It really did come from Sacramento

Illustration By Terry Allen

During a recent visit, a friend from Los Angeles was flabbergasted when I suggested a number of activities ranging from visiting a martini bar to getting tapas. “Wow,” she said. “I didn’t think you had stuff like that in Sacramento.” There’s a sad tendency among non-Sacramentans (and jaded Sacramentans, for that matter) to associate Sacramento’s geography with its modernity. They think this valley-bound city lies waiting for the tastes and sophistication of the coastal cities to seep inland.

But one needs only to poke through the historic monuments and buildings of Old Sacramento (sidestepping the saltwater taffy) or flip through a copy of the disjointed but exhaustive book Sacramento: Excursions into its history and natural world by William M. Holden to realize that in many ways, the California attitude actually materialized here and flowed outward.

Today’s Californians are characterized by tenacity, resourcefulness, innovation, insouciance and nonconformity—qualities Sacramentans exhibited from the outset.

Consider that just a year after it was built along the Sacramento River in 1849, the town was drenched in four feet of floodwater that swept away property, retail inventory and more livestock than a mad-cow-disease epidemic. Citizens built levees, and the river kept jumping them. A big flood in 1862 did the most damage (even submerging the nascent Sacramento Bee’s printing presses) and prompted drastic action. Residents could have abandoned the community and moved inland to higher ground, but they dug in and intended to stay. So, they spent 10 years and untold dollars to raise the streets and buildings by 12 feet. They dredged sand and gravel from the river and heaped it onto the streets, creating a lopsided thoroughfare about which Mark Twain quipped, “What people there needed was a chance for uphill and downhill exercise, and now they have got it.” They innovatively raised buildings with jackscrews, an exercise not unlike hefting your house up on your car jack and leaving it there.

Modern Californians are no different. We tolerate abuses both natural and political to remain modern Californians. We stay despite high gas and real-estate prices, mudslides, wildfires, eyelid-searing heat, smog, overcrowding, dwindling resources and budget deficits. The flood of political patronage and deregulation keeps rising, but we like it here, so we stay put.

Another central Californian trait conceivably conceived in Sacramento is entrepreneurial spirit. The tech boom and bust created a legacy of instant millionaires, faulty business plans and misspent venture capital, but early Sacramento businessmen could be considered architects of the IPO, or initial public offering.

While the Gold Rush attracted thousands of prospectors from around the world, only a few savvy businessmen actually made their promised fortunes: guys like Sam Brannan, who probably never set foot in a mine but made a fortune selling merchandise to those who did, and hardware merchants (and railroad barons to be) Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins, who at one point during the Gold Rush bought all available shovels for $2.50 each and sold them to prospectors for 50 times as much. Like the dot-coms, not all early Sacramento business ventures succeeded. Investors sank $100,000 into the Pony Express (which started or ended here, depending on whether you were sending or receiving mail) only to see the telegraph eclipse their enterprise 18 months later.

You could say that two of Sacramento’s most successful business endeavors spawned California’s transportation-dependent society and heralded our overtaxed transportation infrastructure. James Birch started California’s first stagecoach line here in 1849 and eventually piloted a fleet of 1,100 horses and 200 wagons that crisscrossed the entire state on a primitive dirt highway system. The Central Pacific Railroad originated here and linked with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, giving settlers a feasible and affordable route west.

The mood of activism and cause-fighting that is more often linked to Berkeley and San Francisco has gripped Sacramento, too. While women were burning their bras and demanding equal pay and equal rights in the 1960s, two Sacramento men formed “Divorce Racket Busters” seeking better protection for men’s rights in divorce proceedings. In 1980, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) with several other women after a drunken driver killed her 13-year-old daughter. Most recently, Michael Newdow sparked a nationwide debate when he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to strike the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

So, why the history lesson? Partially to show that, in the scheme of California history, Sacramento is more important than many of its larger in-state counterparts, and partially to defend our oft-maligned city. But mostly, to prepare you for a time when someone from Los Angeles or San Francisco asks you what Sacramento has contributed to California’s culture. Now you can raise your martini glass, skewer your patata brava, smile and say with confidence, “Just about everything.”