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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.









pg. 20




First Efforts to Secure Irrigation



With only one year in three producing sufficient rain to insure bountiful crops and with the specter of drought after drought constantly before them, menacing their prosperity and retarding the development of the county, the farmers of Paradise Valley in 1871 directed their attention to the provision of methods for the irrigation of their arid lands. In this year they sought to use the Wheaton dam and water rights on the Tuolumne river, owned by the Tuolumne Water Company. M. A. Wheaton, a San Francisco lawyer, was practically the sole owner of the company and at the same time was deeply interested in the irrigation of the county.


The Wheaton dam was located upon the site of the present La Grange dam about a mile above the town of La Grange. It was a large wooden structure situated on a solid rock bottom with rock river sides. It contained over a quarter of a million of square feet of timber, secured by over sixteen tons of iron bolts. Notwithstanding successive floods through several seasons, it continued to exist without a single break either in permanency or solidity. It was constructed in 1852 for hydraulic mining purposes.


Mr. Wheaton acquired the property in 1855, having advanced money to carry forward the enterprise in its inception. He was also the owner of the land on both sides of the river for over a mile up stream from the dam site. This location was unquestionably the most advantageous and ideal for such a structure either for mining or agricultural purposes. It was probably the best among the sites that the headwaters of the Tuolumne river offered. Indeed, the first settlers who began the development of the county among the foothills of its eastern end early visioned the irrigation of the valley by the waters of the Tuolumne from the location of the Wheaton dam.


The plan by which it was contemplated to utilize the Wheaton franchise in 1871 was to procure the passage of


pg. 21


a bill by the legislature authorizing the county to subsidize the Tuolumne Water Company to build the system of canals that would furnish water to the farmers of the county. It was estimated that it would be necessary to construct at least two hundred miles of main and branch canals – over twenty miles of which were to be through mountainous country below the dam – ten miles on each side of the river – in order to complete the system. The undertaking being one of a colossal nature Mr. Wheaton was disinclined to engage in the enterprise unless assured of this financial support.


The desire for the use of the Wheaton properties came from the farmers of Paradise Valley. The details of the proposed plan were arranged by the land holders of this territory. Mr. Wheaton expressed a willingness to fully co-operate with the agriculturists fairly, in good faith, and in a spirit of friendly and mutual understanding. He assured the prospective users of the water that it could be furnished for the sum of one dollar and a quarter an acre on short term contracts. The county aid, he said, would assure the completion of the works and that thereafter, from the enhancement of land values and the increased fertility of the soil, their operation would decrease instead of increase taxation.


In accordance with the agreed suggestions the first bill that had for its object the irrigation of the plains was introduced into the state senate in 1872 by the senator from this district. It was the first definite effort to write into the law of the state an act that by its operation would transform the country's arid lands into an irrigated empire. It denoted the first vague beginning, the initial groping of the people for the legal machinery that would solve the economic problem that met them in the infancy of the country's industrial development.


The title of the act was “An Act to Encourage Irrigation.” It provided that within ninety days after its passage, the Board of Supervisors were required to call a special election in Stanislaus county, at which the qualified electors should vote upon the proposition authorizing the county to deliver to the Tuolumne Water Company its bonds to the amount of $150,000 to aid in the construction of canals, tunnels, flumes and ditches to be used as aqueducts for taking the waters of the Tuolumne river


pg. 22


out of their natural channel at the Wheaton dam, and conducting such waters for irrigation and other purposes, near the agricultural lands lying in Stanislaus county between the Merced and the Stanislaus rivers.


The bonds when issued were to bear interest at the rate of ten percent per annum. The interest falling due upon these bonds for the first five years of their issuance was to be met by the county and was to be repaid by the Tuolumne Water Company, its successors, or assigns, at the same time that the principal of the bonds was repaid by them. All the interest accruing after the expiration of the five years was to be repaid by the Company as it fell due. At the end of ten years from the issuance of the bonds the Tuolumne Water Company was required to pay to Stanislaus county in United States gold coin, as much money as should be equal to the entire amount of all the principal of all the bonds which should have been issued and delivered to the corporation, its successors and assigns.


The county was given a lien upon the dam, water rights and all the works of the Tuolumne Water Company as security for the payment of interest and principal, which lien could be foreclosed in the same manner as mortgages on real estate. In consideration of the issuance of bonds the Tuolumne Water Company was obliged to construct from its dam on the Tuolumne river, near La Grange, to the San Joaquin river, two canals or aqueducts, for irrigation and other useful purposes – one of which was to start on the northerly and the other on the southerly side of the Tuolumne river – at least one of which should be constructed from dam to the San Joaquin river within two years from the date of the issuance of the first bonds.


Failure to construct one of these canals within the time mentioned would cause the whole water right to vest in Stanislaus county. Work was to commence within 10 days after issuance of the bonds and be steadily prosecuted to completion. In order to ascertain the amounts expended the county clerk was authorized to require the President and the Secretary of the Company to furnish a statement certified under oath. The canals were to be thirty feet wide and four feet deep, and rights of way were to be furnished by the landowners to the Company.


Until the redemption of the bonds, their interest was to be provided for by the levying of a tax in the same manner as for county revenues.


pg. 23


Upon the delivery of the first $30,000 of bonds to the Company, the Board of Supervisors was required to exact of the Company an undertaking with sufficient sureties that the bonds or any portion thereof would be used for no other purpose than that specified in the act.


While this bill was acceptable to the owners of the Wheaton franchise, and while its terms were dictated by the landowners – as a proper and appropriate solution of their problem – it did not secure that unanimity of approval that would result in its adoption by the legislature. The lending of the credit of the county was objected to on the ground that it was a scheme of subsidy. Exception was also taken to the bill because of the probable enormous cost of the irrigation works as well as of the alleged opportunity for fraud on part of the Company in refusing to proceed with the work after the bonds had been delivered to it. Many were opposed because they assumed that it would unduly increase the rate of taxation. An interested opposition was created by a few powerful residents who desired to become members of the Company and pay for an interest in the water right by using their personal influence in inducing the people of the county to extend aid and in securing better contracts.


While many of the most prominent land owners were in hearty accord with the plan proposed, in consequence of these mixed elements of opposition and of the possible fact that the necessity for irrigation had not yet become apparently urgent from an economic standpoint, the bill failed of passage and with this failure, the first efforts of the farmers to secure irrigation for the plains of Paradise Valley were fruitless of immediate tangible result.


During the succeeding five years, at numerous meetings held in Modesto by those interested, the discussion of the irrigation problem continued with a more or less varying success, the purpose of the assemblies being to secure a unified sentiment as to the plan and the necessity for the provision of the means of watering the plains.


In 1877 another ambitious effort was undertaken to secure the use of the Wheaton franchise and dam for irrigation purposes, on this occasion the plan proposed taking the form of the organization of a joint stock company composed of land owners exclusively, the purchase outright of


pg. 24


the Wheaton property, and the construction of the canals and the ditches by the corporation.


The following proposition was submitted to the farmers by Mr. Wheaton and published in the Stanislaus Weekly News of July 7th, 1876:


“San Francisco, June 27.


“Editor News: - As there seems to be a general desire on the part of the land owners in the county of Stanislaus to take the water right, dam, etc., in and to the Tuolumne river and build their own irrigation canals so as to have free water forever on their lands, I send you the following plan which I have formed for the execution of the project, viz:

“First – Five good men and all land owners desiring water, to form a corporation.

“Second – Each land owner throughout the district may subscribe for as many shares of stock as he has acres of land and no more.

“Third – The stock shall be sold at one dollar per share and shall be subject to only enough subsequent assessments to pay the actual cost of finishing the irrigation works after the expenditure upon the works of the proceeds of the first sale of stock at one dollar per share.

“Fourth – No more shares of stock shall be disposed of than there are acres of land, and when stock it subscribed for it must be for some particular piece of land, which shall be described on the books of the company, and only the land thus described shall have any benefit from the stock thus subscribed for it, and the land thus described shall never have any other stock subscribed for it.

“Fifth – Land which has no stock subscribed for it shall have no water.

“Sixth – No one, not a land owner in the district, shall have any stock or ownership in the corporation nor any voice in its management.

“I am the sole owner of the water franchise of the Tuolumne river, with the dam and the land which it covers that is in the river about a mile above La Grange. I propose to let the corporation take the property at just what it has cost me which is not a tithe of its actual value.


“If this plan is carried out the whole district between the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus rivers can have free water on it for all time, after paying the actual first cost of


pg. 25


the irrigation works, which, as I believe, will not exceed two and a half dollars per acre.


“M. A. Wheaton.”


Active work toward the effectuation of the second Wheaton project began early in the year of 1877. Numerous meetings were held in Modesto by the irrigationists. Committees were appointed. Funds were secured to carry the plan forward to consummation. An intensive campaign was made to enlist sufficient acreage from the farmers, many of whom were unduly apathetic, to create the corporation. Wm. Ham Hall, a distinguished engineer, who had been employed to make the necessary preliminary surveys, was ready to report his investigations by the month of April of this year.


At a meeting held in Modesto on April 21, 1877, in the old Grange Hall attended by a number of farmers and land owners, presided over by A. G. Carver as chairman and Garrison Turner acting as secretary, Mr. Hall submitted his report. While the number of land owners present at this meeting was small in comparison to its importance and object, the enthusiastic earnestness of this coterie of irrigation pioneers – the men who later at great sacrifice of time, money and energy successfully consummated the Wright scheme – was ample compensation for this scarcity of participants. It signalized the first concrete attempt to outline a system of irrigation for this district – a plan which in its broad details was subsequently adopted under the Wright law. In retrospect, this meeting in the old Grange Hall, now a long departed memory of the struggling infant years of Modesto, may be said to have been the most important ever held on the plains of Stanislaus.


The following extracts from Mr. Hall's report denote its salient features:

“There are between the rivers mentioned (Stanislaus and the Tuolumne) about 100,000 acres of land which are suited to irrigation by the ordinary methods practiced in general agricultural irrigation.

“The Tuolumne river is the natural chief source of supply of water for these lands.

“The Stanislaus river is the natural source of supply for the portion of these lands lying nearest to it, particularly in the upper part of the district.



pg. 26


“The Tuolumne river would, beyond doubt, supply sufficient water for the irrigation of these land at all times.


“It is doubted whether the Stanislaus river could be counted upon as a source of supply for all of these lands.


“The Tuolumne river is the natural source of supply for much of the lands lying south of it and whatever work is projected for the irrigation from it of the lands northward, should, if possible, so far as water supply is concerned, be in accord and combined with the project for similar results upon the lands to the south.


“It is my opinion that water may be brought upon every section of the lands mentioned, for irrigation, at an expense per acre of not less than three nor more than four dollars for the main canals and not less than three and not more than four for the primary distributing ditches, or for the entire work not less than six nor more than eight dollars per acre.


“In any irrigation district, the main canal for conducting the water supply by no means constitutes the entire irrigation works necessary, the primary distributing ditches and the drainage system are equally a portion of the general scheme and should be planned and constructed in common with the principal work.”


In his remarks to the assembled irrigationists, Mr. Hall stated that the Stanislaus river drained but 900 square miles while the Tuolumne river drained about 1600 square miles. He also said that what made the cost so heavy per acre was the length of the canal before it reached the main body of irrigable land of the district – about fifteen miles in length. A letter from Mr. Wheaton addressed to J. J. Scrivner was read by Mr. Hall. Mr. Wheaton promised to do all in his power to forward the scheme. He alleged it was the best that he could devise. He also asserted that the plan made the whole affair voluntary and hence avoided law suits, and that it brought the land and the water together in a joint ownership.


The organization committee's report favored incorporation under the state law, the stock holders to be owners of irrigable land, no other course being practicable or possible without legislative authority.


“We cannot see how the canal can be constructed by the owners of the soil,” said the report, “whose duty it certainly is, if built at all, in any other manner.


pg. 27


“We are of the opinion that under corporate authority properly guarded and protected by by-laws, the funds can be raised to complete the canal with all the primary ditches, so as to bring the water to the door of every farmer in the valley – a result worthy of the best effort of every citizen.


“We think it advisable to incorporate with a capital stock of $600,000 divided into 150,000 shares, at $4 per share; that the land owners wishing to subscribe be required to subscribe for one share for each acre of irrigable land owned by him, and that upon the completion of the canal he be allowed water only for the number of acres corresponding to the number of shares subscribed for, and that no water be sold or otherwise disposed of until the stock holders are fully supplied, the stock holders to be taxed for water only such an amount as will be necessary to pay running expenses, repairs, etc.


“We also recommend that it be provided in the by-laws that in lieu of assessments the stockholder may convey to the corporation a sufficient quantity of his land to secure the amount of his liability upon the stock subscribed for, receiving at the same time from the corporation an obligation to reconvey any time within – years after the completion of the canal upon payment of all called assessments with interest at the rate of ten per cent per annum from the time the same became due, the stockholder also receiving a certificate of paid up capital stock.


“This system, if it can be carried out, will relieve the stock holder of the burden and annoyance of paying assessments until long after he has enjoyed the benefits of the canal, and we think the corporation will have no difficulty in obtaining the necessary funds by mortgaging the land thus conveyed at low rates of interest and for a long period of time.


“We further suggest that for the purpose of preventing speculation and other evils that might arise under corporate existence, that it be provided in the by-laws that no one be permitted to subscribe for or hold stock unless he be the owner of irrigable land along the line or within reach of the canal, and that no stock be allowed to be transferred upon the books of the company except on the sale of the land and then to be transferred only to the grantee of the land.


pg. 28


“We also recommend that proper arrangements be made for payment of assessments by the labor of the stock holders upon the works of the canal. By adopting the system herein indicated we think the canal can be constructed and that we will be able to pay the bulk of the debts from the profits and benefits derived from it.”


The report, signed by J. J. Scrivner, L. B. Walthall, Garrison Turner, J. B. Coldwell, and W. H. Finley, was adopted. Among the other active participants in this meeting were A. Hewel, Dr. S. M. McLean, John Brichman, Stephen Rogers, J. R. Briggs, G. W. Schell, J. M. Henderson, M. S. Duncan, Timothy Paige, Robert McHenry, R. R. Warder, F. A. Cressey, J. R. Broughton, James Johnson, George Perley, A. L. Cressey, J. F. Tucker, William Wilkerson and Joseph Dominici. All of these men subsequently became advocates of the Wright law and many of them were officials at various times of the Modesto Irrigation District. At the close of the meeting it was ascertained that 13,000 acres had been pledged.


At a subsequent meeting a simpler arrangement was presented. Articles of agreement were offered by which trustees were appointed to have detailed surveys made of the proposed canal from the several sources determined for the canal contemplated, and to ascertain the cost involved. To defray the expense an assessment was authorized to be levied upon each acre of land pledged not to exceed 10 cents an acre. After all these preliminaries were accomplished, the land owners subscribing to the agreement were permitted to become members of the land owner's corporation, into which it was contemplated the agreement should merge. The trustees named in this agreement were Timothy Paige, J. J. Scrivner, Robert McHenry, A. Hewel, J. R. Briggs, G. W. Schell, Theodore Turner, A. G. Carver, J. B. Coldwell, R. R. Warder, and Stephen Rogers. The agreement was to become effective and binding on the subscribers when a sufficient number of persons representing and subscribing for at least 40,000 acres or shares had affixed their signatures to the agreement.


Though the corporation was organized, the agreement never became binding on the subscribers. The necessary number of acres never ratified the agreement. The contemplated corporation therefore never became an existing body capable of acting.


pg. 29


Again the well designed efforts of the irrigation pioneers proved barren of the desired result, due to the apathy of the majority of the farmers who were most largely interested and who were primarily designed to be the most benefited by the irrigation of their lands.


The effort, however, was a distinct link in the chain of evolution in the irrigation movement. It denoted progress toward the goal. The underlying theory at this time was the joint ownership of the land and the water through a private corporation composed exclusively of the owners of the land, the cost of the works, of the management of the corporation, and of the up-keep of the canals to be defrayed by assessments on the land. These ideas subsequently became a living reality in the Wright Irrigation Law – the corporation became the public municipal corporation instead of the private one.


Undaunted by previous failures, the irrigationists continued their battle to bring the waters of the Tuolumne river to the plains of Paradise Valley. In 1878 they procured the passage by the legislature of a special law creating the “Modesto Irrigation District.” In this law they sought a solution of the irrigation problem by embodying in it provisions that contained all the ideas that were at the foundation of their former efforts.


The new scheme involved the creation of the land owners' corporation, the subsidy of this corporation by the county in the issuance of bonds, the building of the canals from the money secured from the sale of these bonds, and the distribution of the water to the lands included in the organization. This law gave the company the distinct status of a quasi-public corporation. It brought the land and the water together into a sort of joint ownership. The up-keep of the irrigation system was to be defrayed by assessments on the land owning stock in the corporation.


It was, indeed, an ambitious attempt to evolve an irrigation system through a legal machinery furnished by the state. While the law provided for the creation of a purely voluntary organization and while it was unsuccessful in accomplishing the anticipated result, it was but another step in the evolution that ultimately brought forward the Wright Irrigation Law. In the application of the principles contained in this enactment, this statute in conjunction with the ideas of the West Side Irrigation District law,


pg. 30


may justly be said to have furnished the fundamental principle of the Wright Law through varying in the details. From these laws the step to the Wright Law was short and swift.


The title of this law was as follows: “An Act to create an Irrigation District, to be called the Modesto Irrigation District.” It was approved by Governor William Irwin on March 30th, 1878, and became effective upon the Governor's signature to it.


Though many of the land owners of the district were in favor of organizing under the provisions of this act and making the effort to consummate the irrigation system, the plan failed because of apathy toward the creation of the corporation. The district continued to exist only on the statute book.¹


¹ This statute may be found in the session laws of 1878.






Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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