Sutter’s Fort was a 19th-century agricultural and trade colony in the Mexican Alta Californien province. The site of the fort is now part of the State Historic Park called Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, located at the corner of Evans Avenue and Sacramento Street (California) in Coloma, California.
Today, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park comprises 1,077 acres (430ha). The main feature of the park is the reconstructed adobe structure dating back to the mid-19th century, originally built by John Sutter. The state historic park has several other buildings from different eras, including a barn from the 1850s, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, and various gardens and landscaping projects.
There are approximately 200 campsites divided between two campground areas. One campground contains mostly recreational vehicles, while the other primarily offers tent camping facilities. Each campground has hot showers, flush toilets and garbage disposal sites. Camping costs range from $10 per night for a regular tent site to $30 for a yurt, depending on the season. Half of the campsites are available year round, the remainder open from April through October. The main road of the park leads past the old adobe to the modern day visitor center, gift shop, and ranger office before looping back around behind the adobe to the parking lot.
The visitor center/gift shop complex houses numerous displays featuring information about the history of Sutter’s Fort, current environmental issues, and wildlife seen within the park. Rangers offer tours of the grounds during daytime hours in summer, fall, and winter. Visitors can see the inside of the adobe, learn about its construction, and get a look at some of the tools used by carpenters, bricklayers, and farmers in the late 1800s. Other highlights include a scale model showing how the town might have looked in the 1850s, a replica gallows, and a collection of antique farming equipment. Every Labor Day weekend, the Old Town Adobe Days festival takes place in the park. This event is similar to the Fiestas de Los Angeles, except it is held annually rather than monthly.
The Old Town Adobe dates back to the mid-1800s, when it was constructed by Scottish sailor William Williams, who worked for contractor John Sutter. Originally, the structure consisted of just nine rooms, five of which were occupied by families related to Sutter. Over time, the house expanded to 20 rooms, 15 of which were occupied by 1910. In 1940, the property was put up for sale, with the intention of dividing the land among the residents of nearby Fairfield, who did not have access to the waterfront. However, no one wanted to live near a polluted wasteland of oil refineries, and the deal fell through.
In 1945, the property was transferred to the hands of the Native Sons of the Golden West, who preserved the adobe and made plans to turn it into a hotel. That plan came to fruition in 1951, when the sons of ’49, U.W. Hella, grandfathered in the existing liquor license, turned the adobe into the Sutter’s House Hotel. They operated the hotel for nearly thirty years, finally handing ownership over to the state in 1981. Shortly thereafter, the state designated the adobe as a state historical monument and suggested that it be restored and converted into a museum and interpretive center.
With help from a grant program run by the California Historical Resources Commission, the state agency in charge of preserving California’s cultural heritage, the project moved forward quickly. From 1984 to 1988, architect Antonin Raymond designed additions to the adobe, giving it a more formal living room, library, sun porch, and master bedroom. The result is a beautiful blend of architectural periods, incorporating elements from each design style. The Old Town Adobe Visitor Center / Museum Annex opens on December 2, 2016, coinciding with the annual Festival of Lights. Admission is charged and guided tours are given daily.
The original nine-room structure built by John Sutter in 1839 is still standing today. It features several large rooms with high ceilings, three fireplaces, window shutters, and an exterior wall covered with plaster to repel water. After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill (also owned by John Sutter) on January 24, 1848, Sutter decided that it would be best for all concerned if he left California. He sold his property to Robert P. Whiteside for $1,200 ($8,000 today), who then hired English seaman William Williams to take charge of the property.
When Sutter returned to England in 1850, he arranged for Mr. Whiteside to manage the property until such time as he could return to claim his own. However, when Sutter failed to return after two years, Mr. Whiteside took over management of the property himself. In September 1852, Mr. Whiteside’s family attempted to sell the entire property to pay off debts. A group of local citizens bought the property instead, forming a joint stock company which paid for the land in installments throughout the 1850s. By 1860, enough of the land had been purchased to allow for farming.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any American citizen to file for federal homestead status and receive a 160-acre (0.6km2) parcel of land free of charge. Two lots were filed for Sutter’s Fort, one by a man named Edward Turner and another by a lawyer named Oskar Thompson. On May 21, 1863, President Lincoln signed into law the creation of the District of Columbia, including its own suburb, Georgetown, which included much of the area of what later became Sutter’s Fort. This gave rise to the idea that the federal government could easily take possession of the whole thing, so long as proper taxes weren’t being paid.
At first, only native-born Washingtonians could apply for the coveted spot, but in 1870, Congress passed legislation allowing foreign-born persons to also stake a claim. An immigrant from Luxembourg, Henry Gass, applied for the homestead under this act and was granted the land, along with adjoining farmland, upon payment of $500 and performance of four years’ residence. Gass lived there with his wife and six children, eventually expanding the home to accommodate up to forty people.
During World War II, the city of Washington grew northward, encroaching onto Gass’ land. Seeking to make more room for housing developments, the National Park Service offered to buy out Gass and move him to a public facility where he could live out his remaining years. But Gass refused, preferring the less populated and less valuable farm land. His daughter, Mary Gass Dempsey, wrote to Senator Thomas Ferry, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Lands, requesting that her father’s rights be protected against “the ruthless greed” of the real estate developers. She received a favorable response, and in 1957, the federal government began buying Gass’ properties, piece by piece.
The last portion of the park to be created was the section known as Sky Meadows, or Sector 7G, which includes the main building, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and trails. Construction started in 1962 and finished in 1965; it cost about $4 million. The park officially opened to the public on June 10, 1966.