Freight of history
This past Saturday morning, the Sacramento Old City Association led a tour of R Street’s rail corridor that focused squarely on the preservation of the area’s remaining historical touchstones.
About 30 people gathered for the tour—history buffs, amateur and professional preservationists, and some longtime Sacramentans who wanted to revisit a portion of their own past.
The morning began with a slide presentation covering the rail history of R Street in detail. Using historic photographs and map overlays, the lecture moved linearly from Front Street east to 19th Street, and showed how the complex rail operations along this narrow corridor moved everything from lumber and produce to canned goods and automobiles in and out of Sacramento.
A walking tour then pointed out the significance of various sites along R and Q streets. For example, the light-rail line running between those streets was also once a freight rail line, and the alley actually had a name: Whitney Avenue. And, for nearly a century, the parking lot opposite the Fox & Goose was a stoneyard. Granite from Folsom was offloaded there and used to construct, among other things, the Capitol.
The day’s highlight, though, was a tour of the defunct Crystal Ice facility at 16th and R. Even though much of the extra insulation already had been removed, the windowless interior remained remarkably cool. Work lights were strung throughout the building, efficiently illuminating the rooms but leaving them dark enough that one could imagine himself on an archeological dig, like an urban Indiana Jones.
As the tour wound slowly through the enormous facility, discussion focused on the need to find balance between economic necessity and historic preservation. Remnants of the site’s human connection—such as a clipboard still hanging on a wall—offered proof that history is far more tangible than we often realize.
This R Street relic closed down in 1978, but that’s not to say that the hulking green building has stood completely unused. For years, its loading platform has been a popular set for music videos, fashion shoots and amateur films, and has served as a makeshift homeless shelter. The platform’s excellent acoustics—it faces an open field with the old Orchard Supply building on one end and a massive parking garage on the other—also have encouraged its use as a stage for drunken rants.
Today, the building, and its neighbors a block up, are in the early stages of redevelopment. The two half-blocks will be transformed into mixed-use facilities, incorporating the historic portions of the structures into retail, office and living space. The plan was developed with the spirit of R Street’s history in mind: commercial and residential interests co-existing along this once-bustling rail artery.