Up The Road: DIY Tour Of California Capitals, Part 1

Jun 20, 2018

Colton Hall, site of California’s Constitutional Convention, when Monterey was the capital city of Alta California.
Credit Jaybeatle at English Wikipedia

When people ask me where to go or what’s worth doing, I never know what to say. What makes a memorable trip depends on who you are, and what interests you. It’s hard to make that call for someone else. So, I ask questions, to get some sense of a person’s passions and preferences, and what to them makes a great trip.

And that’s how you plan an unforgettable do-it-yourself tour. Anyone can do it, once you settle on the right idea. Just DIY. Ask yourself those questions.

We’ll first imagine a DIY tour of California’s capitals—unlike other states, the Golden State has had quite a few capital cities—and later we’ll consider DIY tours of earthquakes, California in 1776, and affordable summer baseball.

 You might think a California capitals tour would focus on Sacramento. Ultimately, yes. That’s next time. But the Big Tomato is a relative latecomer. Start with Monterey, capital of Alta California under the Spanish starting in 1776. That’s right, 1776—the same year those thirteen colonies on the other side of the continent declared their independence from England. California as a distinct Euro- focused place has existed, at least in the popular imagination, since at least 1510, when a retired mercenary published a romance novel about California. Ruled by the great Queen Calafia, the imaginary rocky-shored island was populated only by fantastic beasts and black women—a mythic Greek fantasy—and overflowed with gold and jewels. No wonder Cortes later attached the name to found territories from Baja to Alaska. 

California’s third Capitol, Benicia
Credit Eugene Zelenko

Turns out there really was gold in California, part of the reason the state was rushed into statehood. Monterey, as California’s key port, was where the action was, no matter what flag was flying, so the new state’s constitution was drafted there, upstairs in Colton Hall, in the fall of 1849. Explore the museum and tour the grounds before taking a Monterey State Historic Park walking tour and then visiting Presidio of Monterey, one of the nation’s oldest military outposts. Can’t beat that view of Monterey Bay.

 The first and second sessions of the brand-new California legislature were held in a two-story hotel in San Jose—California’s first incorporated city and its first capital city—and the third was held in the state’s second capital, Vallejo. Nothing concrete remains of those histories. The historically curious will have better luck in Benicia, the state’s third capital and a major port of call between San Francisco and Sacramento. Lawmakers held forth for the fourth legislative session, in 1853, in a two-story brick building now preserved as Benicia Capitol State Historic Park. Then it was Sacramento’s turn. The magnificent Roman Corinthian state capitol we know today wasn’t completed until 1878. In the interim Sacramento’s regular winter inundations regularly shut down government. (People called it flooding, but it was actually the natural behavior of the city’s two huge rivers.) Governor Leland Stanford—yes, that Stanford—arrived in a rowboat for his January, 1862 inauguration. That year the capital temporarily moved to San Francisco. 

California State Capitol Building
Credit Jeff Turner

Moving the capital to new locales had become such a habit—and the fight among cities for political favor so intense—that one lawmaker feared being known as “the changing, mudscow, steamboat moving, forever uncertain legislature of California.” But after San Francisco, California political power steam-boated back upstream to Sacramento and somehow managed to stay put. More on that next time.

 Until then, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road and North State Public Radio. To listen again, and for links and photos, go to my-N-S-P-R-dot-org.