Sacramento, 100 miles up the Sacramento River from San Francisco, was (and still is) precariously located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. In 1861, the city was in many ways a hub: the young state’s sparkling new capital, an important commercial and agricultural center, and the terminus for stagecoaches, wagon trains, the pony express and riverboats from San Francisco. Although floods in Sacramento were not unknown to the residents, nothing could have prepared them for the series of deluges and massive flooding that engulfed the city that winter. The levees built to protect Sacramento from catastrophic floods crumbled under the force of the rising waters of the American River. In early January the floodwaters submerged the entire city under 10 feet of brown, debris-laden water. The water was so deep and dirty that no one dared to move about the city except by boat. The floodwaters caused immense destruction of property and loss of life.
California’s new Governor, Leland Stanford, was to be inaugurated on January 10, but the floodwaters swept through Sacramento that day, submerging the city. Citizens fled by any means possible, yet the inauguration ceremony took place at the capital building anyway, despite the mounting catastrophe. Governor Stanford was forced to travel from his mansion to the capital building by rowboat. Following the expedited ceremony, with floodwaters rising at a rate of one foot per hour, Stanford rowed back to his mansion, where he was forced to steer his boat to a second story window in order to enter his home. Conditions did not improve in the following weeks. California’s legislature, unable to function in the submerged city, finally gave up and moved to San Francisco on January 22, to wait out the floods.
Sacramento remained underwater for months. Brewer visited the city on March 9, three months after the flooding began, and described the scene:
Such a desolate scene I hope to never see again. Most of the city is still under water, and has been there for three months. A part is out of the water, that is, the streets are above water, but every low place is full—cellars and yards are full, houses and walls wet, everything uncomfortable. No description that I can write will give you any adequate conception of the discomfort and wretchedness this must give rise to. I took a boat and two boys, and we rowed about for an hour or two. Houses, stores, stables, everything, were surrounded by water. Yards were ponds enclosed by dilapidated, muddy, slimy fences; household furniture, chairs, tables, sofas, the fragments of houses, were floating in the muddy waters or lodged in nooks and corners. I saw three sofas floating in different yards. The basements of the better class of houses were half full of water, and through the windows, one could see chairs, tables, bedsteads, etc., afloat. Through the windows of a schoolhouse I saw the benches and desks afloat. Over most of the city boats are still the only way of getting around.
The new Capital is far out in the water—the Governor’s house stands as in a lake—churches, public buildings, private buildings, everything, are wet or in the water. Not a road leading from the city is passable, business is at a dead standstill, everything looks forlorn and wretched. Many houses have partially toppled over; some have been carried from their foundations, several streets (now avenues of water) are blocked up with houses that have floated in them, dead animals lie about here and there—a dreadful picture. I don’t think the city will ever rise from the shock, I don’t see how it can.
The death and destruction of this flood caused such trauma that the city of Sacramento embarked on a long-term project of raising the downtown district by 10 to 15 feet in the seven years after the flood. Governor Stanford also raised his mansion from two to three stories, leaving empty the ground floor, to avoid damage from any future flooding events.