I certainly have no regrets about leaving Marysville – my home of two years – behind in favor of the relatively cosmopolitan Sacramento (insert snickers from San Franciscans here), but I do owe Marysville a little bit of respect for its history. It was already a bustling city when California gained statehood in 1850, although little remains to be seen of its original character. This is due primarily to two undisputable facts: 1) The pioneers and a couple of generations after them seemed unable to prevent themselves from burning things to the ground every few years. In Marysville, this tendency stuck around well into the 1950s, long after fire departments had been invented. Maybe it’s something in the water. 2) City planners in the 1960s and 70s seemed to get some kind of perverse kick out of replacing handsome, vintage buildings with buildings that looked like giant cinder-block shoeboxes. I understand that it’s sometimes too expensive to restore old buildings and they have to go, but it’s unfortunate so many of them went at a time when the Hideously Ugly school of architectural design was in vogue. (If you can find one example of a nice-looking building designed and built between 1961 and 1979, e-mail it to me and I’ll send you a prize.)
Anyway, most of you who know me personally know that I like history, and I particularly like to observe how things change, subtly or radically, over time. It’s why I chose to include the “This Used To Be…” series of photos in my 90’s Playlist series. I was also inspired by a series of books called Then & Now which juxtapose vintage pictures with those taken at the same place in modern times. I decided I could do the same thing based on the pictures in Images of America: Marysville by Tammy L. Hopkins and Henry Delamere. So I headed out with my camera and a copy of the book to document the changes that Marysville has gone through. It sometimes took some hardcore squinting at the old photos, and a little guesswork, but I think I matched things up okay. My photos don’t look too great for the simple reason that I’m a shitty photographer with cheap equipment, and also because occasionally time or guesswork failed me when I was on site in Marysville (I took a few shots of the wrong side of the street), so I used images captured from Google Street View instead.
So, with your patient indulgence, allow The Holy Bee of Ephesus to present MARYSVILLE: THEN & NOW.
First of all, a map to orient any of you unfamiliar with the town.
Most of the historic stuff we’ll be seeing is in the rectangular area bounded by E St. to the west, B St. to the east, Ellis Lake to the north, and 1st St. to the south. There are some exceptions, but that’s pretty much it. Over the Feather River to the west is Marysville’s “twin” city of Yuba City, which is much bigger and fancies itself more sophisticated. I lived off of 14th Street, on the north side of Ellis Lake (outside the map’s top boundary.)
Excuse me while I go into full historian mode for a moment (picture me lighting a pipe and brushing the lint off one of my suede elbow patches).
In 1842, California was still part of Mexico, albeit a part in which no one but American settlers had any interest in residing. The Mexican government gave huge land grants to anyone who could fog a mirror, and much of it ended up in the grip of California grand poobah and somewhat lunkheaded businessman John Sutter. Sutter leased some of his approximately one kajillion acres of northern California land to Prussian immigrant Theodor Cordua, who established an adobe trading post at the convergence of the Yuba and Feather Rivers. As the bemused Maidu Indians looked on, munching their acorn paste, Cordua presumably shouted something to them like “Hey, can you give me a hand with this crate?” and by 1849, all the slower Indians in the area were “employed” as laborers by Cordua and his business partners. The rest had understandably scattered. (The term “Yuba,” which was applied to the river and general surroundings came from either a small band or sub-tribe of these Native Americans, or a variation on the Spanish word for “grape” — uva. Take your pick.)
Cordua gave his settlement the name of “New Mecklenburg,” but his more sensible neighbors decided that was a blazingly stupid name, and took to calling it Cordua’s Ranch, or simply “The Plaza.” When the Gold Rush hit, it became an important way station for people traveling to the ore-rich Sierra Nevada foothills, which began a few miles to the east. A few of the bigger steamboats coming up from the Bay Area began making New Mecklenburg a stop. (The first steamboat to navigate the Yuba River was the Linda, whose name lives on in a scuzzy little meth town just south of Marysville.)
Cordua sold off big chunks of his holdings to various speculators, but much of it went to a French immigrant named Charles Covillaud, who was rolling in profits from the early days of the Gold Rush. Everyone was making money hand over fist. (Except for the Chinese immigrants who poured into Marysville by the wagonful, and established a mini-Chinatown around 1st and C Streets. The Chinese referred to Marysville as “Sam Fow,” or “Third City” as it was the third city they came to after passing through San Francisco and Sacramento.) Covillaud then sold portions of his holdings to professional adventurers Jose Ramirez of Chile and John Sampson of Britain (by way of Chile) for another tidy profit. It was that kind of time. Frenzied buying, selling, subdividing. Entrepreneurs, soldiers-of-fortune, and various miscreants flocking in from everywhere, everything coated with a fine layer of gold dust. Craziness.
The portion of land Covillaud cannily kept for himself is what became the city of Marysville proper. He named it after his wife, Mary Murphy, who was a Donner Party survivor (and thus, a suspected cannibal, which never seems to get mentioned.) Much was made of this, though I don’t see why. In the mid-1800’s, if you survived one gruesome life-threatening event, another was waiting in line almost immediately. Sure enough, ol’ Mary checked out at age 36.
There seemed to be no limit to what Marysville could accomplish. It was the seventh (or possibly eighth) incorporated city in the new state of California, and there was talk of it even becoming the state capital. Developers began selling it as the “New York of the Pacific.” Imposing brick structures replaced the adobe huts and canvas tents. Greatness was in their grasp.
Then the dumb bastards went and burned it all down within a year.
Upon rebuilding, the citizens of Marysville soon discovered that their settlement was just as susceptible to flooding as any other town in the central valley of California. Californians loved building permanent settlements on floodplains, because that’s where the best farming is. But listen to the word: floodplains. See what it does there? The word is its own definition. Floodplains have a tendency to flood. It’s not that the Hardy Pioneers weren’t aware of the situation, but they seemed not to care, relying on engineering (bypasses and levees) to solve the issue. Difficult as it is to envision now, the earliest descriptions of Marysville describe it as being situated on bluffs above the Yuba River, so at first it seemed like flooding wouldn’t be a problem at all. Marysvillians could enjoy a sense of smug superiority, being literally above it all.
Then the place started flooding anyway.
It gradually dawned on the smarter ones that hydraulic mining upriver was increasing the sediment load and, thus, raising the level of the riverbed. The bluffs were disappearing. In 1875, a team of engineers put together an intricate series of levees designed to protect the town and its precious commerce. When they finished up, wiped their brows and had a look around, they realized they had entirely hemmed in the city with levees. It would forever be confined to its 1875 borders.
Adding insult to injury, the increased sediment in the riverbed caused the big paddle-wheeled riverboats to be unable to navigate as far north as Marysville. Sacramento got all of its business. Marysville as a major shipping port with the potential to be the “New York of the Pacific” was no more. So, Marysville population circa 1853: about 10,000. Population circa 2009: just under 12,000. For most of its existence, Marysville has been a slightly bitter, kind of backward little town that had all of its hope to be something better snuffed out over 130 years ago.
OK, let’s make with the photos before I put you all to sleep…Click on the pics for a more close-up look.
The Golden Eagle’s interior.
Tired of fires? Okay.
My otherwise reliable Marysville book states fancifully that “In 1867, while campaigning, Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the [U.S.] Hotel.” For one thing, Grant was still in the military in 1867, had his hands full dealing with Reconstruction, and never left D.C. For another, no self-respecting 19th-century presidential candidate would “campaign”(as we understand the term) a full year before the election, before receiving the nomination, and certainly not in the wilds of California. Grant did not even attend his own party’s convention in 1868. A little research and common sense is all it takes, people! Get it right if you’re going to put it in a book. (Blogs get more leeway.) If Grant stayed in the hotel (I’m not saying he didn’t), it was most certainly in the fall of 1879, when he was on his post-presidential world tour. He passed through California after crossing the Pacific from Yokohama. OK, lecture mode “off.”
Some pretty nice old private residences still exist in the area west of E Street, but a lot of the ostentatious mansions of the city’s founders are gone.
As it happens, three of the oldest houses in Marysville are still standing.
Want more? I gots more. But let’s call it a day for now. I’ve been beavering away at this time-waster for (checks time) over five hours now. And that’s just the text. I’m committed to finishing this because I already spent last night scanning and sorting all the pictures.
Next entry coming soon. There’ll be more fires, I promise.