Northeast of Sacramento, on a remote part of the former McClellan Air Force Base, there’s a massive warehouse that holds a treasure trove of artifacts from early California — items ranging from historic railroad ledgers to enormous Gold Rush-era freight wagons.
California State Parks curators Ross McGuire and Nancy Jenner, as well as State Parks Librarian Ellen Halteman, tell the stories of the items below.
Read and listen to the full story at The California Report Magazine. (All photos by Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
The state parks warehouse northeast of Sacramento is vast — and crowded with an array of objects that gives it the air of a Hollywood back lot.
According to Nancy Jenner, the parks department curator, the freight wagon on the left was donated by Charles Henry Huffman, who came to California at the start of the Gold Rush in 1848. He decided he’d make a better living hauling supplies to the mines than he would as a prospector. Huffman had this wagon built in 1855 for a cost of $2,700. He used a team of 12 mules to haul the wagon and freight to the gold fields.
The wagon was donated to historic Sutter’s Fort in downtown Sacramento in the 1890s. One observer wrote that “though many museums and historical societies wanted this old freighter, Mr. Huffman believed that the one place it should go was Sutter’s Fort, past which it had traveled many times.”
It ended up at the fort, where it was parked outside, exposed to the elements, for decades.
A bathtub that was used in the Governor’s Mansion in the 1920s now sits protected in the parks warehouse.
These 1860s-era wooden barber chairs feature velvet cushions. One was used at the Hotel Truckee and eventually ended up in the Sutter’s Fort collection. The larger barber chair date from the 1910s to the 1940s and would have been the kind of chair used in a classic barber shop.
A collection of dairy canisters and distilling equipment sits on shelves. They are from a small-scale dairy farm from the late 19th or early 20th century. The state parks system includes several parks in Sonoma and Mendocino that were coastal dairies, shipping butter and cheese by ship to San Francisco, according to Ross McGuire of the parks department.
More than 1,400 ledgers from the Southern Pacific Railroad, or subsidiary and predecessor companies, are housed in the warehouse.
Most are accounting records from the 19th century, but there are also records from the land and operating departments. The earliest ledger is a township tract book dated 1856 and the latest is a Southern Pacific Transportation Co. Interline Freight Account ledger from 1980, according to California State Parks librarian Ellen Halteman.
Some of the 1,400 railroad ledgers after they’ve been cataloged, cleaned, boxed and wrapped in acid-free paper.
This Victorian baby carriage is one of the many thousands of items that are placed on blocks of Styrofoam, strapped into stabilizing contraptions of wood and Plexiglas, and carefully housed in a concrete room with light, temperature and humidity controls. You can’t stop organic materials from decaying, but you can slow the process.
This Victorian baby carriage was donated to Sutter’s Fort in the 1940s by a family that had brought it from Iowa; they believed it had been in their family’s possession since the 1860s. It is an example of how the fort was a repository of immigrants’ heirlooms during the time it was the State Historical Museum, according to Nancy Jenner, a state parks curator.
A strap across this carriage appears to be the first sign of a seat belt, and the detail in the iron side rails is not something that is found nowadays.
This hearse was used to smuggle a cannon into the Amador County town of Volcano during the Civil War.
At the request of local supporters of the Union, who called themselves the Volcano Blues, the cannon tube was obtained from the Presidio in San Francisco as surplus from the Mexican War. It was shipped to Ione, then hidden in a casket, loaded in the hearse, and smuggled into Volcano under cover of darkness. The cannon was unloaded at the blacksmith shop, next to Sibley’s Brewery. The blacksmith constructed a cannon carriage for it.
The cannon was used in the only Civil War skirmish in Volcano.. When local Confederate sympathizers marched down the street, intent on taking possession of the next gold shipment to help fund the Southern cause, the outnumbered Volcano Blues lined up to stop them. When told to move, the Blues stepped aside, revealing the loaded cannon. That was enough to cow the would-be Confederates, and the confrontation ended without a shot being fired.
Ross McGuire stands in front of one of the largest collections of Indian baskets in the world—4,400 housed in the state parks’ North Highlands warehouse.
Baskets that range from as tiny as a teacup to large enough for bushels of acorns are individually wrapped and filled with Styrofoam peanuts to keep them from collapsing on themselves. Each has a tag describing its provenance and location in the collection.
In their former home the baskets were triple-stacked and overcrowded. Here they are well spaced and take up a linear mile of metal shelving, 15 levels high.
Many of the baskets may have a new home in coming years, at the California Indian Heritage Center, but for now they remain protected and available to loan out.