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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

A History Museum's History

Today’s Sacramento History Museum, which opened to the public in 1985, is housed in a replica of the city’s 1854 City Hall and Waterworks Building. Faithful in design to the original, the exterior accouterments include brick walks and a 113-foot flagpole topped with a gilt ball. Inside, visitors walk through modern, chrome and glass galleries filled with diverse exhibits. Among the permanent displays is a functioning nineteenth century printing press, and three huge, hand-drawn, birds-eye views of Sacramento from 1850 to the 1880. Changing exhibits feature everything from local Gold Rush-era breweries to the dashing Pony Express. In addition, the Museum sponsors educational programs on Sacramento’s rich cultural heritage, and underground tours of the excavated foundations and pathways of the city’s original level.

The 1854 Water Works Building was an important one. As the Gold Rush brought more and more settlers to Sacramento, the water works project was the city’s answer to its need for a reliable water supply system. Completed April 1, 1854, and believed to be the first mechanical municipal water system west of the Rocky Mountains, the Water Works Building’s two story brick and reinforced-beam structure supported three water tanks on its roof, along with a network of pumping machinery that siphoned water from the Sacramento River and fed it through two miles of pipes fitted with fifty hydrants. By November 1854, the Water Works had 403 customers.

The building’s interior served as City Hall, housing offices, city council chambers, and a courtroom on the second floor. The police department, volunteer firefighters, and the city jail occupied the first floor. All was well until the rooftop tanks began to leak. In April 1856, a portion of the building’s walls became so saturated with dripping water that the sleeping apartments of the police were reportedly flooded. Repairs were made to the iron linings of the tanks that June, but eventually the sheer weight of the tanks took their toll, causing structural damage.

In the late 1860s the Central Pacific Railroad, headed eastward over the Sierra toward its union with the Union Pacific Railroad in Utah to create the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, installed tracks and a turntable immediately adjacent to the Water Works Building. Constant vibration from the trains further affected the already weakened structure, creating serious concerns for the safety of its occupants. The weakest forty feet at the west end was razed in 1880, and the water tanks reworked. By the turn of the century the building obviously required extensive renovation, and the railroad wanted the property for a right-of-way to expand their freight handling facilities. The rooftop tanks and connections were abandoned when the city sold the property to the railroad in 1906. Seven years later, the railroad demolished the building.

Sacramento History Museum is at 101 I Street, in Old Sacramento State Historic Park.

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