Trivia time: What frontier outpost became the gateway to the Gold Rush of 1849? What town was the Western destination of the 1,966-mile Pony Express mail run? Where in California did America's transcontinental railroad begin?
Answer Sacramento and you get all three right. But to relive the early days of our state capital you have to visit Old Sacramento, a river-front area covering 27 acres.
A $100-million historical preservation project has returned the site to boom-town time, 1849 to 1870. Stroll along balcony-covered boardwalks or climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage to survey the remarkable restoration.
Old Sacramento visitors can listen to a case in the first chambers of the state Supreme Court, watch a play at the Eagle Theater of 1849, pan gold in the Sacramento History Center and tap out a message in the old telegraph office.
What was Sacramento's desolate skid row in 1965 has been transformed into a lively historic quarter with dozens of vintage buildings that house museums, restaurants, shops and offices.
A major attraction is the California State Railroad Museum with 21 handsomely restored locomotives and rail cars. You can tour the Central Pacific Passenger Station, Western depot for cross-country train travel in the 1870s.
Historical walking tours of Old Sacramento depart from the station on weekends at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Or follow a self-guiding tour map available from the Old Sacramento Citizens and Merchants Assn. It's in the B. F. Hastings Building at 2nd and J streets; go in the post office entrance at 130 J St.
During 1860-61, the Pony Express arrived with the mail at the same building after a 10-day trip from St. Joseph, Mo. These days a door on 2nd Street leads to the Communications Museum where exhibits recall early mail service and the transcontinental telegraph that put the pony riders out of business.
On the opposite corner you'll see the bronze sculpture of a horse and rider erected as a monument to the Pony Express.
Climb an outside stairway to the Hastings Building's second floor to see the re-created chambers of California's Supreme Court that were in use until 1869, when the state Capitol was built. Also peek in the minimuseum of Wells Fargo Bank on the street level.
Near the river at Front and L streets you can go back to class in a one-room schoolhouse that represented Sacramento's first public school in 1854. Pull a knotted rope by the front door to ring the school bell, then read the number of lashes kids received for various offenses in the "good old days."
Also on Front Street is the canvas-sided Eagle Theater, a replacement for the original that was almost washed away with the river flood of 1850. Contemporary plays are performed Friday and Saturday evenings. For information, call (916) 446-6761. During the day, brief slide shows about Sacramento are sometimes run for visitors.
Several structures are open to the public as part of Old Sacramento State Historic Park, including a replica of an 1850s hardware store in the Big Four Building. The store was operated by Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, who later joined with two other Sacramento merchants, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, to plan the first transcontinental railway in an office upstairs.
The first locomotive of their Central Pacific Railroad is on display in the state railroad museum, along with a grand collection of other engines and train cars that helped expand the West. Admission is $3; ages 6-17, $1.
River transportation first put Sacramento on the map, and the waterfront also has been rebuilt. You can board the Matthew McKinley, a pseudo paddle-wheeler that makes sightseeing ($10) and Sunday brunch and dinner cruises ($25-$35) on the Sacramento River. For information, call (916) 441-6481.
Tied up at the wharf is a replica of the Globe, an 1833 brig converted to a floating warehouse during Gold Rush days. Also look for the Delta King, a paddle-wheeler that ran between San Francisco and Sacramento earlier this century. It's being restored as a floating hotel with restaurants, shops and a museum.
Cobblestone streets, gas lamps and horse-drawn vehicles add to the atmosphere of Old Sacramento. You can hire a carriage for a 10-minute ride around the area for $10 (up to seven passengers). Or take a 15-minute ride along the river for $15.
Signs and facades recall the original uses of many buildings, but the activities within are often of modern times. Shops now occupy the Schroth Building bath house on 2nd Street, where sun-heated water was changed in the tubs after every 10 baths.
Two blocks away the 1853 building of volunteer Fire Company No. 3 has become a popular restaurant called the Firehouse; enter through a rear patio from Firehouse Alley. Another favorite eatery, Fat City, was once the store of Sam Brannan who made a fortune selling supplies to the gold miners.