The hills and curves of our streets still reflect the footpaths of the native peoples who were here for countless years. The Siskiyou Trail that ran from California to Oregon followed those paths. Alexander McLeod, a Hudson’s Bay trapper from Vancouver, explored here as early as 1828. Other trappers, prospectors, surveyors, gold seekers and early teamsters hauling freight wagons followed him. It’s hard to imagine that Ewing Young drove a herd of cattle right through this rugged canyon on the way to settlements in Oregon in 1837–even before the government sent scientists and map-makers to the area in 1841.
The Union Pacific railyard–formerly the Southern Pacific railyard—runs alongside one of our main streets, Sacramento Avenue. On the other side of the railyard is the Sacramento River. The Central Pacific Railroad called this spot “Pusher” because this is where they added extra “pusher” locomotives to trains going north over the Siskiyou range. They built the roundhouse, turntable, depot, machine shops and railyard here in the late 1880s.
Sacramento Avenue “ previously called “Front Street” – sometime after the 1903 fire. The fountain which was donated to the town by Alexander Dunsmuir is in the lower center and there is a passenger train at the depot.
The business buildings along Sacramento Avenue were built after a big fire swept through here in 1903. It’s amazing how the town rose from the ashes and restored all the services needed by the railroad so quickly. Dunsmuir was designated as the headquarters for the railroad’s Shasta Division back in 1916. The Shasta Division was famous for being the smallest but most rugged of any on the Southern Pacific system.
We were incorporated as a California city in 1909, when the town was already thriving. Our newspaper started publishing in 1890, our first bank opened up in 1904, our elementary school opened its doors in 1887, our Masonic lodge was founded in 1889, our volunteer fire company was organized in 1897, and our first electrical plant started operating in 1891–powered by the waters of the Sacramento River.
Our other major arterial is Dunsmuir Avenue, running parallel to Sacramento Avenue and just up the hill from it. Dunsmuir Avenue used to be called Back Street–the other side of Front Street–and was lined with homes of the railroad workers and business people. Then about 1912, when automobiles started to come through, it became Highway 99 and started being called Florence Avenue. Another fire in 1924 took most of the homes. It was a devastating blow to the town. But it rose out of the ashes again. And when it did, because of the busy highway, the new structures were business buildings instead of homes. That’s why buildings on this street reflect the 1920s style of architecture that’s so different from the ones on Sacramento Avenue: Two different eras, two very different styles of architecture.
Now, most of the auto traffic runs past Dunsmuir on a super highway, and we get to keep our leisurely pace and quiet lifestyle. We still have the railroad sounds, though.
Dunsmuir Avenue – formerly Florence Avenue, Highway 99, and “Back Street” in about 1925. Today the cars are different but the buildings are much the same.
It’s great how the railroad has promoted tourism to our area. It started publicizing railroad excursions to the famous resorts in our area back in the 1880s, and in the 1920s ran special trains to bring visitors from far and wide. They came for our wonderful climate, superb fishing, scenic beauty, and the healing waters at well-known resorts such as Shasta Springs and Shasta Retreat.
Among the tourists were some famous visitors–presidents and actors and sports heroes. Clark Gable was here, and Errol Flynn, and Claudette Colbert. In 1924 Babe Ruth played an exhibition game at our ballpark, which is still there on the main street in the north part of town, near the entrance to our riverfront park.
The fountain at the park’s entrance was a gift from a British Columbia coal baron, Alexander Dunsmuir, back in 1888. He donated the fountain on condition that the town be named for him and his family.
Dunsmuir is a town that looks forward while cherishing its rich history, a town where high-tech startups mingle on the main streets with more traditional shops and restaurants, a town where echoes of the early 20th century mingle with the sounds of the railroad that launched this community over a hundred years ago.