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



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.







pg. 40




The Economic Transformation of 1870-71



The years 1870-71 were important in the economic and in the political history of Stanislaus county. They witnessed the obliteration of settlements that had been land marks since the county's creation, and the birth of cities that were destined to assume leadership in politics and in agricultural industry. They beheld the advent of the steel highway through Paradise Valley, its appearance in the eastern end of the county, the passing of water traffic on the Tuolumne river, and the disappearance of the teaming over the plains of produce to the markets. They observed the transfer of the seat of government from the county's extreme east to its center. They saw the beginning of an era of progress in this central area – a few years previously regarded as a desert and unfit for agriculture.


The remarkable fertility of the virgin soil of Paradise Valley, its marvelous cereal production, and its rapid settlement caused the builders of rail roads to look to the San Joaquin Valley. Having built as far south as Lathrop, the fact was recognized early in 1870 that the Central Pacific would attempt to tap this great valley with its potential possibilities in development. Through what city and along what line of survey? These were the questions uppermost in the minds of the citizens who inhabited the plains to the south of the terminus at Lathrop, for the engineers were in the field reconnoitering routes and feeling out the sentiment of the population. The progressive plainsman recognized the fact that the coming of the railroad to or through any territory could make or break cities, and could build up new communities. Nor was the economic aspect of rapid and cheap transportation overlooked by the farsighted.


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The managers of the railroad that was soon to cleave the San Joaquin Valley met with much difficulty in their attempt to penetrate the broad acres of Paradise Valley in 1870. Strangely enough the political sentiment of the majority of the people of the county at this early day was strongly anti-railroad. Surveys were made through Paradise, Ripperdan, Empire and through the center of the county. The most logical route was determined to be through Paradise. The railroad authorities desired from the citizens of this settlement, a right of way through Paradise and assistance in the building of the bridge across the river at this point. After negotiations the people of Paradise refused to grant the railroad any concessions. The Contract and Finance Company – another name for the Central Pacific Rail Road Company – then purchased the present site of Modesto from the original settlers. Before the end of the year Modesto came into existence and Paradise, Tuolumne City, Berryville and Empire became memories of the county's infancy. After the advent of irrigation Empire City revived.


Both Empire and Tuolumne City were old settlements. Tuolumne City was founded in 1849 by Paxton McDowell near the mouth of this river in the vain hope that it would become the entrepot for stream. He possessed the visionary idea that here he could create a town that would rival Stockton in importance. It was quite a thriving village for a time but collapsed at the first low water and practically passed out of existence, becoming thereafter the ferry at this point. It subsequently revived when the interior of the county became thickly populated.


John G. Marvin, the first superintendent of schools of California, surveyed the town of Empire in 1850. It was the supply depot for the troops who operated against the Indians in 1851. In that year it was the head of navigation on the Tuolumne river. It was destroyed by the floods of 1853-4, and struggled along as a small settlement for many years. It was the county seat in 1854.


Paradise sprang into existence in the 60's. In 1870 it gave promise of development into a large and flourishing city and would have undoubtedly done so had it not been for the shortsighted policy or the obstinacy of its citizens. Singularly the town lots of Paradise came from John


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Mitchell, apparently the original settler, who subsequently moved to the south and promoted the town of Turlock. Berryville was a small settlement across the river from Paradise. Tuolumne City was located about seven miles and Paradise four miles to the west of the present Modesto on the Tuolumne river.


After the present site of Modesto had been selected, rapid progress was made in construction of the road from Lathrop. In June 1870, so swift had been the laying of the rails that A. N. Towne, traffic agent for the Central Pacific, wrote to John Murphy, of Murphy's Ferry, now Salida, that the company would put in a temporary side track near the Stanislaus river and that on notice from him a special engine and train of cars would be sent to that point on Tuesdays and Fridays and left there so that grain could be loaded from teams directly into the cars. The rate fixed for transportation was was $27 per car of 10 tons, or $2.70 per ton. From information gleaned from the issue of the Tuolumne City News of August 19, 1870, a train of cars arrived at this point during that month.


As the birth of Modesto and the building of this line of railroad were two momentous economic facts in the county's history, it will prove interesting to note the progress of both as taken from the files of the Tuolumne City News, published by the pioneer editor, J. D. Spencer, in the city which later in the year he forsook for the newer town. In the issue of September 2nd, he noted that fifty men were engaged in constructing the bridge across the Stanislaus river and that on the following Monday a large force was to commence grading between the Stanislaus and the Tuolumne rivers. On September 16th, he said that the San Joaquin Valley road was pushing forward rapidly, the bridge across the Stanislaus being well under way, 100 mechanics being engaged on it with perhaps 100 Chinese grading south from the river. At Murphy's he said there were a switch and one of the first stock corrals in the county to be used for transportation purposes. “The locomotive runs as far as the Stanislaus river and looks bravely into Stanislaus county as if anxious to try his speed through the wheat fields of Paradise.”


“The cars of the San Joaquin Valley Railroad crossed the Stanislaus river,” says the early day chronicler in the issue of October 14th, 1870, “and came into this county for the first time last Monday.



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The event was one of considerable rejoicing to many of our people and was witnessed by a large number of citizens. Only a few days more and the track will be completed to the Tuolumne river, the site of the proposed new town.”


The editor further stated that the railroad had purchased 400 acres of land north of the Tuolumne river and had supposedly laid them out in townsite and that houses in Paradise and Tuolumne City were preparing to move to the new town. In the issue of October 28th, it is stated that “the first train load of wheat shipped from the new town of Ralston was loaded by M. McClanathan on October 27th and went directly to Oakland.”


In this same issue Mr. Spencer said:

“Last week we learned that the railroad company had as a compliment named the proposed new town “Ralston.” The name looked well and pleased the generality of citizens. It looked well in print and had a pleasant sound. Ralston was the name and suited every one. It was published far and near as such. The plat now comes out marked “Modesto.” It appears that Ralston had not been consulted and through excessive Modesty declined to submit to the use of his name.”


In the issue of his paper of November 25th, 1870, on the eve of Mr. Spencer's casting his lot with the citizens of the new town, he says the following:


“Modesto continues to grow with a rapidity unparalleled in California. Three or four buildings are added to the town daily. The addition of 25 houses makes a change. The town fronts on both sides of the track for thee or four blocks and is compact with business buildings. Plat for suburban residences consisting of two acres lots has been laid off by Ike Ripperdan one half mile distant from the town and the lots have sold very rapidly at profitable rates.”


As soon as the citizens of the three neighboring villages became aware of the proposed creation of the new railroad town, there ensued that stampede that has become historic in the annals of the county. For months the highways were thronged with caravans of houses, merchandise and people en route to Modesto. It was indeed a picturesque sight that greeted the travelers as they journeyed to the new metropolis. Many of the older residences and a number of


pg. 44


the early stores were hauled from Paradise and Tuolumne City. Within two months from that day in the early part of October, 1870, on which the first house reached Modesto, the town boasted of over seventy edifices, of a population of nearly three hundred people and of a business district in which every line of merchandise and every sphere of commercial and professional activity were represented. By the end of December, 1870, Modesto was a respectably sized city.


Though the railroad authorities had endeavored to name the town in honor of W. C. Ralston, one of the most prominent citizens of the state – a tower of strength in the banking world and a large purchaser of wheat, the prime staple of the county, after his most modest declination, Judge Underhill, the sales agent of the company, assembled a convention of the citizens for the purpose of selecting a name. Mr. Ralston, also a director of the Company, was present at this meeting. After several names had been suggested, that of Ralston was again proposed. Mr. Ralston, again modestly refused in a speech in which he predicted the future of Modesto that it has since attained. Judge Stakes arose enthusiastically and said: “The parent of the infant is “Modesty” - then the baby's name must be Modesto” - Spanish for modesty. This name was adopted with acclaim. Mr. Spencer did not move to Modesto until December and was unaware of the circumstance attending the christening of the town.


In 1871 Modesto won the county seat from Knight's Ferry by an overwhelming vote. This election shifted the seat of government from the extreme east to the center of the county, where it has since remained, and caused the removal of the county archives and of the county officers to this community. It increased the population of the town. It definitely fixed the status of Modesto as the town of destiny.


In 1871 a transformation similar to that which occurred in Paradise Valley in the previous year took effect in the eastern end of the county. In this year a number of the citizens of Stockton began the construction of a railroad from Stockton to Visalia. The first line of the survey ran through Burneyville. Through efforts of A. J. Patterson, of Burneyville, now called Riverbank, who offered a large tract of land as a village site, the company was induced to change its line and to run it toward the site suggested.


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In this manner the town of Oakdale was founded in September, 1871, when the land donated by Mr. Patterson was surveyed, and blocked and streets laid out. The site having been surveyed, it was in order to select the name for the new town. The names of Oakdale, Oak Grove and Live Oak were suggested. After discussion the name of Oakdale was selected as being the most euphonious and appropriate as indicative of the beautiful forest of majestic oaks in which the city nestled. The rail road was completed to Oakdale in November, 1871. Mr. Patterson's suggestion to the builders of the railroad sealed the doom of three settlements.


The three towns that were effected by the commercial acumen of Mr. Patterson were Knight's Ferry, Langworth, and Burneyville. The first town was founded in 1849 when Captain Knight, the famous trapper, hunter and guide, who had piloted Fremont's expedition across the plains in the early 40's, pitched his pioneer tent on the riverside, built the first ferry over the Stanislaus, erected a hotel and began business. From that time it was the midway station between Stockton and Sonora, and the commercial center of this section. Annexed to Stanislaus county in 1860, it became the county seat in 1861, losing to Modesto ten years later. Burneyville, now Riverbank, was founded by Major James Burney, first sheriff of Mariposa county and veteran Indian fighter, shortly after the organization of the county. It was quite a settlement in 1871.


Langworth possesses a most romantic history which dates back to the golden days of '49. In 1852 Langworth district included all the land now lying between Riverbank on the Stanislaus eastward to what is now known as Orange Blossom colony. The land west of Oakdale was divided into ten large ranches – all a part of the old Thompson rancho, a Spanish land grant. Each contained several thousand acres. In 1860 Henry Langworth platted and named the town of Langworth on the main road above the hill from Burneyville. It soon became a flourishing village with many commercial establishments. The bells of the train as it passed through Oakdale in 1871 sounded the knell of Langworth. Only the red brick store building in which Bret Harte sat and dreamed and planned his stories and poems, the old hotel cellar in the oaks nearby, the Turner home, which was the garden place of the city, containing a while city block;


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the red brick school house and the neglected and almost forgotten cemetery on the hill now remain as landmarks of other days when Langworth was a city filled with ambitious people who looked forward hopefully to the time when their city would become the county's capital.


The inhabitants of these three villages moved to Oakdale duplicating the spectacular exodus that had taken place in the creation of Modesto. Oakdale soon became a fair sized and prosperous town in the midst of an area of excellent farming country. Two houses from Burneyville were the first buildings to reach the new town, one to be used as a restaurant and the other as a saloon. Other structures were removed from these settlements. From a grove of oaks with only two small houses, the town expanded in a few years into a beautiful city of over two thousand people. Oakdale remained the terminus of the rail road for many years.


The other towns that came into existence following the construction of the Central Pacific extension through Paradise Valley were Salida, Turlock and late the village of Ceres. Salida became the successor of Murphy's Ferry on the Stanislaus and was located about one mile south of the rail road bridge on this river. John Murphy, an early pioneer, who managed the ferry at this junction for many years, granted the rail road authorities the right of way over this land. Turlock was given the first depot south of Modesto. This town was laid out soon after Modesto's birth on land owned by John Mitchell whose possessions at this time constituted the princely domain of nearly one hundred thousand acres. Ceres, named after the goddess of grain, was located on land owned by Daniel Whitmore.


The first economic effect of the advent of railroad transportation into Stanislaus county was the shifting of population to those areas that were fed by the steel highway, the beginning of new communities and the passing of the older settlements. The next result was the increase of the acreage devoted to wheat culture for, with the more expeditious transportation, the industry of wheat growing became more profitable. The other noticeable feature was the entire disappearance of those old time water craft that had dotted the silvery sheen of the waters since the days of


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'49 and that had conveyed the country's produce to San Francisco and to Stockton.


The county's economic development and progress during the period from 1871 to 1887 was steady. There were years which proved disastrous to the farmers in consequence of droughts and which brought forth discussion of the irrigation problem. This epoch's statistical information, which will be unfolded in the succeeding chapter, will readily identify those years.





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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