Stories of 19th century tunnels under Merced have persisted for a long time. Our town is not unique in this way; similar stories are told about many other western towns.
Although the stories are often vague and anecdotal, the fact that they are common to so many locations suggests they have a basis in reality. Their association with Chinatown districts in towns such as Merced and Fresno is not surprising given the discrimination and abuse that Chinese immigrants faced.
Victorian social disapproval of vices like gambling and prostitution and the enactment of Prohibition in 1919 provided additional reasons for subterranean tunnels and connecting basements.
In the Gold Rush towns of the Mother Lode, mining tunnels crisscross the bedrock beneath towns including Sonora and Grass Valley. In low-lying areas such as Seattle and Sacramento, efforts to raise the streets above flood level resulted in a new underground level of cities composed of former ground-floor rooms and newly-created basements.
Old Sacramento’s Underground Tours provide the closest access to the underground side of the 9th century. Located along the banks of the American River, the original part of the city (now Old Sacramento State Historic Park), was devastated by the “Biblical” flood of 1861-62. This flood turned our Central Valley into a vast inland lake, left the state capital underwater for weeks, bankrupted the state government, and destroyed a quarter of the state’s taxable property.
This disaster also caused the level of streets in the capital to be raised, and many of its brick buildings were likewise painstakingly lifted to the new level. On the underground tour, you get to explore underneath several of them and learn a lot about the area’s fascinating past.
This year’s tour season begins Saturday. Tours are offered by the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation and the tour guides do an excellent job of revealing the capital’s forgotten history. On the tour that I participated in last year, our guide Dennis led us around the basements and subterranean areas of the capital in the character of a ’49er prospector who ended up settling in Sacramento. His performance was interesting, entertaining and informative.
Although this is an “underground” tour, expect to spend quite a bit of time in sunlight. In between ventures into the excavated areas beneath the city’s historic buildings, you’ll also learn quite a bit about what you can see above ground.
Although I was aware that our state had experienced a cataclysmic flood in 1861-62, I knew very little about it before this tour. It piqued my interest and inspired me to learn more about a disaster that may someday be repeated.
For more information and to make tour reservations, go to www.historicoldsac.org or call (916) 808-7059. Tours start at the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento. They last about an hour and are offered through December. Due to summertime heat, they are most enjoyable in the cooler months – an ideal April or May trip.
When you’re done, there’s plenty more to see in Old Sacramento and lots of places to enjoy a meal. For more information go to http://oldsacramento.com. Discounted admission to the Sacramento History Museum is only $3 after participating in an Underground Tour. The California State Railroad Museum ( www.csrmf.org, (916) 323-9280) is adjacent to the historic structures. In addition to seeing restored railroad rolling stock and learning about railroad history, you can also ride historic passenger cars along river levees.
The nearby Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=489, (916) 324-0575) opened in 2005. It has a direct connection to the Old Sacramento Underground Tours because Gov. Leland Stanford had to attend his inauguration by rowboat due to the 1862 flood. Eventually he had his mansion raised and enlarged to tower above any possible future flood waters. The mansion has restored to its 1871-72 appearance and is open for tours daily (excluding major holidays and special events).
Other interesting California history themed destinations in Sacramento include:Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485