The past below
The forgotten city beneath modern Sacramento, known as “the underground,” is shrouded in mystery and rife with urban myths. But this is true: It has historical significance and should be preserved.
The first thing you see—all you can see—when you first descend the steep, dimly lit wooden staircase to the basement of 710 K Street, is records. Tons of vinyl, truckloads of LPs, 45s and 78s are spilling over their racks, shifting about in loose stacks. From Harry Belafonte to the Bad Seeds, it seems like the entire history of recorded sound might be entombed down here in the chaotic, block-long catacomb. The place is simply, appropriately, named Records.Music is only one kind of history you can find here. The basement itself is a puzzle of rooms and alcoves and little hallways that go nowhere, and it dates back almost to the city’s founding before the Civil War.
Record-shop worker Sabrina Mathis believes, based on her own research, that this basement was once the lobby of an old hotel. If that is the case, some of the guests may have forgotten to check out. If you believe the folks who work here, and the customers who wander down into the basement to peruse the eclectic racks, the place is full of ghosts.
Mathis pokes her head and a flashlight into a short hallway that leads to the unused bathroom in one corner. The sink fixtures, the tile, the doors and the stalls aren’t as old as the building itself, but they easily could be 60 years old or more. It looks like no living person has stepped foot in here for years.
Mathis is in her late 20s, and above ground, she comes across as friendly and self-confident, with an easy smile. But down in the dusty corner of the dark basement, her face goes slack. She breathes in deeply with a shudder, her skinny shoulders hunched up almost to her ears, before settling herself. “OK, OK,” she whispers. “I have a really hard time with this spot,” she explains. Every time she comes into this part, which she tries not to do, something sends chills down her spine. “It’s as if someone is standing behind me, breathing right down my neck,” she says.
Based on a handful of stories, and a preliminary report from a local ghost-hunting team, the presence is that of a young man in his late teens or early 20s who may have been murdered at this very spot.
Mathis has never really seen the young man, or any ghost, though she says she can feel them powerfully. Records customer Kevin Aitken, however, says he has actually seen the young man, in a red leather jacket, walk right past him and through a brick wall.
The young man is only one of four, maybe five, ghosts that have been reported down here. And though there’s no proof that the store is inhabited by shades and spooks, its legend has grown.
The most famous of Records’ spirits is Gertie, who made it into Dennis William Hauck’s Haunted Places: The National Directory: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings, and Other Supernatural Locations, a sort of national travel guide for ghost hunters.
Here is the entry on the subject of 710 K Street, which hints at the historical significance of Sacramento’s downtown underground:
“This used record store is haunted by the ghost of a very old woman dressed in a black Victorian dress with a white ruffled collar. In 1993, she appeared to a customer and told him to get out of the store because he was making too much noise. The owners have named the ghost Gertrude. She shows up only in the basement sales area, which was once at street level. In 1998, the ghost of a young man in his 20s started being sighted in the basement. In the 1860s, the entire downtown section of Sacramento was raised one story to protect from flooding.”
Hauck doesn’t mention the little girl under the sidewalk.
Mathis explains that in January, a Carmichael-based ghost-hunting group called American Paranormal Investigators spent hours combing over this space with electromagnetic field detectors, temperature gauges, video cameras and the investigators’ own suite of psychic abilities, trying to learn more about the haunted basement.
Near a doorway on the north end of the basement, investigators claimed they discovered the ghost of a little girl. The area where the incident occurred used to be on the outside of the building, before the streets were raised and the storefront and the sidewalk outside were sealed off with bricks.
As one of the ghost hunters passed through this doorway, the woman said she felt a hand grabbing hers. Then, the investigator became frozen in place, paralyzed by some force that wouldn’t let go. Mathis says the woman then started crying uncontrollably and said she was seeing an image of a young girl, lost and extremely frightened.
“They said the girl’s name is Samantha, and she’s afraid of the dark,” Mathis explains.
The mystery of the haunted basement fits somewhere in the vast constellation of stories—some documented, some pure fantasy and the majority somewhere in between—about Sacramento’s “underground city.” There is indeed a presence people feel here, as there is throughout much of the moldering and largely forgotten city beneath the streets. Whether it’s really poltergeists or just the power of old places, there is something about the underground that stokes the imagination.
Many Sacramento residents have some anecdote or impression about this hidden place, but very few people claim to have ever set foot inside or thoroughly explored it.
The stories often refer to the “tunnels.” More romantically, they are called the “Chinese tunnels” or the “catacombs.” The folks who spend the most time investigating this subterranean world, the city Department of Public Works, call one aspect simply “hollow sidewalks.” More often than not, these areas are referred to in a larger sense as the “underground.” They are the setting for all sorts of urban myths—about runaway kids, Chinese gangs smuggling contraband, and, of course, ghosts.
But unlike the historical underground sections of other cities, which have been rediscovered, excavated and put on display for tourists and history buffs, Sacramento’s has been largely ignored and neglected. As the city above ground grows upward and outward, the new office towers and shopping malls are squeezing out the underground city and, with it, a cache of history and architecture that will never be replaced.
Perhaps one day, all that will be left are a handful of stories.
How the underground came to be is fairly well-understood. In the 1860s and ’70s, city leaders were desperate for some way to battle the winter floodwaters of the Sacramento and American rivers.
Major floods in 1850 and 1852 left the city deep in water and muck. Business ground to a halt for months on end. And though only a handful of lives were lost in the floods themselves, the waterlogged streets may have caused a major cholera outbreak that killed hundreds. By the time downtown flooded again in 1861, some folks were saying it was time to write Sacramento off as a failed experiment.
“Everybody was starting to agree that Sacramento was really a stupid place to put the Capitol,” said historian Barbara Lagomarsino. Sacramento had been the capital city since 1854, but in the 1860s, there were calls to make San Francisco the seat of state government. It also was proposed that the population move to some higher, drier place, such as Sutterville, the area that now surrounds the zoo in Land Park.
These may have seemed like sensible enough solutions, but city leaders weren’t willing to abandon Sacramento to the floodwaters. Instead, they would raise the streets and buildings 10 to 12 feet. “It was self-defense, really,” noted Lagomarsino, whose 1969 thesis on the raising of Sacramento’s city streets is the one of the few comprehensive writings—perhaps the only one—on the subject. “If Sacramento wanted to stay here and keep the Capitol, downtown had to be raised.”
It was an ambitious undertaking, which took 13 years to complete. The project area was roughly bordered by H and L streets to the north and south, and extended from the river on Front Street to about 12th Street.
To raise the level of the streets, the city built 10-foot-high brick walls on either side of the existing roads and then filled the space in between the bulkheads with dirt. This, of course, created a space between the existing buildings and the new, higher street. Front windows now looked out onto brick walls. And the front doors were now 10 feet or more below street level.
At their own expense, those merchants who could afford to either raised their buildings with jackscrews and filled in below or simply built new stories on top of their old buildings. All over the city, the original ground floor became the basement, the second floor became the first, and so on.
With all of the construction, the period between 1864 and 1877 was a chaotic time.
Horse-drawn wagons hauling dirt to fill in the streets often became stranded trying to reach the higher grade. Also, the city decided it was only obligated to raise the streets. The sidewalks were left to the business owners to figure out. Business owners could pay to construct new sidewalks, at the new street level, if they chose to. But not all did, so just walking around downtown could be risky business. It wasn’t unusual to find that the sidewalk you were strolling along suddenly ended in a 10-foot drop at the next address. “You could easily fall off and get badly hurt or killed, especially if you had been drinking a little bit,” Lagomarsino said.
But block by block, the new sidewalks were finally constructed, covering the open gap between the street and the storefront.
Rather than simply filling in the space where the old sidewalk used to be, businesses found uses for the new spaces. This also created a network of tunnels under the new sidewalks.
And it’s in these tunnels where the line between history and fantasy begins to blur.
One popular version is that the tunnels became covered walkways that pedestrians used to get from business to business. In this account, the underground sidewalks became a bustling underground business district, sheltering shoppers from the harsh sun or freezing rain. That’s probably a myth, said Sacramento City Historian Jim Henley. He thinks businesses quickly walled off their little sections of underground sidewalk and used the space for storage. Leaving the tunnels intact for long stretches, he said, would be an invitation for robbery and other nefarious activity.
And yet, there are plenty of stories from that era claiming that the catacombs became a hidden sin city, a shadowy place of gambling and prostitution. The tunnels themselves are also supposed to have been favorite escape routes and hiding places for all kinds of outlaws.
Sacramento’s Chinese community figures in to a lot of the underground stories, such as the notion that tunnels were turned into opium dens in some places, though Henley suspects these may have been nothing more than an unfortunate ethnic stereotype. But Henley himself said he once took down the oral history of an uncle who claimed to have visited a Chinese herbalist “under the sidewalk.”
Sam Ong, who came to Sacramento’s Chinatown section in the 1950s, said he heard all kinds of stories about the tunnels being used to smuggle goods, and people, in and out of the city.
“In the old days, there were supposed to be these tunnels that went all the way out to the river, that people used for smuggling things,” said Ong, who today is president of the Sacramento chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans. Ong doesn’t know if any of the stories are true, but he noted that the Chinese Exclusion Act and other anti-immigrant laws severely restricted Chinese labor and commerce. “They probably had to come up with some very ingenious ways to get around the law,” and a network of underground tunnels and hiding places might have been very handy indeed, he said.
The mythology of immigrants huddled under the streets took a macabre turn in the late 1960s, when a business owner claimed to have found a human skeleton in one of the tunnels. As Henley remembers it, the man insisted that it was the remains of a Chinese slave who had been smuggled through a tunnel in the Sacramento River levee.
The claim was clearly preposterous on its face, Henley recalls, because there couldn’t be a hole in the levee without catastrophic consequences. Besides, Henley noticed the bones had numbers marked on them. It didn’t take long to determine that the skeleton actually had been smuggled out of a classroom at the University of California, Davis.
Of course, the tunnels have continued to generate legends up to this day, some as seemingly apocryphal as the opium dens and slave-smuggling tunnels. One popular notion is that a vast army of homeless people are milling about under the streets at night. That’s not true, though there are some sections of the old tunnel that are still used by homeless people to sleep through the night.
Kirk Patten, manager of Bean Heads café on J Street, said that as a teen, he entered the mouth of one of the underground tunnels near Old Sacramento with a “crazy drunk Indian guy” who told Patten and his friend that he was on his way to a “big powwow” that was held every year underground. “We decided to bail,” Patten said, recalling his doubts about the likelihood of such a gathering. “We started thinking maybe he was going to kill us or something.”
Bean Heads regular Linda Patterson said she visited the tunnels several times in the early 1970s, when she was a teenager. “All kinds of kids hung out down there,” Patterson recalled.
She said they got access to the underground in the area that is now Downtown Plaza, which, at that time, was covered by several blocks of aging commercial property.
Though historians think the tunnels became fragmented and were cut off fairly soon after their creation, Patterson said the passages she saw were well-connected and extensive, sprawling as far as 10 blocks from downtown to Old Sacramento.
“There were all kinds of little side tunnels. It just went on and on,” Patterson recalled.
And it was the location of an underground culture, literally.
“It was mostly runaway kids and some kids like me, just hanging out, partying,” she said. “I remember everybody would kind of share everything with everybody else because a lot of the kids didn’t have anything. The last time I went down there, I think I took a pizza.”
As a teen, Patterson never thought there was anything scary about the tunnels. “I wouldn’t go down there today, though,” she said, noting as adults often do that “kids aren’t like they used to be.”
She couldn’t go back if she wanted to; the tunnels Patterson remembers from her adolescence probably aren’t there today. If there were long passageways there, they were wiped out when the mall was built.
Henley said that since the late 1970s, redevelopment—starting in Old Sacramento and continuing with the construction of Downtown Plaza and the refurbishing of the K Street Mall—has nicked away at the underground, leaving just a small portion of what was there originally.
“It was out with the old and in with the new,” he said. “That was the thinking at the time.” In some places, the old brick walls underground were lined with concrete. In others, brand-new building foundations filled in the historic space.
Henley said it was only later that people really began to ponder the ways redevelopment homogenized cities and scrubbed them clean of their historical character. Chalk up the loss of Sacramento’s underground, and a lot else besides, to what Henley called the “great tragedy of redevelopment.” All across the nation, cities were “destroying what was unique and replacing it with something that could be found anywhere.”
Still, it hasn’t all been scrubbed out, and there may be some opportunity to preserve a little of what is left of Sacramento’s historic underground. And with persistence and a little luck, and a map, it is possible to see some of the old tunnels firsthand.
The city of Sacramento’s Department of Public Works has such a map (see page 20) because the department must inspect under the sidewalks every year to make sure they don’t cave in. What the map shows is only the “hollow sidewalks,” a fragmented network, pockets here and there of tunnel, never more than a block long, and mostly inaccessible from the street.
For the most part, you need permission from the businesses on ground level to go poking around. Patten at Bean Heads happily gave SN&R a quick tour of his business’s basement and a small section of remaining tunnel. What is there is probably typical of what is left of the underground. Like the space at Records, it is essentially a rectangular room bounded on three sides by walls of ancient-looking and crooked brick. On the street side, the walls are held up by brick buttresses that stick out at the bottom and then narrow as they climb toward the top of the wall. Like most businesses with some patch of the underground intact, the space is mostly used for storage and not much else.
On the same block is Arbor Press, a print shop that has access to a fairly long stretch of tunnel that begins on J Street and turns the corner into a long corridor that runs along 11th Street. Metal posts are placed between the ceiling and floor, to support the sidewalk above, where passersby unsuspectingly walk over the tunnel. Arbor Press employee Diane Self said the city just shored up this section a few weeks ago.
The space there is mostly clean and seldom used for anything at all. On the south end of the tunnel lives a colony of bats, which mostly discourage the building tenants from exploring too far but which also add to the spookiness of the place. “I don’t go in there,” one Arbor Press employee warned. “There’s vampires in there.”
Years ago, historian and preservationist Paula Boghosian would spend hours exploring underneath the city sidewalks, and she developed a passion for preserving what’s left of the underground.
She recently became the city’s interim preservation director, and though she is busy settling in to her new job, she agreed to spend a few hours with a reporter and photographer, to return to the underground and see what was left.
Though it is not always easy to get access to the tunnels, Boghosian sweet-talked Jatinder Matharu (“you can call me Bob”) into letting her and SN&R into the basement of his India Restaurant at J and Seventh streets. Bob was reluctant to give a tour so close to the lunch rush, but he eventually shrugged, grabbing a flashlight and leading the party through the cavernous basement. His kindness soon turned out to be a blessing for the explorers because the space provided a clear glimpse into the past.
There was the old brick cistern resting on the floor—what would have been the old sidewalk. Boghosian said the reservoir was probably the 19th-century equivalent of a fire hydrant, used by firemen traveling in horse-drawn pump engines.
All along the wall were the familiar brick buttresses and, in some places on the ceiling, old cargo-chute doors that would have been used by the merchants at the time to restock.
Perhaps the most striking feature was the point where the corridor turns left from J Street onto Eighth. There, the light streamed in from a skylight in the sidewalk above. Rows of tinted glass balls were embedded in the 1890s to illuminate the tunnels below. (If you see these purple lenses while strolling downtown, they are a sure sign that the space below the sidewalk is hollow.)
The skylight illuminated a brick wall with two arched windows and a wide arched doorway, the original exterior of the building as it would have looked from the street.
This part is directly beneath the Subway restaurant on J and 8th streets, with its garish fluorescent yellow facade. But down there, so much of the original storefront is visible that it’s easy to imagine standing on the corner 130 years ago.
“This is a good one,” Boghosian said with a smile. “It’s like visiting Troy or something. In 1869, people stood right here in the open air for the last time. You can really see what it looked like.”
In some rare instances, people have tried to preserve what is left of the underground when they’ve come across it. For example, a stretch of underground sidewalk is incorporated into the dining room at the West End Bar and Grill in Old Sacramento.
Boghosian later found herself standing in an old section of tunnel that had been converted into a locker room for the guides employed by Sacramento’s Downtown Partnership, an association of downtown businesses.
The locker room was an attempt to integrate historical structure into a new use. And Boghosian says it’s a good effort, up to a point. The old brick bulkhead is there, and the buttresses are plainly visible. She walked up to one of the buttresses and blew on it. The brick was so decrepit that it turned to dust where her breath hit it.
But as an attempt at historical preservation, the presentation is a little jarring. The locker-room space is so bright and clean. The ceiling has been redone and hung with fluorescent lights. There’s carpet on the floor. On a scale of 1 to 10, Boghosian gives it a 5.
Other cities have made considerable efforts to preserve and exploit their underground spaces. Atlanta is one, and, ironically, there is an indirect connection between the undergrounds of that city and Sacramento.
During a brief hiatus in his military career, William Tecumseh Sherman stopped in Sacramento hoping to make a few bucks off of the Gold Rush. He ran a store in Coloma for a while and then was hired by John Sutter Jr. to design Sacramento’s downtown grid. Sherman’s layout was buried less than 20 years later, when the streets were raised.
Later, of course, he tore through Atlanta, cannonballing and burning the city beyond recognition. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the new city was built over the old, creating an underground that was largely forgotten for years. But after several cycles of redevelopment, decay and more redevelopment, Underground Atlanta became a bustling, if heavily commercialized, historic district and tourist attraction.
A closer example is Seattle, which also raised its streets in the late 1860s. There, through the efforts of historians and entrepreneurs, several corridors and storefronts were preserved and made accessible to the public on guided tours.
Boghosian has, from time to time, made efforts to save little stretches of the underground that have some special historic value or significance. She hasn’t gotten far.
In 1981, at the request of the city planning department, Boghosian did a survey of all the commercial buildings downtown, in terms of their historical significance. Along with descriptions of building facades, the alleys and the rail yards, she urged the city to protect something of the underground, especially the old sidewalk spaces.
In her report, she suggests the creation of a subterranean historic district. She writes, “This resource [is] … so unique and so potentially informative, that the formation of a district encompassing this area has been recommended. The surviving existence of the old storefronts from this early date beneath the sidewalks constitutes a unique historic and archeological resource and a potential source of information regarding the architecture, culture and construction techniques of the early city.”
Today, Boghosian’s not sure if city planners ever read the report. “They never did anything with it,” she lamented.
In some instances, she took an interest in specific places she thought ought to be preserved. In the basement of the block where the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria and the U.S. Bank Plaza now sit, Boghosian found what she calls a lovely, well-preserved storefront. She prepared a section of the Environmental Impact Review for the project, stressing what a find it was and suggesting that it somehow be preserved. But that never happened. The project went ahead, and that entire block is now, in Boghosian’s words, “sterile,” at least as far as the underground is concerned.
Perhaps the last best stretch of underground that might have been preserved is the area right around the old Comstock Building, just south of the Central Library. (Boghosian refuses to call it the Comstock Building, arguing that it was actually built by a man named Coolot and “never had anything to do with anybody or anything named Comstock.”)
The Coolot building sat in the middle of an otherwise vacant lot that covers the entire square block between J, K, 8th and 9th streets. Where the neighboring buildings on this block were knocked down in the early 1990s, the underground sidewalk was exposed to the open air for the first time in more than a century.
The passageways, which line three sides of the block, became a favorite spot for the homeless, who set up makeshift shelters inside, despite the chain-link fence that surrounds the lot. Discarded beer cans, musty blankets and old clothes litter the floor throughout the tunnel.
Aside from the clutter, the structural integrity of the space was a little suspect, as well. All throughout the tunnels, the ceiling was cantilevered by thick wooden beams, to prevent the sidewalk from collapsing.
But even with all of the decay, there was much to evoke the 1860s. The original front of the Coolot building was visible from inside the tunnel. Century-old steel cargo doors, now welded shut, let in a little light.
Most important to historians like Boghosian was the original barrel-vaulted ceiling, the shallow arches that were originally built to help keep the sidewalks up. These barrel vaults are a very rare find in what remains of the original underground.
Here again, Boghosian had urged the city to keep the historic sidewalk intact somehow. She nearly got her wish.
Local developer Dean Ingemanson, working with Boghosian and city staff, came up with a plan that preserved the original facade of the Coolot building, which was deemed a historical resource because of the decorative tiles in place that date back to the 1920s. The plan also called for preservation of 40 feet of the underground sidewalk area, which would be restored to look as much as possible as it did in the 1860s.
The lot was part of a plan by Ingemanson, who drew up plans to preserve part of the old sidewalk and provide some kind of public access to it. The preservation plan would have cost Ingemanson $1.3 million.
But the deal fell apart—a long and complicated story of its own. The city later awarded a much smaller project to the Los Angeles-based CIM Group, and much of the preservation plan fell by the wayside. (Ingemanson, meanwhile, has filed three lawsuits against the city and the CIM Group, claiming that both parties acted in bad faith.)
Hopes for preserving some of the historic underground here grew even dimmer when, just days after SN&R visited the site, the Coolot building caught fire. Media reports immediately speculated that the homeless were to blame for the fire, but as of press time, the cause of the blaze was still under investigation.
Within hours of extinguishing the flames, the city declared the Coolot building a safety hazard and leveled it.
Much of the tile from the building facade was destroyed, and the building collapsed into part of the existing tunnel, smashing much of the brickwork that might have been saved.
After the fire and the destruction of the Coolot building, Boghosian confessed that she was a little depressed about the sudden turn of events.
“There’s not a lot left that has much integrity,” Boghosian said of the prospects for preservation. “[The building’s destruction] took a lot of the last, best pieces with it and a lot of the connection with the original building. It’s all a shambles now.”
Boghosian can’t help but think that when the Ingemanson deal went south, so did a golden opportunity to save some of Sacramento’s history.
“If we could have adhered to the original plan, we would have been a lot better off,” she said. Not just the latest setback of the fire, but also decades of a “lack of imagination” on the part of city leaders have allowed the city to lose its underground and a major part of its character.
Boghosian has been blowing the horn for many years now. “I think the city really did miss an opportunity. If anybody could have grabbed on to this when we had more of it, we really could have had something. We could have had an incredible underground.” She added, “I only wish we had kept more of it.”