Best town that doesn’t exist


I poked the stuffed green frog skeptically with the toe of my boot. It was a big toy, the sort you’d win at the fair, before it was abandoned.

Other than the frog, dumped in the middle of the street with a pile of clothes and a radio alarm clock, and two small rabbits—real rabbits, not toys and a curious presence in such an industrial pocket of the city—I was the only visible inhabitant in what was once the lively town of Brighton.

I had come, by accident, on the day of the 152-year anniversary of the murder of Sacramento County Sheriff Joe McKinney, who had been shot to death in the street during the Squatters Riots that rocked the town in the summer of 1850. This could have been the very spot McKinney gave up the ghost, face down in the street like the discarded toy frog. But there are no historical markers in Brighton; in fact there are very few clues that the town of Brighton ever existed.

It’s strange. Doing a little reading I found that Brighton was once a thriving “sin city” that sprung up during the gold rush a few miles up river from Sacramento, a debauched outpost that featured a distillery and a winery, a grand hotel and a horse race track that doubled as a bear-baiting arena.

Without expecting any success, I had punched the name “Brighton, CA” into and, to my surprise, I got a hit—a big red star straddling the intersection of Brighton and Ramona avenues, in this ramshackle area dominated by junk yards and weed-covered lots, south of CSUS and north of the California Youth Authority detention center.

But despite Brighton’s location in cyberspace, the truth is the town doesn’t really exist. Not anymore. The big red star is just an afterimage, the kind of phosphorescence left by a bright light when we close our eyes.

There are a few more of these places scattered around Sacramento. You can get precise driving directions to Sutterville (now roughly Land Park) or Perkins (a former post office that’s now a bar on the Jackson Highway), even though neither place is really there anymore. Other places are even less tangible. Hoboken, CA, became the River Park neighborhood. Texas Hill and Prairie City gave their names to rural highways and then vanished.

But Brighton’s quasi-existence is, to me, the most mysterious. It went from a being a place to being not a place in an historic eye-blink. By 1949 the township of Brighton was a sprawling suburb of Sacramento that boasted 26,000 people. But in 1950 it was annexed by the city. Just ten years later, Brighton’s obituary appeared in a Sacramento Union story that called the town “a wide spot in the road” that could “hardly be called a community at all.”

In a few short years, nearly all traces of the community were erased. Not much in the area even bears the name of Brighton, and very few people have ever heard of it. There is one dingy white wooden building on Folsom Blvd. just east of the Union Pacific overpass and, according to old phone directories, as recently as 1999 there was a business in that building called Brighton Distributing. As far as I can tell, it’s the last place that ever bore the name of Brighton.

In ghost towns, the place remains, and the people disappear. In the lost towns of Sacramento, the places themselves go away, and hardly anyone remembers they were ever there.