Old Sacramento tours descend to history underground

Old saloon bottles found in the ground are displayed in a case as visitors learn about Sacramento history  on an Old Sacramento Underground Tour.
Old saloon bottles found in the ground are displayed in a case as visitors learn about Sacramento history on an Old Sacramento Underground Tour. Sacramento Bee

The sun doesn’t shine here, but it used to. The air is dusty, the lighting dim and the brick walls crumbling.

This ancient underground is part of Sacramento’s history, and it is open for tours.

The Old Sacramento Underground Tours, started six years ago by city historian Marcia Eymann, offer both a family-friendly interactive history tour and an adult tour that covers gambling, crime and prostitution in Sacramento.

The underground experience educates the Sacramento community and visitors on the rich history of the region, said Shawn Turner, manager of the Old Sacramento Underground Tours.

“People don’t realize the Old Sac they are walking in (now) is not actually the original city. It is actually 25 feet below,” Turner said of the Front Street area.

Most of the buildings were lifted while others were destroyed to make room for newer buildings, Turner said. Some of the buildings, such as a few hotels and the Fat City Bar & Restaurant at the corner of Front and J streets, were left at their original level with a level built on top, out of reach of floodwaters.

The tale of the up-and-coming capital of California is filled with loss and triumph.

Steve Rossi, a tour guide who is working toward a master’s degree in history at Sacramento State University, said he enjoys leading visitors and sharing his knowledge about Sacramento’s past.

“It is such a unique story,” Rossi said. “The city was destroyed so many times but kept coming back.”

As Turner puts it, “The history of Sacramento is a story of birth, death and rebirth.”

Among the highlights:

▪ John Sutter planned to establish a town named Sutterville outside of Sacramento. Plans changed with the 1848 discovery of gold in the rivers of the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento River. Sam Brannan, an elder in the Mormon church who became California’s first millionaire, persuaded Sutter to form the city next to the water, which was a port for shipping goods to mining areas. Shortly after, Brannan ushered in a great migration of people to search for gold. Brannan and John Augustus Sutter Jr., Sutter’s son, laid out the city in 1848. Brannan named the city “Sacramento” after the river.

▪ To Sacramento’s dismay, the early 1850s was an era of fires and flooding. Then, from late December 1861 through February 1862, a disastrous flood swept over the city. During this period, Sacramento experienced snow and 45 days of heavy rainfall. Thirty inches of rain fell in two months. The American River broke through the levee around the city.

▪ In 1864 Sacramento residents came together, laced up their boots and started to uniformly lift the city. The city was lifted an average of 9 1/2 feet above the flooding. The buildings were lifted with screw jacks by the muscle of community members.

“The city was rather proud and full of itself,” Turner said. “These buildings and businesses were built fancy and were imposing. They weren’t going to move somewhere else.”

The underground tour guides come from different backgrounds but were selected because they share a passion for the history. Some dress in costume and act out figures from the time. Each tour guide uses his or her own knowledge, so no two tours are alike, Turner said.

“I think it is important to know where we come from and to have fun while learning about it,” said Julie Ivanovich, Sacramento native and the educational and interpretive programs assistant at the Sacramento History Museum.

“This city (has) survived all these catastrophes and will need to again,” Turner said.


WHAT: The general tour covers half a mile and takes about an hour. The adult version, for ages 21 and older, covers half a mile and takes about 90 minutes. This tour ends at the River City Saloon.

WHERE: Tours depart from the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St., Old Sacramento.

WHEN: Weekends April-December. Weekday tours vary by month; check tour calendar.

COST: $10-$15, free for children 5 and younger, although the tour is not recommended for young children.

NOTE: No photography is allowed in the underground portion of the tour.

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: The California State Railroad Museum is located at 125 I St. It is considered the most popular railroad museum in North America. The Wells Fargo History Museum at Second and J streets tells the story of the Gold Rush. The Eagle Theater, at 925 Front St., is a reconstruction of California’s first public theater, built in 1849. The Old Sacramento Historic District includes more than 125 boutique shops in Gold Rush-era buildings, as well as restaurants and the Sacramento River.

TOUR INFORMATION: 916-808-7973, sachistorymuseum.org.

TRAVEL INFORMATION: Learn more about visiting Sacramento at visitsacramento.com.


Want a subterranean adventure without the travel time? Seattle, too, hides a warren of underground passageways, a relic from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and the city’s subsequent rebuilding.

What: Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.

Where: 608 First Ave., Seattle.

When: Open 7 days a week; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Cost: $9-$19, free for children 6 and younger.

Tour information: 206-682-4646, undergroundtour.com.