Photos courtesy of Folsom History Museum
Folsom is famous across the country thanks to a country song about a prison recorded by Johnny Cash in 1956. The city's rich history actually began more than a century earlier with California's great Gold Rush and arrival of the railroad. Gold was first discovered along the south bank of the American River in the area known as Negro Bar. The discovery led to massive gold mining operations, as well as a need for rail service.
In 1847, William Leidesdorff, a successful trader who owned a prosperous shipping business, traveled to Sacramento by steamboat to see the 35,000 acres he had purchased years earlier. His land holdings extended from today’s Bradshaw Road along the south side of the American River to the present city of Folsom. That same year, U.S. Army Captain Joseph Folsom’s regiment arrived in California. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Folsom remained in the state and became interested in purchasing the land that Leidesdorff had left to his heirs following his death in 1848.
After a long fight to obtain the land, Folsom hired fellow railroad pioneer Theodore Judah to help establish a town site near the Negro Bar mining spot on the American River. Their early plans included shops along Sutter Street and a railroad depot. Folsom named the new town “Granite City.” Judah and Folsom planned the town as a railroad terminus before there were railroads in California. Though Folsom didn’t live to see it, his dream came true on Feb. 22, 1856 when the first train on the first railroad in the West arrived in Folsom from Sacramento.
Following Folsom’s death at the age of 38, his successors renamed the town in his memory. By January 1856, every lot had been sold, and three new hotels were open in the town known as Folsom. Several decades later, construction began on Folsom Prison. Inmates helped construct the facility, which opened in 1880 when the first prisoners were moved to relieve over-crowding at San Quentin.
Following construction of the Folsom Powerhouse, Folsom made history in 1895 with the first long-distance transmission of electricity-- 22 miles from Folsom to Sacramento. The Powerhouse helped usher in the age of electricity with this notable accomplishment. The city’s historic truss bridge was completed in 1893 to transport people, cattle and small vehicles across the American River. In 1917, the Rainbow Bridge opened to accommodate automobiles. It was the only option for crossing the river until the Lake Natoma Crossing opened in 1999.
Following a campaigned spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce in 1946, Folsom became a city. The final vote was 285 in favor of incorporation and 168 opposed. Members of the first City Council were Leland Miller, Harry Patton, Eugene Kerr, Wendell Van Winkle and Norbert Relvas. Hazel McFarland was elected city clerk and Wilma Hoxie was the first treasurer. Council members elected Eugene Kerr as the city’s first mayor.
To learn more about Folsom’s history, visit the Folsom History Museum at 823 Sutter Street. Call (916) 985-2707 for hours and directions.
Folsom History Museum Website