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The Illustrious History of Sacramento’s R Street Corridor

A stroll down the R Street Corridor in Sacramento today would exhibit arts of every type. On the second Saturday of every month artists gather along the corridor to expose their art to the public. Some of the venues and businesses on R Street also open their stages to local talent on these special Sundays. There are galleries, studios and performance halls all along the street. There is never a dull moment. The fact that it has a very distinctive industrial history adds all the more to the luster of today’s art scene.

The history of this street is so fascinating considering where it is today. Captain William H. Warner surveyed and laid out the city of Sacramento in 1848. He designed a grid system with lettered numbers to designate specific locations. It ran along the waterfront of the Sacramento River, east to west. The L – Y letters ran North to South.

Sacramento’s early days were relatively quiet on R Street. Settlers were slow to arrive in the area which was quite a way from the first settlement of Sacramento. The official map of the city from 1854 showed only three building on the corner of R Street.

The first great help R Street contributed to Sacramento was during the heavy flooding of the early days.  Flood after a destructive flood plagued Sacramento and the city was up in arms scrambling to find a way to protect themselves. Levees were set up in several places throughout the city. The winter of 1852 – 53 was incredibly harsh and a levee burst. The best solution was to build a levee all the way down R Street to Brighton.

The year 1854 was a big one for the railroad. Theodore Judah, who found his fame later when he surveyed the route for the Central Pacific Railroad, surveyed the route for the Sacramento Valley Railroad system. By 1855, building of the Sacramento Valley railroad line began on top of the R Street levee. The very first trial run of the railroad occurred in August of 1855. It went from Front Street to 17th street. By the time 1856 arrived, the Sacramento Valley Railroad stretched the complete distance to Folsom. The entire project cost approximately $1 million to construct. As the first railroad in all of California, it’s people realized quickly how profitable and efficient rail travel could be.

When the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada, where mining for gold was much harder. In the California god rush it flowed down streams and could be easily panned out of the waters with simple tools like screens, gold pans and sluices. Nevada mining consisted of hard rock mining with heavy tools made in San Francisco. The tools were then sent by steamboat to Sacramento and then loaded on trains for the trip to Folsom where often more than 20 wagons waited to pick up the equipment and supplies. Even the famous pony express riders rode along the rails on their trips. Suddenly, all of California was growing by leaps and bounds.

Beginning in 1864, the success of the Sacramento Valley Railroad began to lose steam when the Central Pacific Railroad came on the scene. Neck in neck, they competed for railroad rights until Central Pacific bought out the Sacramento Valley Railroads system for $800,000. R street felt no grief during this phase, however, because Central Pacific used the R Street Corridor and the Sacramento Valley train tracks for decades to come.

From 1857 through 1878, R Street had almost no development. It had only sparse residential dwellings. Around 1870, Sacramento began to develop more in the eastern areas from J, K, L, M, and N street. It also began to slink toward the southern areas. All this new construction brought a demand for a levee south of R Street. The Y Street levee (now called Broadway). There was no longer a need for a levee at R Street. It was removed sometime between 1888 and 1890. It was then that more residences and business began to slowly fill the R Street Corridor. The first few businesses on R Street were a winery, Carlaw Works, and a grocery store/apartment building erected by John Keating.

It wasn’t until the late 1880’s that electricity came to Sacramento. The Sacramento Gas Company’s coal burning plant supplied the power for the system. The Folsom Powerhouse was developed in 1895 which made electricity far more affordable and reliable. No longer were business relegated to sun up- sun down hours of operation. Business revenue skyrocketed, productivity rose. Canneries could hire workers around the clock to can food products. The whole world benefitted.

The R Street district needed one final element that would spur it and all of Sacramento into an economic growth never before seen. Water. Cool, clean water. Previously the city existed on dirty water due to the hydraulic mining of the 1860’s and 70’s. Millions of tons of dirt, silt and debris into the Sacramento River. A dirt colored water spurted from every water tap in the city. The city government began to take notice of the many businesses that moved from the area due to the water situation. It wasn’t until 1923 that a water filtration plant was erected and in use.

The R Street Corridor is now a busy and bustling area with much to see of its history still standing and in use.