The progressive nature of Folsom currently could give the impression of a relatively new city but, in fact, Folsom is one of the older cities in Northern California and is very proud of its past.
The first known European to explore the area we now call Folsom came with a company of trappers in April of 1827. Prior to that the only people here were the Maidu Indians. Fur trapping was the primary occupation until gold was discovered in 1848, about 20 miles to the north at Sutter’s Mill. After the discovery of gold, many communities sprung up along the American River, including Mormon Island, Negro Bar and Prairie City.
Joseph Libby Folsom acquired the land in the area and hired engineer Theodore Judah to survey it for a railway and a township to be called Granite City. Unfortunately, Folsom died in 1855 before he could see the development of his property. The town was renamed in his honor. He died the year before the Sacramento Valley Railroad sent the first train west of the Rockies from Sacramento to Folsom on September 22, 1856.
With the completion of the railroad, Folsom became a transportation hub to the Mother Lode with stage and freight lines meeting the train. Sutter Street was a center for hotels and commerce. From July 10, 1860 until July of 1861, Folsom became the western terminus for the Pony Express. During the gold rush, people came from all over the world to Folsom. In fact, in the 1860’s Folsom had one of the largest Chinese populations on the West Coast.
During these years the Folsom area saw many changes:
The town newspaper, the Folsom Telegraph, was established in 1856 and has been in continuous publication since. Folsom Prison was established in 1880. With the hydroelectric power generated by the prison dam, Folsom Powerhouse was built and transmitted electric power 22 miles to Sacramento July 13, 1895. This was the longest overhead transmission of power in the world at that time. The Historic Truss Bridge was built across the American River in 1895.
1900s – 1940s:
The Rainbow Bridge was built across the American River in 1919. As it became no longer needed, the Historic Truss Bridge was removed in 1930 and sent to Siskiyou County. In 1945, the city was formally incorporated as a city.
1950s – 1970s:
Folsom Dam was built in 1955 to control flooding in Sacramento, and to provide hydroelectric power and recreation. Folsom Lake flooded the former mining town Mormon Island, which was all but a few farms by the time the dam was built. Johnny Cash put Folsom on the map with his hit single “Folsom Prison Blues“. He later visited the prison to record an album in 1968. The city’s economy centered primarily around the prison during this time.
Intel came to town in 1984, ushering in thousands of residents, and trickling in to the local economy. The campus was located in a very rural setting at the time; construction of the campus displaced a family of mountain lions that were living where Intel was being located. With construction of the Prairie City Road on-ramp, workers discovered the remains of several unknown people; it is believed that they were former residents of the long-abandoned mining community Prairie City. Intel has since built 5 more buildings and has plans to build up to 2 more. The backbone of Folsom’s economy lies in Intel, the largest private employer in the Sacramento region.
Folsom saw a period of rapid expansion in the 1990s, as the suburbs of Sacramento spread out to the city. Once a sleepy little town, it soon became an affluent community. Strip malls and chain stores popped up all over town, as it became more centralized, and the population boomed. In 1995, Folsom Dam encountered a major gate failure, causing thousands of gallons to pour out of the dam before they could fix it. The repair work on the dam created many traffic issues, and the 2-lane Rainbow Bridge was then the only artery across the river. Lake Natoma Crossing was completed in 1999 to alleviate traffic congestion and smooth the traffic flow across Folsom.
The Historic Truss Bridge was returned from Siskiyou County in 2000 and placed on its original footings to be used as a bicycle and pedestrian bridge. After 9/11, the Folsom Dam discontinued offering public tours of the facility. In 2002, Folsom Dam Road was closed, causing massive traffic problems. The city was able to secure funds to build a new bridge to bypass Folsom Dam, Folsom Lake Crossing.
Work continues to raise the Folsom Dam by 7 feet for expanded flood protection. A separate (but related project) is also underway to create a spillway to dump water in the event of a large storm. Palladio Mall construction continues amid the recession.
For more information about Folsom’s history, we recommend the book Folsom Fables : Pieces of the Past. We also recommend visiting the Folsom History Museum.