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The History and Development of Sacramento Traffic

Traffic everywhere started as foot traffic and Sacramento is no different. The Native American that first lived in the area walked everywhere or took the river on a handcrafted raft. Even their spiritual tales include mystical figures who traveled upon a raft and after diving into the water, retrieved a handful of soil from which he built the Earth. When Spanish settlers arrived in the area they brought horses and traveled far and wide on horseback. Other settlers and the first American-born settlers began to arrive by wagon train and railroads weren’t far behind.  In the 1850’s steamboats began to power up and down the rivers faster than any raft or boat had previously accomplished.

The most amazing fact about Sacramento travel and transportation is that in less than a decade inhabitants went from driving ox carts with wooden wheels to a fully developed state of the art roadway throughout Sacramento. It was the year 1849 was when steamboat travel was very popular. The rivers moved fast and people were able to take trips in half the time it used to take. This made business and leisure more accessible to everyone. In 1856 railroads began to crisscross the state of California and Sacramento and by in 1869 a transcontinental railroad line came into existence.

As transportation increased so did business and exportation/importation. Add in the gold rush and California was setting standards for the national and eventually worldwide economies. The gold fields had become referred to as the Extremity of Civilization.  

Sacramento grew abnormally quickly in these early years. It sat at the inland end of an efficient river highway ending in the gold mines. The gold rush happened at exactly the right moment in time to shoot Sacramento to new heights in business and population. The steam power revolution of the 1850-60’s was consistently The Sacramento River became the most often used steamboat route with at least 50 boats regularly traversing up and down the river between San Francisco and Sacramento. Between 30 and 40 wagons left the mining area each day loaded down with gold nuggets. Sacramento’s prestige and stature in the nation had been set very high.

During the mid-1850’s, the influx of stagecoaches called for the creation of the California Stage Company. It was formed by James Birch. It merged all the individual stagecoach operators into one conglomerate. Eventually Birch and his company controlled 3000 miles of routes and 80% of stagecoach traffic. By the time 1856 rolled around there was an even larger need for stagecoaches so Birch lobbies congress for a national wagon road with more than 75,000 signatures from California residents. It was the largest petition ever received. Congress responded with three wagon roads to the Pacific coast and $600,000 to fund a bi-weekly mail service from St. Louis to San Francisco.

Sacramento was small comparatively speaking to places like San Francisco but it had the largest population. Its officials had great influence over national lawmakers and government actions. The city was named the capitol of the state and the first governor was elected there. The ease and status of its transportation abilities had a lot to do with its progression in other areas.

The wagon toll road and intercontinental railroad were set to be huge money-makers. Both offered a fast track to a modern city. Another unsuspecting cash cow were bicyclists.  By 1887 bike riders were pushing peddles all over the city of Sacramento. Their numbers were so huge several bicycle clubs and organizations which focused on using bikes for transportation but also sport and leisure. They had names such as the Capital City Wheelmen. Bicycles had always been seen as a bit dangerous and left mostly to sporting, daring young men. When the ‘safety bicycle’ came on the scene in the late 1800’s and these Wheelmen were riding them to work and on errands, they turned their eyes to road conditions. They backed the Good Roads movement which lobbied for paved roads and better bicycle access. Photos of construction and daily life in the early 20th century shows the many people who utilized bicycles for work commute during that time.

The 1890’s saw the first commercial automobiles appear in Sacramento. In 1905 only 27 automobiles were registered in the city. By 1910 there were at least 700 more. That’s when the Sacramento auto frenzy hit and by July of 1911 approximately 75 cars a day were purchased by Sacramentans. With so many automobiles in the proximity, paved roads became imperative.

The first third of the 20th century was spent in a gigantic competition to see who could first produce the most dominant and efficient form of transportation between railroads, riverboats and autos. Three bridges were constructed between Sacramento and Fair Oaks. In 1916 the Yolo Causeway was completed. It was an integral component on a national road to link the east and west coasts by automobile.

Air travel was not on the minds of many in Sacramento until 1917, when they were still considered a novelty. With WWII on the horizon, however, the Government supplied $3,000,000 to build bi-wing aircraft called JN-4, or Jenny, in Sacramento. Throughout the remainder of the century the city of Sacramento counted aviation as a vital source of revenue.

When the war ended many of the Jennies were repurposed for civilian use. Citizens began to experiment with aircraft in agriculture and for entertainment in aerial shows at state fairs and carnivals. Barn Stormers would show up in anyone’s quickly prepared field to give rides to the neighbors and perform exhibitions. There was no looking back. Aviation had become a staple in Sacramento economy and played a huge part in its development.

Urban areas began to develop and distinct neighborhoods were formed in the early 20th century. Street car systems were developed to deal with the increasing number of daily commuters. The first street cars were pulled by horses and later electricity powered them. These were the first uses of affordable public transit.

The history of Sacramento traffic and roadways is fascinating on its own but it also played an important part in the progress of the nation as a whole. From its first inhabitants to today’s innovations, Sacramento has never stopped progressing with its own special style. Many firsts in transportation for the country happened here, in Sacramento. It is a great place to live and a wonderful place to study and visit.