Miracle on M Street

City founders struck gold with state fair

By Rick Stevenson
July 2019

In the beginning, Northern California residents didn’t travel far to visit the State Fair. Like an itinerant carnival, the State Fair came to the people.

The year was 1854, and state political leaders decided California deserved an annual celebration to showcase the agricultural, industrial and cultural wonders of the West. California held a magical allure as home to the Gold Rush. To capitalize on that fame, the state Legislature authorized the new State Agricultural Society to organize the State Fair.

At first, nobody thought to create a permanent state fairgrounds. Fairs were transitory affairs, conducted in temporary venues. The first State Fair was held in San Francisco in 1854, followed by annual editions staged at Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton and finally Marysville in 1858.

The next year, with the Comstock Lode silver boom erupting across the Sierra near Virginia City, prospectors, engineers, salesmen, muleskinners, hustlers and thieves were once again rushing through Northern California to strike it rich. The Agriculture Society decided the State Fair should be anchored in the place that would become the state’s permanent capital: Sacramento City, as it was called.

When the Agricultural Society spoke, business and political leaders listened. The society was dominated by a statewide collection of dynamic personalities. Sacramento was strongly represented, led by society Vice President Edwin B. Crocker, who would become a State Supreme Court justice and creator of the art museum that carries his name today. Other members were D.O. Mills, a local banker and builder of the first New York skyscraper, and Lloyd Tevis, a lawyer who co-owned the 44,000-acre Rancho del Paso and was president of Wells Fargo.

After deciding the State Fair deserved a permanent address, the society’s board of directors needed a location. The 1855 Sacramento State Fair had been housed at the county courthouse, but that location was considered inadequate.

In June 1859, the society purchased land at the northeast corner of Sixth and M streets, today’s Capitol Mall near Golden 1 Center. The board asked architects to submit plans for an Agricultural Pavilion. A design by M.F. Butler was selected.

On June 28, the construction contract was awarded to A. Henley. Sacramento officials wasted no time in that era—work commenced three days later. Amazingly, Henley’s crews were finished in time for the 1859 State Fair in mid-September. The project was completed in 44 days.

They used hand tools, horses and highly skilled workers. The speed and quality of the 1859 State Fair construction endeavor would be difficult if not impossible to match today—even using cranes, tractors, power tools and craftsmen laboring under union contracts.

The principal materials were 850,000 brick with granite sills and lintels, plus 155,000 feet of lumber. In contrast with more modern projects sponsored by the state, the large public venue on M Street was entirely financed by private investors.

The completed edifice covered a footprint of 140 feet by 100 feet. The main hall was 100 feet by 120 feet, with a lower hall the same size. There were six committee rooms, lobbies and a refreshment room that measured 20 feet by 72 feet.
The main hall was the largest “clear chamber” room in the U.S., meaning there were no columns or roof supports to obstruct the view across the hall. The gas lighting was equally impressive—a chandelier of 56 burners illuminated the main hall, the largest light fixture in California.

Smaller chandeliers adorned the corners with 20 burners each. Brackets were spaced around the interior and provided more than 400 gas jets of illumination. A marble fountain 12 feet in diameter was near the north end. Twenty-three steps led to an arcade 48 feet wide with three arched main entrances. The building served Sacramento well into the 20th century.
The State Fair was geographically expansive. Agricultural Park, where the Sacramento Jockey Club managed the State Fair horse racing, was at a separate site, running between H and E streets, from 20th to 23rd streets. The track and grandstand were also built in 1859.

As a celebration of Sacramento’s importance and uniqueness, the State Fair was a rousing success. The years after 1859 saw Sacramento become the site of other world-class triumphs. The path of the American River was changed to accommodate the growing city. Streets were raised a full story and levees constructed to combat the habitual floods of the Sacramento River.

The western terminal of the Pony Express and later the western end of the transcontinental telegraph were established in Sacramento. The Transcontinental Railroad—the world’s greatest civil engineering project at the time—created a seamless route from the East Coast to Front Street on a ribbon of track. The State Capitol was completed in 1874. At Agricultural Park in 1877, experiments were underway to photograph horses and advance the invention of motion pictures.

As with the modern arena near the original site, Agricultural Pavilion served many activities. Concerts, balls and large celebrations were held on M Street. In 1877, a roller rink with a band provided music to glide to. Major exhibits of California artists such as Thomas Hill and William Keith drew crowds, with landscapes especially popular.

The building contained a library and collection of natural curiosities, a precursor of natural history museums. It was used as an armory for the Sacramento Light Artillery battery of the state militia.

After the State Fair moved to a new building on the State Capitol grounds in 1884, the pavilion continued as a major event site. But as the 20th century commenced, the building declined. It finished life as an athletic club, furniture showroom and by 1915 a livery stable.

In the early days of Sacramento, grand works were conceived, designed and executed with speed, craftsmanship and purpose unrecognizable to civic leaders today. The State Fair Agricultural Pavilion of 1859 showed the city at its best, and should be proudly remembered as the 2019 State Fair opens at Cal Expo.

Rick Stevenson is a fifth-generation Sacramentan and former president of the Sacramento County Historical Society. He can be reached at stevenson-richard@sbcglobal.net.

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