1911: The Great Annexation

Posted on September 7, 2011 – 5:54 AM | by Admin
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By William Burg

In 1911, Sacramento was a city bursting at its seams. 44,000 people occupied the space between the levees on the Sacramento River, B Street, 31st Street (Alhambra Boulevard) and Y Street (Broadway), less than five square miles. The suburbs of Oak Park, East Sacramento and Highland Park, built on flood-prone but inexpensive farmland outside the city limits, offered cheaper land prices but lacked amenities like city water and sewers, paved roads, and police and fire protection. By year’s end, the city had tripled in size, added new connections across its rivers, and a campaign promise by a Sacramento-born governor added thousands of new voters to election rolls.

As improved levees reduced flood risks in the Sacramento Valley, many in Sacramento eyed suburban annexation as a way to promote urban growth. By 1910, Los Angeles and Oakland had demoted Sacramento from the second largest city in California to fourth place, largely because both of those cities eagerly annexed nearby suburbs on what had formerly been farmland. Other factors important for urban growth, like a second transcontinental railroad, interurban electric railroads, and major industries, were already present in Sacramento, but there was no room for new residents in the old city limits.

Oak Park felt the need for annexation the strongest. Some neighborhood leaders explored incorporation as early as 1905, but the cost of building their own sewer and water system was prohibitive.  In 1909, the newly-formed Oak Park Improvement Club, mostly real estate agents and businessmen unhappy with Oak Park’s slow growth, started a campaign for annexation to Sacramento. They saw the success of new neighborhoods within the city like Boulevard Park and Southside Park, who had city services, and wanted their own. Other suburbs like East Sacramento, whose population was smaller and wealthier than mostly working-class Oak Park, were less enthusiastic about annexation, and the city taxes it would bring. The city of Sacramento favored annexation, and promised to sponsor bonds to pay for sewers in the suburbs.

The annexation campaign’s backers hoped to place it on the ballot in 1910, so the new population would be counted in the federal census, but the vote was deferred until September of 1911. Oak Park overwhelmingly supported annexation, 596 votes to 185, while voters in Sacramento supported the plan 1390 yes to 630 no. This overwhelmed East Sacramento, who voted 72 in favor and 110 against. The annexation added about 20,000 people to the city’s population. By 1915, Oak Park had sewers, paved streets and connections to city water, and their first city fire department.

Sacramento also gained two new bridges in 1911. Southern Pacific Railroad replaced their old wooden bridge at I Street with a modern steel girder span. It had a 400 foot pivoting center to make way for river traffic, and featured a second level for automobiles.  The M Street Bridge, also a pivoting girder bridge, was constructed for the Northern Electric Railway (an interurban that ran from Chico to Sacramento) for their new Woodland branch. The bridge also carried trains for the Oakland Antioch & Eastern interurban line, and after 1913, streetcars to West Sacramento. The M Street Bridge had 9’ wide outriggers to carry wagons and foot traffic on each side.

In 1910, Sacramento native Hiram Johnson was elected Governor, on a Progressive platform of civic reform, voter participation, and reducing the power of big businesses like Southern Pacific and PG&E, who dominated California (and Sacramento) politics. Johnson’s Progressives introduced the initiative and referendum to California voters, but they had been part of Sacramento politics since 1903. Allied with Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson’s administration had ties with national Progressive movements, and as a native son, many Sacramento supporters. Johnson also campaigned on securing voting rights for California women, a promise he delivered in 1911 (see sidebar.)

Progressive real estate developer Clinton L. White defeated “Boss” Mayor Marshall Beard in 1908, but Beard was re-elected as mayor in 1910, a move that prompted Progressive reformers to call for a new city charter. This charter replaced the 1893 “Strong Mayor” charter, based on an executive mayor and board of trustees, with a commission system. Five commissioners, covering public works, streets, public health and safety, education and finance, were elected at-large, instead of ward-based trustees. The commissioners were non-partisan, an effort to remove party “machine” politics. Women’s groups, civic organizations and even Governor Johnson supported the new charter, also passed in 1911.

The commission system had its own problems. A candidate could be elected to run a city department without qualifications or experience in that area, if they had sufficient support. Big businesses like PG&E and Southern Pacific still held great influence over Sacramento politics. The charter was again updated in 1921 to its current council/manager system. However, the commission charter did result in a Sacramento milestone: in 1912, Luella Johnston became a city commissioner, the first woman elected to public office in the city of Sacramento.

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