Could the flooding in Houston ever happen in Sacramento? It already did during the Great Flood of 1862

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Recently, we’ve seen images on television and across the internet that seemed unimaginable, as the city of Houston was underwater after Hurrican Harvey struck. Of course, our thoughts and donations go out to the victims of Harvey, as we wish them a speedy and safe recovery, but our minds also turn to the inevitable question: could something like that happen here in Sacramento?

Actually, it already has! The Great Flood of 1862 nearly washed the young city of Sacramento completely off the map.

Here are 15 facts about that Great Flood of 1862 in Sacramento:

1. This weather event was so large and powerful that 1862’s flood actually started with the Great Storm of 1861 – which is still the largest storm in California history, as well as Oregon and Washington history.

2. At that time, Sacramento was still a very young city, as it was first settled with the Gold Rush of 1849 and proved to be an invaluable transportation and agricultural hub with its position on the Sacramento and American Rivers.

3. But the first established city in California almost was washed out of existence when the heavy rains started on Christmas Eve in 1861. The initial rains were so heavy that the Sacramento newspapers declared Christmas would be canceled, but the torrential downpours didn’t let up. For 45 straight days, the skies opened up and dumped 400% more rain than usual on the region.

4. The aberrational weather pattern was so massive that it blew as far east as Tennessee, where it shut down troop movements during the Civil War.

5. By January of 1862, the epic storm had completely doused a large portion of California and the Pacific Northwest and turned the Sacramento Valley into a giant “inland sea” spanning 250 to 300-miles long and 60 miles wide.

6. The city of Sacramento, which sat about 16 feet lower than today’s city and didn’t have the benefit of dams and levees, was also completely underwater. In fact, steamships and smaller boats literally sailed through Old Sacramento and parts of downtown, rescuing people from their homes.

7. When the American River continued to rise – to a jaw-dropping 55 feet high – thousands of residents were drowned or died in the flooding.

8. According to newspaper accounts published on January 21, 1862, the rising waters “Flooded the valleys, inundated towns, swept away mills, dams, flumes, houses, fences, domestic animals, ruined fields and effected damage, estimated at $10,000,000.”

“The scene presented is one of confusion and desolation. Some of the houses are turned partially around; some are broken and shattered, and all are covered inside and outside up to the high-water mark with mud.”

“The streets are strewn with fences, doors, shutters, lumber, cord-wood, broken furniture, dead horses, and lifeless cows and hogs. Boats of various sizes are still actively engaged in the water, picking up whatever is worth taking possession of.”

9. The residents of Sacramento were completely shut off from the outside world, with all roads nonfunctional or underwater, stage coaches and trains ceased running, business closed or unable to get goods, and no access to the interior. People went without clean clothes, drinkable water, enough food, and any medical care, and rampant disease ensued.

10. The flooding was so dire that when newly elected Governor Leland Stanford needed to come to Sacramento for his inauguration, he took a rowboat to the steps of the Capitol.

11. Soon, the legislature at the Capitol chose to evacuate Sacramento, moving all political dealings to San Francisco. Soon, Sacramento residents started following them. Only 13-years old at the time, the City of Sacramento was in serious jeopardy of being abandoned and therefore never evolving into the major metropolitan area we know today.

12. But the gritty, intrepid early residents of Sacramento weren’t going to be flooded out of their city without a fight. They knew that if they didn’t do something drastic to flood-proof their city, California’s economic and political power would shift to San Francisco.

13. To rescue their beloved city, the common citizens came to the leaders with an ambitious three-pronged plan: they would reroute the rivers, reinforce the existing levee system that had been constructed in the 1850s, and do something unprecedented at the time – raise the city streets almost 10 feet.

14. The colossal engineering feat began in Old Sacramento, as well as some buildings in the current downtown (roughly between I and N streets bordering the Sacramento River). An army of workers cut through the foundations of houses, stores, and buildings, and then used a lattice of logs and hand-cranked house jacks (and a lot of manpower) to raise the structures. The 9-foot gaps that were created between the old ground level and the new were filled with mud and sand.

15. It took 15 years to finish the street raising, as well as reinforcing the levees, but Sacramento survived and was livable again, becoming the first city on the West Coast to raise its streets, predating Seattle’s similar architectural endeavor by 30 years.

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Today, it’s Houston that’s faced with rebuilding their flooded city after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation. But they should be buoyed by the fact that other cities have come back from worse natural disasters, including our own Sacramento during the Flood of 1862.

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