STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
The Passage of the Wright Law
The various efforts, extending over a period of fifteen years, of the farmers of Paradise Valley to secure irrigation have been detailed in previous chapters. During all these years the need was so pressing and the sentiment so universal that irrigation was required for these plains that at times some of the plans advocated promised to become successful. Yet in the end each project failed because the land owners differed as to the means to be adopted and could not agree to the point of definite organization.
It was under such circumstances that the leaders of irrigation thought within the boundaries of the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts conceived the idea that their only opportunity for success lay in securing an enactment by the legislature which would enable a fixed and definite majority to form an organization that would possess the power to construct an adequate system of irrigation. This idea was necessarily an evolution of all the previous trials. Aside from the economic necessity for irrigation, it was seen that all efforts to secure a voluntary organization would ultimately fail because of the diversity of sentiment.
The two dominant political parties in Stanislaus county in the campaign of 1886 in their platforms advocated the passage of such a law – a law that would embody the fundamental ideas of the previous efforts, that would bring the land and the water into joint ownership, that would force an organization by the votes of the electors, that would create a corporation – a public corporation capable of acting independently of the refractory minority – that possessed adequate power to construct an irrigation system – in fine, a law that would make the watering of the plains a public duty and service through a legal machinery provided by the State.
It was upon such a platform that the Democratic party of Stanislaus county nominated Hon. C. C. Wright as its candidate for the assembly in 1886. Mr. Wright accepted the nomination for the distinct purpose of formulating and of securing the adoption by the legislature of such an enactment. His nomination was urged by many of the leading land owners of the county. Mr. Wright made his canvass on this single issue and in his addresses to the electors outlined in a general way what he hoped to accomplish in the event of his election. Because of the general interest in the subject of irrigation and because of his lucid explanation of the purpose of his candidacy Mr. Wright was elected by a vote largely in excess of the party majority.
Mr. Wright, familiarly known as the father of the Wright Irrigation Law, - at this period one of the most prominent attorneys of the valley, - was one of the foremost agents in the county's development through his efforts to secure irrigation for the central plains. A native of Iowa, he came to the county in early days and secured a position as teacher in the La Grange schools. While teaching he was admitted to the bar and immediately took high rank as a lawyer and as a public spirited citizen. He held the district attorneyship of the county for one term. He was a man of high ideals and character, and generally beloved for his sterling qualities as a man and citizen. He possessed positive convictions, and the moral courage to adhere to them in the face of opposing forces. Ill health caused his removal to Los Angeles in 1889 where he practiced law until his death in 1906. For many years Mr. Wright was a trustee of the Modesto schools and manifested a great interest in their development.
The first draft of the bill which subsequently became in its finished form the Wright Law was prepared by Thomas A. Coldwell, lawyer of Modesto, an early settler and several times the district attorney of the county, at the request of his brother, John B. Coldwell, farmer and ardent irrigation advocate and pioneer. Having been the legal adviser of J. R. McDonald, the foremost leader of the irrigation movement on the West Side and the father of the West Side Irrigation District, and having been largely instrumental in the construction of the act providing for its
fundamental principles and provisions, Attorney Coldwell was peculiarly fitted to undertake writing this law. After its completion it was submitted to J. R. Broughton and other irrigation advocates for their approval. Certain amendments were suggested. In the amended form it was given to Mr. Wright who recast and rewrote the entire bill and introduced it in the legislature at the succeeding session.
This bill was introduced into the legislature on the first day on which bills could be introduced. Its passage through the assembly and the senate was protracted. No measure ever received closer scrutiny or criticism. As the measure was one of vital importance to the industry of the entire state and represented a novel departure in principle and practice in the economic handling of the topic involved – the irrigation of the State's arid domain – and as the success of the contemplated scheme meant so much to the State's development, the entire commonwealth manifested a keen interest in the bill. While it was pending the best talent of both branches of the legislature was directed to such amendments as were deemed necessary. Its provisions were discussed thoroughly by the press with approval. When the roll was called on its final passage it received the unanimous vote of both houses and was approved by the Governor on March 7, 1887.
When Mr. Wright returned to Modesto from the assembly after the close of the session and after his bill had become the law of the land, he was met at the old Southern Pacific depot by a large and enthusiastic concourse of people and tendered an ovation that had never before nor since been given to a representative from this county under any circumstances. He was escorted to his home with great pomp and there amid the throng of his fellow citizens, he received their plaudits for his conscientious labors in their behalf. It was the delicious hour of triumph and victory and honor for Mr. Wright. He had written into the statute law an enactment that in its final analysis meant more for the economic development of the State than any other bill that had ever been adopted by the legislature. The mandate that had been given to him by his constituents had been observed to the letter and in the spirit in which it was given. His duty had been faithfully performed.
Yet later – such are the mutations of fame and such the adventitious rewards for the honest performance of duty – when the protracted litigation over the formation of these two irrigation districts began and threatened to continue interminably and to wreck the hopes of the irrigation pioneers, there was much personal antagonism manifested toward the author of the law. Mr. Wright, though possessing the esteem of his fellow citizens, developed many implacable enemies among the anti-irrigationists. Throughout this period he acted as the man who possessed a clear conscience regarding his past efforts for the community, and received and merited the confidence of the vast majority of the people, a confidence which he continued to deserve and enjoy till the hour of his death. After the marvelous success of these two districts, however, those who had so violently abused the father of the act which made them possible, turned to know the sentiments of the man and to honor him. There was a general reaction among his former opponents. In the latter years of his life, C. C. Wright's name was constantly mentioned with honor and praise by those who had formerly so bitterly assailed him.
In 1887 Modesto possessed possibly a population of 1900 people. The census report of 1880 gave it a population of 1693 people while that of 1890 gave it a population of 2024. The assessed valuation of all the property in the town in 1887 was $1,483,827. In 1890 it was as follows: city and town lots, $565,058; real estate other than town lots, $62,226; improvements on the latter, $5,650; improvements on the town lots, $566,655; value of personal property, $331,261; money and solvent credits, $45,474; total, $1,576,324. In 1884 Modesto was incorporated as a city of the fifth class. At and during this period, it was a typical rough and ready country village with ungraded streets, and unplanked sidewalks, without city water or street illumination. The first glimpse of the town was uninviting. In the summer the streets were covered with knee deep sand. In the winter they were overlaid with mud and water puddles. Cattle of all descriptions roamed through the street at will. Fire operation was confined to the old hook and ladder company. There was little resemblance of law and order.
While the community was lacking in civic pride and aspiration its social life was most charming, the town being one large happy family and above everything else a unit on the irrigation proposition.
Its citizenship had hopes of a radical change under the benign influence of irrigation, but they did not at this time contemplate the obstructionist in the guise of the anti-irrigationists with their hired representatives of the law who abetted the blocking of progress and of the fruition of prosperity.
To the south of Modesto, Ceres with a small population was a thriving village. Turlock with a population of 175 in 1880 had risen to a village of 203 in 1890. Both of these villages were in the midst of a fine area of grain growing country. On the west side of the San Joaquin River the Southern Pacific railroad had built through that territory in 1887 and the town of Newman, named after Simon Newman, its founder, possessed a population of 621 by 1890 and absorbed the ancient settlements of Dutch Corners and Hill's Ferry. Oakdale, born in 1871, with a population of 376 in 1880 had become a lively village of 1012 in 1890. Grayson, in the midst of a marvelously productive grain country, which in 1880 showed a population of 175, had risen to a population of 331 in 1890. Knight's Ferry and Waterford, the former with a population of 191 and the latter with population of 63 in 1880, were unreported in the census of 1890. These villages were the most important settlements of the county in 1890. their standings are referred to in order to contrast their growth and progress under the subsequent irrigation era.
The population of the county in 1880 was reported in the census returns for that year as 8,751. In 1890 it had risen to 10,040. The entire county was devoted to wheat culture, both on the east and on the west sides of the San Joaquin river. The reports show a falling off in the cattle industry as compared with former years. While the county had made slow but steady growth during this decade, it was at best minimum. The droughts, the extreme aridity of the West Side, the decline in production of wheat and the small increase in the population indicated that these years were not the most prosperous the county had experienced. The growth was not indicative of a healthy economic condition. This is also shown by the small relative increase in the valuation of the county from 1880 to 1890, the total valuation in 1880 being $9,182,010 and in 1890 only $14,840,933, with the value of property affected by mortgages, $5,191,640, the assessed value of the trust deeds and mortgages being $3,577,623.
As the years of 1886 and 1887 mark the campaign for a workable scheme of irrigation, the adoption of the Wright Irrigation Law and the organization of the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, it may be well to state the exact economic condition of the county during these two years. The reports from which this data is compiled are on file in the assessor's office.
The report for 1886 is as follows: real estate, $10,177,229; improvements, $1,436,218; total real estate, $11,613,447; personal property, $2,422,012. The value of property affected by mortgages was $5,770,208, and the assessed value of the trust deeds and mortgages on the real estate was $2,618,903. The principal items in the personal property list are as follows: money on deposit, $49,739; 214 bee hives, value, $263; 8,956 gallons of brandy, $2,357; 31,911 calves, $21,861; 194 beef cattle, $3,279; 6,855 cattle, $106,492; 148 mules, $5,235; 2,372 colts, $68,003; 2,357 cows, $74,498; farming implements, $35,350; store fixtures, $26,147; furniture, $127,449; goats, value $10,789; goods, wares and merchandise, $221,406; 12,537 centals of wheat, $190,562; 38 centals of oats, $560; 205 centals of barley, $3,123; 26 centals of corn, $265; harness, robes, saddles, $42,516; 219 tons of hay, $1,757; hogs, $18,904; 24 tons of rye, $343; 32 thoroughbred horses, $5,500; 5,640 graded horses, $256,231; 1,575 American horses, $156,535; 39 pack jacks, $121; 134 jacks and jennies, $17,996; jewelry and plate, $9,760; libraries, $9,418; lumber, $10,514; machinery, $114,470; 3,799 mules, $318,432; 2,817 poultry, $8,519; 1,460 sheep, $2,025; 42,089 common sheep, $53,273; 18,083 lambs, $8,012; solvent credits, $181,363; 1,997 wagons and other vehicles, $154,075; 20,000 pounds of wool, $1,600; 2,078 cords of wood, $5,299; wines, $3,457.
The number of trees planted was given as follows: 75 lemon, 872 orange, 20 olive, 4,506 apple, 3,837 pear, 12,564 peach, 142 quince, 1,031 fig, 2,716 prune, 2,618 plum, 630 cherry, 6,408 apricot, 418 nectarine, 1,359 almonds.
The two railroads of the county were the Stockton & Copperopolis railroad to Oakdale and the Southern Pacific that pierced the central portion of the county from the Stanislaus river to the southern boundary through Salida, Modesto, Ceres and Turlock.
There were 22 miles of telegraph lines in the county, the property of the Southern Pacific company. The Western Union Telegraph company possessed 33 miles and the Hill's Ferry Telegraph company 7 1/2 miles in the county, according to this report.
The assessor's report for 1887 shows the following: country lands, $9,752,479; town lots, $535,000; telephone lines, $11,700; ditches, $6,880; total value of land, $10,306,059. The improvements on the land were assessed at $1,733,983, distributed as follows: on country lands, $1,006,181; on town lots, $692,677; improvements on land assessed to others than owners, $35,125. Money and solvent credits were assessed at $253,604, the personal property at $2,422,095. The total assessed valuation of the county was $14,715,741. The value of property affected by mortgage was $5,361,241, while the assessed value of the trust deeds and mortgages was $3,041,720. The number of acres sown for the crop of 1887 was as follows: wheat, 230,000 acres; oats, 355 acres; barley, 25,399 acres; hay, 1,694 acres; corn, 756 acres; number of fruit trees growing, 38,000; acres of grape vines growing, 498 1/2. The items of the personal property are not given for this year because they show no material variance from the year 1886.
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.