with others whose graves were paved over to make Broadway.
At this, my husband whispered, “That’s why Thai Farmhouse tastes so good.”
The tour group inspected the same underground, hollow sidewalks where elementary field trips also learn about the improbable mission to raise the city to save it from flooding. In addition to these facts, we were also treated to nonalcoholic sarsaparilla shots and gambling games of shuffle box and monte.
Toward the end, our group entered an archaeological dig site that was once a place of business for “professional ladies,” as Odessa called them. Here’s where we learned the true reason why the tour was only for adults. These were the sites of sex trafficking of young girls from China and elsewhere, who were promised all the riches of America but swindled into prostitution. After five or six years, they were given the choice to commit suicide or retire.
If the women chose not to kill themselves, they were placed in a holding cell and given a bowl of rice and a candle, Odessa said.
“A week later a doctor of much less character would go down there and take a look at the patient, and if they had not retired, he would make it so.”
At this, I felt dizzy. My husband, who was raised in California public schools and took the requisite Sacramento field trips, had never heard this or many other details on the tour.
We were finally given a voucher for whiskey or sarsaparilla at the end of our journey, which had been funny more so than harrowing on the whole. But after that ending, I couldn’t wait to steady my legs with a stiff, nonalcoholic soda.
As I stared into that glorified root beer, I thought about how too often, we accept the polished version of history that we received from our textbooks and outings and assume that’s enough. The Underground After Hours Tour was a reminder that adults should have their own field trips, too.