Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sacramento's historic streetcars moved

I got word a month or two ago that a group of Sacramento streetcars owned by Dain Domich, president of "Friends of Light Rail & Transit," were being moved to a new location. I eagerly fired off an email asking for permission to photograph the streetcars in transit, but then was unable to attend due to that whole "having to work at a job" thing. Fortunately, I was more recently steered towards the FLRT Web site, which included the above photos of the streetcars in transit and at their new home.

The plans for what to do with the cars are kind of vague, and I have heard various stories. Personally I'm still hoping that a way can be found to restore them, either for regular use or occasional special-occasion use. Of the four pictured here the most practical first choice is the big yellow "Christmas car," a metal-bodied car that is probably the easiest to restore (it is metal rather than wood, has more safety features, etc) to operating condition. The second choice might be the old "Elverta Scoot," a car that started out as a Los Angeles style streetcar but was rebuilt into an enclosed car, intended for multiple-unit runs to Rio Linda and Elverta, mostly used as a school train. That has a reinforced metal frame and composite exterior, although its wooden components have probably faced some deterioration.

Obviously, to run them we need a streetcar system. Streetcars can be run on our current light rail system with no physical modifications at all (RT occasionally runs their one restored streetcar, PG&E 35, on Light Rail tracks) although a regular streetcar would require some signal and schedule adjustments. The other plan, to build a Sacramento/West Sac streetcar line, using the K Street portion of the RT line, is kind of in limbo right now. In my own perfect world, a line running a combination of modern streetcars (low-floor for universal access, with air conditioning etc.) and historic streetcars (using the SF Market Street Railway as a model) would be ideal, providing universal access on the modern cars and tourist appeal (plus practical utility) on the historic cars.

At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, members were appointed for a streetcar commission that will explore routes, funding mechanisms and concepts for a new Sacramento streetcar line. Once meetings start I plan on attending, and passing along a few suggestions--including inspiration from our local past, and other cities' examples.

More information, including some interesting draft documents, can be found here:

Friends of Light Rail Historic Streetcar page

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Precision and praise

Now, I already have a reputation among the Sactosphere as a nit-picking know-it-all, even pointing out spelling errors in other bloggers' blog posts. I will now expand this criticism to the editorial page of the Sacramento Bee, but at least it's not just a grammar flame.

Being a historian means paying attention to details, and focusing on accuracy, sometimes well beyond the point of politeness. These are natural tendencies for me, and my profession has only escalated these tendencies, to the point where it's no wonder that I don't get invited to more parties. On to the nitpicking.

This Sunday, the Bee featured a lovely booster-ish editorial about the under-appreciated wonders of Sacramento, entitled "A 'sacred' city" by Elaine Gale. Now, I am always happy to see people singing Sacramento's praises, but this bit kind of got my goat:

Trains: Our metronome, our link

The next perhaps not-so-obvious sacrament is the trains.

They may seem antiquated, irrelevant, or as if they belong in a past century, but the matrix of train tracks that crisscrosses this city seems to be extremely sacramental.

When we first moved here, we lived on B Street in a house literally in front of the train tracks. In the beginning, when a train screeched to a stop or came barreling down the tracks, we were a bit rattled. After a month or two, we barely noticed the sound.

The rattle and clang of the big locomotives, the piercing train whistle and clackety-clack have become a predictable percussion of life.

I am a sixth-generation Nebraskan and grew up in North Platte,home of the world's largest railyard. The fact that the First Transcontinental Railroad line originated in Omaha and ended near Sacramento is a comfort and connects me to the Great Plains of my ancestors.

When a train rumbles by during a live performance at the B Street Theater, the whole structure shakes and experienced theater-goers glance at each other with a knowing smile. The trains provide a stabilizing presence and help us practice patience.

They are a sacrament of efficiency, heritage and tradition. They bring important cargo from here to there, and connect us to the rest of the country and the world.

The point about trains being antiquated I can let slide; even though railroads carry more freight today than ever before, far more than during the "golden age" of railroad travel, rail passenger travel is experiencing its greatest resurgence in a century, and modern high-speed trains bear less resemblance to 19th century steam locomotives than modern cars do to Model Ts. The point that gets me is the idea that the first transcontinental originated in Omaha and "ended near Sacramento."

I encourage Ms. Gale to take another visit to the Railroad Museum to get the story right. Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad started at both ends, and ended in the middle. Union Pacific started in Omaha, while Central Pacific started in Sacramento. Construction started at both ends and ended at Promontory Summit, Utah.

I'm wondering where she thought it ended? Promontory Summit certainly isn't anywhere near Sacramento. The actual point where the railroad started from the Sacramento end is just at the foot of K Street by the river, at the time the busiest point in the city, along the waterfront docks and levee. That was the point where freight and passengers could be transferred to riverboats and barges down the Sacramento River to the Bay Area, at least until a couple of years later when Central Pacific completed railroad routes to the East Bay and the Peninsula (or, more correctly, bought out the railroad companies that had built those lines.)

The "Big Four" behind the Central Pacific, and engineer Theodore Judah, were instrumental in ensuring, not just that the western terminus would go to Sacramento (other cities from Seattle to San Diego were all competing for the railroad) but that the Pacific railroad (as it was then known) would be built at all. The political and financial support to build the railroad came from the east, but the drive to build the railroad came from the west--and Sacramento played the critical role. Central Pacific, under the leadership of Leland Stanford (also governor of California at the time, with close party connections to new president Abraham Lincoln) was the organization that advocated for the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 that resulted in the creation of the Union Pacific. No offense to Omaha, but the Transcontinental Railroad started here--not just the tracks themselves, but the dream, the design and the political will.

Anyhow, I realize that the point will be lost except on a few foamers like myself. But dammit, if you're going to sing Sacramento's praises, make sure you're hitting the right notes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

You are entitled to my opinions

Part of the fun of Sacramento Press is the opportunity to render an opinion in a loud and public fashion. In the 1920s, people with ideas and not much money would stand on a soapbox in Plaza Park. Today, we post on the World Wide Web, ready to meet the virtual rotten tomatoes of the web-surfing public.

10 Steps to Fix K Street

Incomplete steps, but steps, I think, in the right direction. There are other ideas out there, and hopefully we will hear more of them.

Today there will be a meeting between K Street property owners and Mayor Johnson. This meeting is private. Next week, he will hold another meeting on the same subject, this time open to the public.

I am curious as to which meeting will be more interesting, and at which meeting (if either) the mayor will do more listening than talking.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Archives Open House this Saturday October 3

Via the Sac For Tourists blog:
There will be a California State Archives open house this Saturday from 4-8 PM. Definitely worthwhile if you're into old pieces of paper and unusual relics of California history; I will be there representing the Sacramento County Historical Society and selling some of our own old pieces of paper. The Archives are on the top floor of the California Museum building at the southeast corner of 10th & O Street, admission is free.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sacramento Old City Cemetery Tour Sat Sep. 26

The Sacramento County Historical Society presents its Fall Social & Barbecue Under the Stars in the Old City Cemetery

Saturday, September 26, 2009 5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sacramento Old City Cemetery, 1000 Broadway

Sacramento's city cemetery was established in 1849 with a donation of 10 acres of high ground by John Sutter. Among its first internments were the victims of Sacramento's 1850 cholera epidemic. Some notable residents of the old city cemetery are city founder John Sutter Jr., our first mayor Hardin Bigelow, and Central Pacific founder Mark Hopkins. Thousands of other Sacramentants inhabit the cemtery, from all walks of life. Tour guides will introduce you to some of the cemetery's fascinating inhabitants, and explain some of the history of the cemetery, on two guided tours through the property. Bring a flashlight!

The evening will also feature musical performances by Agent Ribbons, Dead Western and The Freebadge Serenaders.

Admission for non-SCHS members is $10, FREE for SCHS members.
Dinner is an additional $15 for members or non-members; there is limited availability for dinners, please ask at the front gate.
Menu is BBQ brisket and chicken (veggie burgers on request), potato salad, cornbread, beans, coleslaw, soda and cookies, provided by JR's Texas BBQ.

The event will take place inside the Old City Cemetery; please park in the parking lot across the street near 10th & Broadway, as the cemetery's main gates will be closed by the time the event lets out and cars parked inside will not be able to exit! Gates will close at 6:30 PM so please arrive promptly.

This event is open to all ages.

Funds from this event will benefit the Sacramento County Historical Society (a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit) and the Sacramento Old City Cemetery Committee. For more information about the Old City Cemetery Committee, visit their website and for more information about SCHS, visit the SCHS website.

Note: This is not the same tour as the popular Lantern Tours given by the Old City Cemetery Committee in October. That tour is already sold out, so if you want the chance to experience the Old City Cemetery after dark, this is your opportunity!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SOCA Home Tour in Boulevard Park Sep 20

On Sunday, September 20, the Sacramento Old City Association will hold its 34th annual historic home tour in the Boulevard Park neighborhood. Tour hours are from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM.

The SOCA Home Tour is an annual event, and the main fundraiser for the Sacramento Old City Association. This home tour includes an inside look at eight restored historic homes in Boulevard Park. Tour visitors can walk through each of the homes on the tour to see how the workmanship of historic homes is often as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

The Home Tour also includes a street fair, including artisans and craftspersons specializing in historic home repair and restoration, local artists, crafters, photographers and artisans, and community organizations. Live music will be provided by Julie the Bruce, Andrew Surber and "Drum Polygon." The Sacramento "Capitol A's" Model A Club will display their restored antique cars throughout the tour. CLUCK (Campaign to Legalize Urban Chicken Keeping) will raffle a chicken coop and other prizes at their booth.

Tickets for the Home Tour cost $20, but you get a $1 discount if you arrive on a bicycle. Tickets for the fair can be bought at the site of the tour: the SOCA tour booth will be located on the corner of 21st and G Street, directly in the street median. Visiting the homes requires a ticket, but the street fair is free, and will run along 21st Street between F and H Street.

This year's tour is located in the Boulevard Park historic district, a neighborhood that is visually distinct due to the landscaped street medians running down 21st and 22nd Street. These medians were part of a real estate development project dating to 1905. Located on the site of the old Union Park racetrack, Boulevard Park was the first planned development of the Wright & Kimbrough real estate firm. The development's boundaries were from B Street to H Street between 20th and 22nd, with a portion of 23rd.

When the neighborhood was built, a streetcar line ran along H Street from downtown to McKinley Park. Many of the most elegant Boulevard Park homes were located facing H Street, with more modest but still beautiful homes closer to C Street. C Street had its own streetcar line, but freight trains also ran on the same tracks until 1953! In addition to the landscaped medians, three blocks in Boulevard Park have small central park areas located in the center of the block, in a space normally occupied by backyards and alleys. Covenants on property deeds required minimum setbacks, prohibited high fences and noxious uses, and made provision for shared tenancy of the alley parks. These features gave the neighborhood a pleasing, park-like look that is still apparent a century after its construction. The current Boulevard Park neighborhood includes an area beyond the original development. Homes in the neighborhood are a mixture of Craftsman and Prairie, Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival and other revival st yles. Elsewhere in the neighborhood are Victorian homes of the Queen Anne, Stick, Shingle and Italianate styles.

Boulevard Park is one of Sacramento's most beautiful and well-known neighborhoods, and this year's SOCA Home Tour provides a unique look at the architecture, culture and creativity that make our city a great place.

SOCA's Web site can be found at: and includes membership information, details of SOCA activities and events, and updates about planning and preservation issues in Sacramento's central city.

Photograph taken by Randy Lum.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sacramento History Bike Ride Sunday August 30

This summer, a group of Sacramento State graduate students and local history enthusiasts began gathering once a month to take a bike ride through Sacramento's historic neighborhoods and share their knowledge about local history, historic architecture and cultural heritage. Two rides have occurred so far. The next will take place on Sunday, August 30, at 9:00 AM, in the Southside Park neighborhood. Riders will meet at the site of the Robert E. Callahan Bandstand in Southside Park, near the corner of 7th and T Street, at 9:00 AM.

Built on a former slough, Southside was inhabited by generations of immigrants and working-class families. The neighborhood's many ethnic communities, including Portuguese, Italian, Mexican and Japanese, came together in Southside Park, the neighborhood's namesake. Whether for fireworks displays on the Fourth of July, for a trip back to Gold Rush days at Roaring Camp, or simply to paddle the lake in a rented boat, Southside Park provided a place of respite and recreation in this bustling city. The neighborhood surrounding the park faced many challenges as Sacramento grew, but its residents faced these challenges with a tradition of political activism, community participation, and a strong sense of civic pride that is still evident today.

The Sacramento Historic Bike Ride is a free-form event: riders will decide where the tour should go. There are several sites I hope to visit in order to tell the story of the Southside neighborhood's diverse history, culture and development, but there is plenty of room for everyone's participation. If you have a story about the neighborhood, a historic site, a significant person, or a good story, please feel free to share it! The tour will run until about 11:00 AM. There is no cost to participate in the tour.

For those that may be interested, I will bring copies of my books, Sacramento's Southside Park and Sacramento's Streetcars, for sale at $20 each, and will happily sign them for you.