The Cultural and Historic Roots of the Sacramento Railyards

A historic drawing of Sacramento. Learn more about the cultural and historic roots of the Railyards.

The Cultural and Historic Roots of the Sacramento Railyards

March 15, 2018 | By The Railyards

What comes to mind when you think of the Sacramento Railyards? For most people, The Railyards evokes images of an industrial past. But the area wasn’t always the largest industrial complex in the west. Long before the Central Shops were buzzing with productivity, the riverfront area was home to some of Sacramento’s earliest residents.

Discover the history of The Railyards area and the unique cultural resources that are being protected as the nation’s largest infill development project moves forward into a vibrant, new chapter and future.

Sacramento Valley’s First Inhabitants

Sacramento is located in the upper Central Valley of California at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, and the Railyards area was once largely a floodplain. The American River once flowed through the northern part of The Railyards area, emptying into the Sacramento River at a point roughly aligned with modern E Street.

In the late 18th century, the Nisenan people resided from the Sacramento River east to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Nisenan were river-dependent people who built villages on raised mounds to escape seasonal flooding. Nisenan villages were located atop knolls along the edges of rivers and wetlands of Sacramento.

One village center, Momol, was located near the original confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers in The Railyards area. The large village extended a few miles east of the American River and north and south along the Sacramento River. Two other Nisenan villages, Pushuni and Seku-mni, were about 5 miles north-northeast and 10 miles east of Old Sacramento, respectively, on the opposite side of the Sacramento River.

Rivers, lakes, and floodplains didn’t create an ideal environment for Nisenan people to inhabit year round. Weather conditions in the summer months made the plains and marshes inhospitable. Therefore, these peoples visited the rivers and wetlands in the Sacramento area during the winter months to gather certain plants, hunt, and fish, and interact with neighboring villages; trading items and forming social and political alliances. Then they regularly relocated to the eastern or western foothills during warmer months.

The population of Native American tribes living in the Sacramento vicinity was substantially reduced within a half a century of European settlers bringing epidemics of malaria, smallpox, and hostilities over land.

In the wake of the Nisenan people, a new type of inhabitant was making their way into the Sacramento area. In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sacramento Valley. Thousands of prospective miners, entrepreneurs, and land developers moved into the area seeking their fortune.

A Working Class Neighborhood Takes Root

The Railyards area was once home to two small lakes, Willow Lake and Sutter Lake, which was also known as China Lake or China Slough. At the western end, Sutter Lake was divided into two branches: the south connected to the Sacramento River and the north to the American. Between these two branches was an area of higher ground that was labeled on an 1854 U.S. Coast Survey map as the “American Fork Addition,” but more commonly known as “Slater’s Addition,” named after the 1849 Sacramento Commissioner Peter Slater.

Settlement begun in this area in the 1850s and by 1854 a fair amount of development had been completed between H and F Streets.

Slater’s Addition, which local historians consider “Older Sacramento,” was laid out in lots with the Sacramento Gas Works situated on the bank of the Sacramento River on the northern end at the corner of Front and Sacramento Streets. A flour mill and an ice house were also operating along the riverfront at this time.

The area was home to working-class residents in the early 1860s, such as coopers, a barber, a painter, and a saddler. These early residents also included laborers, engineers, merchants, and a policeman. Most were from the eastern United States or Europe, although Hispanics and Chileans were also present. Women accounted for approximately one-third of the neighborhood’s population. These households consisted of either families or solely of single young men.

After the establishment of the railyards in 1863, the Central Pacific Railroad began buying up the lots in “Older Sac.” During this time, however, there were still residences and smaller businesses located in Slater’s Addition.

Some of the businesses included a grocery owned by Robert Young and the American Laundry, owned by a Connecticut man named S.B. Cooley. A Chinese “Joss House” was located somewhere in Slater’s Addition.

Similar to the previous decade, residents originated from a variety of countries, including Ireland, Mexico, Prussia, the eastern United States, and China. Nearly half of the inhabitants were women, and nearly all households were comprised of families.

By 1915, the railroads owned all but a few of lots of Slater’s Addition. The area was no longer a working class, mixed-use neighborhood of residences and businesses. It was on its way to becoming the largest industrial complex in the west.

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Watering the Railyards: The Historic Water Tower

Watering the Railyards: The Historic Water Tower

Discover the story behind the Railyards historic water tower and the role it played in the continued operations of the Sacramento shop yards.


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A Railyard is Built in Sacramento

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. The Pacific Railway Act tasked the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies with building a transcontinental railroad that would link the United States from east to west.

By the terms of the bill, the Central Pacific Railroad Company would start building in Sacramento and continue east across the Sierra Nevada, while the Union Pacific Railroad would build westward, with the two lines of track meeting somewhere in the middle.

The City of Sacramento granted land to the Central Pacific, with one condition. The railroad must use its resources to help Sacramento with its flood problem.

A Deal for Flood Control

During the 1850s and 1860s, a central concern in the development of Sacramento was flood control. The American River and Sutter Lake in the low-lying Sacramento area created a significant problem for the City. From December 1861 to January 1862, California was struck by the greatest flood period in the state’s history and downtown Sacramento was largely underwater. In some parts of Sacramento, the water reached depths of fifteen to eighteen feet.

Levees that had been built to keep the water out of the American and Sacramento rivers were, instead, trapping it in.

This series of floods led to a concerted program of municipal flood control. The American River was rechanneled to meet the Sacramento River north of The Railyards area and the levees were strengthened. A decade-long effort of street-raising occurred in the areas surrounding Sutter Lake, with some streets raised as much as 10 feet.

In December 1862, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors granted Sutter Lake and the adjacent lowlands to the Central Pacific Railroad, which had the resources and finances to fill and develop the land. In return, Sacramento requested the Central Pacific build a levee and fill in the existing Sutter Lake as extra insurance against future floods.

The filling of Sutter Lake was not a single concerted effort; the Central Pacific gradually filled the lake as it needed land. It wasn’t until 1910 that they completely filled Sutter Lake and the old American River channel.

Constructing the Central Shops

In 1863 a Central Pacific Railroad groundbreaking ceremony took place in Sacramento at the foot of K Street at the waterfront of the Sacramento River.

At this time, the Central Pacific Railroad began construction of its earliest wooden shop buildings at Sutter Lake. The railroad drove pilings in four feet of water until the tops were at the water line, then filled around the pilings with granite riprap, sand, and silt. The railroad then laid four feet of solid granite on top of the piles and riprap, and began construction of brick and timber buildings.

Beginning in 1867, the first permanent Railyards buildings were constructed in the Central Shops, which formed the core of the Railyards operations. These buildings included the Roundhouse, Car Shop and Planing Mill, Machine Shop, Blacksmith Shop, and Paint Shop.

The principal function of the Sacramento Railyards' shops was the maintenance, repair, design, and construction of the railroad's locomotives.

The increasing scale of the railroad operations entailed periodic expansions of The Railyards. Initially a 20-acre site, the area owned by the railroad expanded in fits and starts, growing to 40 acres by 1878, and 145 acres by 1922. The Railyards reached its current size (approximately 144 acres) by the 1930s.

The Railyards area was divided by function into six main areas. These are now referred to as the Central Shops Historic District, the Brass Foundry, the Brickyard, the Southern Pacific Sacramento Depot, now called the Sacramento Valley Station, the General Foundry, and the Scrap Yard.

Today, the only remaining features within The Railyards are the Central Shops Historic District, the Water Tower, and the Sacramento Valley Station.

The Railyards Specific Plan (RSP) includes guidelines and policies for identifying, protecting, preserving historic resources within the area, with a focus on ensuring public enjoyment of The Railyard’s historical elements.

Many of the existing Central Shops buildings, for example, will be rehabilitated in a manner that conforms to standards for preservation of historic properties. The Central Shops district, the Water Tower, site of China Slough, and Southern Pacific Railroad Sacramento Depot have been listed on National, California, and/ or Sacramento Historic Registers.

The Railyards area is known for its industrial past. But long before the area was home to railyard activity, it was a working-class neighborhood where early Sacramentans worked and lived. And before that, long before European settlers and gold seekers made their way to the valley, the area was home to indigenous people who lived off the waters of the Sacramento and American Rivers.

The historical and cultural significance of the area’s past is kept in sharp focus as The Railyards moves forward into its next chapter; meeting the future needs of Sacramento while celebrating it’s complex and storied past.

Photo source: Amon Carter Museum of American Art 1870

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