Going down, down, down
It turned out that the tour of Sacramento’s historic underground didn’t spend all that much time actually under the, you know, ground.
But we did see a whole bunch of evidence of our city’s founding fathers’ decision to raise the streets as a means of flood protection, often in the form of bricked-in basement windows and doors on what used to be the ground level; and a well-narrated tour of the unelevated alleys, which formed a sort of mini-levee and drain system for the 19th-century version of the city.
Then there are the ultracool hard hats necessary for the tour, and the not-so-ultracool earpieces and listening devices to hear the tour guide.
Michael Kearney, who came from Ireland with his brother to look for gold and found prospecting too much work, thus necessitating a change of career to store clerk, was our guide. He had his Irish accent down pat, and insisted we keep a lookout for his employer, “a great red-faced woman who will no doubt be carrying a cast-iron frying pan.” His introduction to the history of Sacramento included tales of price gouging, land stealing, abandoned ships in the river and gold seekers after easy money.
The tour started in the lobby of the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sac’s museum row. From there, we walked down Firehouse Alley, up the wooden sidewalk on J Street to Second, then down some stairs into a refurbished basement. Kearney was full o’ answers, but really didn’t think the extra basement space provided by raising the streets would have been used for vice or bootlegging.
“Most often it was storage or sleeping space for laborers,” he said.
Then it was next door to a more unfinished bit of basement, which included a few open archeological digs, as well as displays of items retrieved from what often became garbage dumps.
“Imagine what the basement of an oyster restaurant smelled like,” said Kearney.
Probably more fishy than the cross between a grave and a cave that provides the ambient scent in this particular bit o’ history. Then it was a dark and narrow trip along a wooden sidewalk underneath the wooden sidewalk on Second Street, directly below the path we’d taken just minutes before.
When we came out again on Firehouse Alley and headed back to the museum, we got a bit of Kearney’s Mark Twain imitation—and it was every bit as good as his Irish brogue. We passed a group of citizens rallying for a vote to raise the streets and build the levee up; its membership included a number of women, who of course did not yet have the right to vote.
Back at the museum, local actress Kelly Daniels—who has a history degree or two under that 19th-century sunbonnet—was preparing another tour group for their journey through time to Sacramento of 150 years past.
“And there’s gonna be a hangin’!” she said, breathless with excitement.
Hmm. Did some state employees get their hands on the governor again?