Today, north of the city, along the Sacramento River, are the weirs--huge floodgates. When they're opened, the Yolo Bypass gets flooded, creating an artificial river 3 MILES WIDE parallel to the Sacramento. Additionally, levees along both the Sacramento and American Rivers run for miles. We feel pretty safe these days.
In the 1850's people were already tired of Sacramento being flooded. Levees were the solution.
In December 1861, torrential rains, combined with snow that was melted by the rainwater, caused the American River to breached the levee. The city of Sacramento was flooded. The photographs that exist are eerily reminiscent of those images we're seeing out of the Gulf Coast today. It got worse in January 1862, when the Sacramento overflowed.
So what to do?
Of course, the levee system was strengthened and rebuilt. Even today the Army Corps of Engineers helps to maintain the levees. But in 1862 there was a calamity to deal with, and even then they realized that levees alone weren't enough.
So they raised the city. I quote now from Sacramento, ISBN 0-9619561-0-0, by William M. Holden:
The battle cry resounded through Sacramento precincts: Raise the streets higher! Vowing to prove the calamity-prophets wrong, city officials got off the dime and spent a barrel of dollars. In other words, the city in January 1863 allocated $200,000 for the astounding engineering job--raising city streets 10 feet or more above their original levels, or two feet or more above high water marks.
The decision had by no means been unanimous, nor without vociferous opposition from many Sacramentans.... But the day came when the city ordered each property owner to construct a brick bulkhead along the street fronting his property.
Thousands of cartloads of sand and gravel were dredged from the river bottoms, dumped on the streets between bulkheads, and tamped down....
Next step: Property owners had to jack up their buildings--or convert the first floor into a basement, and the second floor into a new first floor entrance. They also had to raise sidewalks in front of their properties. Each owner had to pay for raising the building and sidewalk....
After Sacramento's streets and buildings were elevated, nobody thought to fill the spaces under the raised sidewalks. This left underground passages connecting one building with another. For decades, they formed a subterranean domain known as the "catacombs".
The catacombs still exist today. Periodically the major Sacramento newspaper, or the local alternative weekly, will run a story on them. When I was in high school they were homeless hangouts and places for parties. I'm sure not too much has changed! They circle a few blocks in downtown Sacramento, and you can often tell when you're over the catacombs by noting the iceblock bricks in the sidewalk--to allow light into the tunnels. Additionally, some of the original street level has been excavated in Old Sacramento, primarily in the alleys. You can see a discoloration on the bricks where the dirt had been piled up, and the (then and now) upstairs windows that had been converted into front doors after the streets were filled in. Right across the street from the State Railroad Museum is a restaurant with a sunken outdoor patio, which is really just the original street level.
As I said, there's a rich history here. I invite any of my readers to come visit Sacramento--I'd love to play tourguide for an afternoon.