Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mexican Land Grant to US State Capital: Platting Sacramento

The Cesar Chavez Plaza post looked at a town square in front of city hall. It might seem the park was located there because of the city hall, but the situation is the opposite.
Chavez plaza was part of a large scheme of open space, part of the original town plat.

But first, before there was a town plat there was the rancho. Nuevo Helvetia

Northern California during the Mexican era was experiencing a lot of land alientation via land grants, expanding beyond the Bay Region into the Central Valley and the Coast Ranges in the 1840s

Nuevo Helvetia was one of these 1840s land grants

About 16% of thee of these went to non-Mexicans. Alta California was already seeing some light US settlement prior to the Mexican War and gold rush era, and it was these settlers that precipitated the comic opera “Bear Flag Revolt” at the Sonoma presidio that gave us the state flag and California Republic motto.

Though grants went to Americnas, in the case of Nuevo Helvetia it was a German Swiss, John Sutter, who obtained the land at the confluence of the Rio Sacramento and Rio de los Americanos and built his fort on high ground some distance from the rivers.
The story of the Sacramento City plat was more the story of John Sutter’s son, who took control of his fathers’ property and platted the city along with Sam Brannan, who ran a store near the river landing.

The plat was drawn by military men: Capt. William Warner, with assistance of E.C. Ord (namesake of Fort Ord), and a young Ohio native, William Tecumseh Sherman, who was stationed in California doing administrative work for the Army in the days after the Mexican War.

The plats most distinguished feature, aside from the Manhattenesque uniformity, was the reservation of a block as public space every 6 blocks, forming a secondary grid over the city. Another important feature was the central street, M street, was slightly wider than the rest. The other distortion to the grid was Sutter’s Fort, which was still standing when the city was platted
Reading the legend on the plan it seems that part of it was added to shortly after the original survey, perhaps the part without plazas

And, as one can see Chavez Plaza was just one of 12 plazas proposed for the city

A period map of Sacramento in the very early 1850s Gold Rush era, showing that, though surveyed, the city hadn’t laid out streets over the entire grid just yet. An interesting feature is John Sutter’s competing town site of Sutterville (which failed), the appearance of early railroads linking the city back into the gold fields, and early levees, as the site was extremely flood prone
One can see the built up area closer to the river, shaded in a bit. Sacramento became the state capital in 1854, around the time of this map.

By 1870 the city had not grown much (population of around 17,000), but was already linked eastward by the transcontinental railroad, following the American River up to and over Donner Pass. In this view the capitol was sited on a four block reservation, location determined by siting the capital building on-axis with the wider M Street. The capitol was sited and went under construction in 186, completed in 1874.

In the view one can also see the railroad shops at the left, near the river. The shops were the major employer in the 19th century city, before the food processing & canning industry took off.

The original gridiron plat did undergo distortions into modern times, with expansion of the Capital grounds into Capital Park, the addition of South Side Park, disappearance of plazas via platting and, in one case, reservation for a auditorium.

Yet enough of the plazas remain as a grid of neighborhood parks, relieving the relentless gird of perfectly square city blocks.

The grid and plazas remain as a distinctive features of the old city, marking the original town as much as the grid plans and squares of Savannah and Philadelphia are characteristic of those cities. Locals recognize this as a special place, calling it the "Old City", and more recently "The Grid". This is now (actually has been for some time) the hip urban neighborhood in the city, getting recognition from the Bay Region press.

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