Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Up The Road: Where To Now? The Sacramento Story

Robert Couse-Baker

People love to poke fun at Sacramento. Mark Twain was among the first. In Sacramento, he observed, “It is a fiery summer always, and you can gather roses, and eat strawberries and ice cream, and wear white linen clothes, and pant and perspire at eight or nine o’clock in the morning.”


Looking for an icon—like New York, the Big Apple—some folks have dubbed Sacramento the Big Tomato, a wry reference to its truck-crop heritage.

It’s a natural. Who hasn’t dodged and squished those highway tomatoes bouncing off open-air produce trailers as they roll on to local processing plants?


But people who dismiss Sacramento as an overgrown cowtown have confused it, linguistically, with Vacaville down the road—vaca meaning “cow” in Spanish.


A sure sign that the city has outgrown its rural roots is the fact that Sacramentans no longer laugh at such jokes.



Credit Greg Balzer / Flickr
California State Capitol, downtown Sacramento.

This rural hub of commerce and political wheeling and dealing is now a real city. What’s more, even Sacramento has set its personal sights on bodily fitness, stylish possessions, and “lifestyle.” Writer Cob Goshen protested this trend toward trendiness decades ago. “It’s as if we’ve packed up and moved to the remotest suburbs of Eliot’s Wasteland,” he said, “[and] exchanged lives of quiet desperation for those of cheerful inconsequence. No more long, hot days. No life and death struggle. It finally happened. We’re in California now.”


Sacramento definitely is in California—and near the heart of our collective story, for good and ill.


First here, of course, were native Maidu and Miwok communities. In 1839, when John Sutter and his Hawaiian crew moored their ships along the American River, the native population had already been decimated by diseases introduced by explorers, missionaries, hunters, and trappers.


But for John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant, it was a fortunate time. California’s Mexican government fretted over invading trappers and mountain men. Governor Alvarado happily granted him 50,000 acres—a move partially intended to thwart General Vallejo, his political rival. By 1845 Sutter’s modest adobe outpost, the center of his short-lived farming empire, made him undisputed king of Sacramento.


Even when the Americans took charge Sutter landed on his feet. His empire grew so large that his only limitation was lack of lumber. In 1848 he sent carpenter James Marshall 40 miles up the American River to build a lumber mill. Marshall’s accidental gold discovery there ended Sutter’s reign, his world suddenly overrun by the gold-crazy miners of 1849.



Credit Ed & Eddie / Flickr

Within five years, more than a half-million people arrived to seek their fortunes—many of them boldly stealing Sutter’s livestock, wood, and other equipment, his own employees leaving for the goldfields.

As Sacramento became de facto capital of the gold rush and the new Wild West, gold lined everyone’s pockets except Sutter’s. He died a bitter and broken man in 1880, in Washington, D.C., where he had traveled to beg for a pension.


Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.