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



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.








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The Organization of Modesto District




Of all the great industrial enterprises that began operations under the most auspicious conditions, thereafter meeting with intense opposition, encountering almost insurmountable difficulties, and becoming involved in a protracted litigation than the history of the Modesto Irrigation District. That the men who conceived the plan ever carried forward this irrigation scheme to its conclusion must, indeed, be the marvel of those of the later era to whom the details of the past are but a faint echo of the trial.


To those who note the wonderful productivity of this district, who view its abundant prosperity its acres of fertile soil devoted to intensive cultivation its vineyards, orchards, its dairies, its cities teeming with commercial activity its progress, growth and development speaking evidences of a virile, moving community all the result of the wedding of the water with the land its complete system of irrigation administered under the plan of communal service the first in the great west and successful in all its elements, it must seem inconceivable that at any time during the evolution of its transcendent enterprise there was any dissent to the plan that has transformed the arid acres of Paradise Valley into the garden of fertility that embellishes the landscape about Modesto.


There are bright pages and there are dark pages in this history. It unfolds like the moving drama. Indeed, it may be called the epic of the waters of the mountains and the streams transferred to the plains. There were the first days of hope when the people voted the district into existence and provided the bonds wherewith to create the canals to transport the fructifying water to the parched lands. There were the strong men the irrigation pioneers -


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dreamers who visioned an irrigated empire on the central plains of old Stanislaus who valiantly grappled the first problems of the project and sought to consummate the scheme. Then came those who opposed the plans of these men anti-irrigationists who employed lawyers to transfer the contest to the courts and who by legal artifice and interminable delays which the law lends to litigants, protracted litigation beyond endurance. The opposing forces seized the reins of the governing board, refused to call elections, to levy assessments, to proceed with the work of the district. The bonds of the district became depressed. The collector was enjoined from collecting taxes. There were years of suspense, of stagnation, of depression.


Weary of the strife, and of the contest that halted progress, the men who looked into the future and saw the gleam of sunlight in the beyond, gathered their forces together, used the weapon of the opposition, took the districts' matters to the court and the judge compelled the recalcitrant directors to call an election. A board was then elected who proceeded to comprise with the bond holders and build the canals. When these were completed there was a grand jubilee in which the populace participated in a fete of thanksgiving and joy. The waters came from the mountains and the streams to the great dam at La Grange and through the canals to the lands of the district. The thirsty acres drank the waters of the mountains and the streams and bore abundantly. Prosperity again returned to Paradise Valley.


The first directorates of the Modesto Irrigation District undertook a great enterprise under a new law, the provisions of which were untried and the validity of which was as yet unadjudicated. To all the directors and to those to whom the administration of the law and the application of the principles of communal irrigation were delegated, the procedure was not only novel, but the manner of carrying forward the undertaking a matter of serious conjecture. There were no precedents to guide the official minds, much less to direct their activities. The first directors groped for means and methods. They pioneered the way. The colossal magnitude of the problem necessarily impelled slow and deliberate action. An error in the initial work would spell ultimate failure. It was a great experiment that the people of the Modesto Irrigation District were engaged in trying.


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Upon its success depended the fortunes and prosperity of the entire population of the area contained within its boundaries.


The district system of irrigation met with opposition in the initial stage. There was antagonism to the organization of the district by those who did not desire irrigation by any plan. To the ranchers who, during their entire lives, had been accustomed to dry farming on a large scale and whose broad domains under the old system of agricultural industry had given them affluence and comfort and a dominating influence in the community, the contemplated change in method came as a disturbing factor in their economic environment. Many felt themselves unfitted to undertake a new vocation in the line of agriculture. Others were opposed to the imposition of a tax which they assumed would become burdensome, while others were disinclined to accept the principle involved in the law. Though the numbers in these various classes were indeed relatively small, as the vote on the organization of the district and on the various issues of bonds demonstrates, this original opposition later crystallized into a most hostile attitude that almost wrecked the enterprise. It became a contest between inertia and activity progress and reaction. The larger majority of the people, including the farmers, favored and welcomed the proposed change in the economic conditions that irrigation would bring about. In deference to this opposition, certain modifications were made in the original boundaries of the proposed district by the county Board of Supervisors, and in 1889, the eastern section of the district aggregating 28,000 acres, was excluded. This portion is now in the Oakdale District.


After the approval of the Wright Law, little delay was permitted in the organization of the Modesto Irrigation District. A petition, dated April 25, 1887, was presented to the Board of Supervisors as prescribed in the law. This petition was heard by the Board on May 11th, when the election that was to determine the organization of the district was set for July 9th. At this election the organization of the district was submitted to the voters. It carried by a very large majority. The following officers were elected: Directors, J. W. Davison, E. H. Gatlin, Robert McHenry, A. G. Carver, and W. H. Finley; Treasurer, Isaac Perkins, Assessor, V. E. Bangs; and Collector, T. O. Owens.


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The directors elected were ardent irrigationists, and pioneers of the county who had previously participated in the irrigation movement from its inception. Robert McHenry, president of the First National Bank of Modesto, owner of the old Bald Eagle Ranch on the McHenry Road, and J. W. Davison, Supervisor and latterly one of the progressive citizens of Modesto, were extensive land owners. E. H. Gatlin and W. H. Finley were farmers of responsibility and good business judgment. A. G. Carver was a rancher residing on the old Carver road north of Modesto. Isaac Perkins was the first hardware merchant in Modesto and a highly esteemed business man. V. E. Bangs was a pioneer teacher and farmer who served the county as Assemblyman. All were well qualified to initiate the irrigation project under the provisions of the Wright Law.


The first meeting of this Board was held in the office of the First National Bank on July 23, 1887, A. G. Carver acting as chairman and J. W. Davison as secretary. Robert McHenry was chosen President of the Board and J. W. Davison its Secretary. On August 6th, the first acts of the Board were the selection of P. J. Hazen and C. A. Stonesifer as its attorneys and of C. E. Grunsky as its engineer.


The first preliminary plans and estimates were ordered on August 7, 1887, and were reported to the Board on October 20, 1887 by C. E. Grunsky, engineer. The works as preliminarily planned contemplated a dam ninety feet high above low water two miles above Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus river, with a canal fifty feet wide on the bottom leading to the district. The engineer's estimate of the cost at $646,000, was rejected as too high and a new plan ordered. The idea of the source of supply from the Stanislaus river was subsequently abandoned and Engineer P. Y. Baker was instructed to make surveys for a canal system from a source on the Tuolumne river. It was contemplated that the Modesto District should build its own dam on this river. These plans were procured within a few months and on December 14, 1887, the first bond election was held to vote moneys with which to construct the dam and the canals of the district in the sum of $800,000. These bonds were carried by a vote of 429 to 76.


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F. G. Brooks as the succeeding engineer prepared the new plans for the dam and for the canal system. During the first few years of the existence of the Modesto Irrigation District the proceedings were necessarily slow, the directors apparently grouping for the best means to solve the intricate problem that the law had imposed upon them.


At the second election held on April 4, 1888, there was a change in the personnel of the directorate, the following directors being chosen: G. D. Wootten, E. R. Crawford, Robert McHenry, A. G. Carver, and W. H. Finley. Robert McHenry became president of the Board, and G.D. Wootten the secretary. Mr. Wooten (sic) subsequently resigned his secretaryship and was replaced by W. W. Granger. Owing to ill health, Mr. McHenry attended but few meetings and took no active part in the work of the district during his second term to July 19, 1889 when he resigned and was succeeded by ex-Sheriff A. S. Fulkerth. A G. Carver was chosen the president of the Board. At the election on April 2, 1890, the directors returned were G. D. Wootten, F. A. Cressey, A. G. Carver, R. J. McKimmon, and W. H. Finley. C. E. Cunningham was elected assessor, and Isaac Perkins and T. O. Owens continued in office.


The most notable incident of this election was the appearance of F. A. Cressey and R. J. McKimmon on the directorate of the district. The importance of Mr. Cressey's election may be derived from the fact of his pronounced business capacity, his wide acquaintance and confidence of the people with whom the district was compelled to deal in the subsequent settlements and compromises, which ultimately placed the district on a sound basis, and in his indefatigable and effective labors in behalf of the district. R. J. McKimmon was the first anti-irrigation director elected to office. He consistently opposed every forward move of his associates and later in the history of the district instituted quo warranto proceedings with the object of the dissolution of the district. The election of Mr. McKimmon as a director was the first fruit of the effort of the anti-irrigationists to control the directorate of the district with the design of the overthrow of the district plan of irrigation.


During the first three years of the existence of this district the main work performed by the engineers was the making of surveys for the canals and for a dam on the rivers.


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The directors were persistent in their efforts to secure the proper surveys and the most desirable specifications for the dam. It was really the work of pioneering the project. In August, 1890, however, after preliminary negotiations, the full membership of the boards of directors of both the Modesto and Turlock districts with their attorneys met in Modesto to discuss and agree upon a joint dam and joint water rights for both districts. There were present at this meeting G. D. Wootten, F. A. Cressey, A. G. Carver, R. J. McKimmon, W. H. Finley, with C. A. Stonesifer, attorney of the Modesto District and Miller McPherson, H. A. Dunn, E. V. Cogswell, J. W. Mitchell and Roger M. Williams, with P. J. Hazen, their Attorney, for the Turlock District. It was a prolonged meeting, the entire day being devoted to the discussion of the preliminaries and the completion of the arrangements. It was one of the most important meetings ever held by either district or by both jointly, for at this meeting the contract was entered into by both districts to jointly build the La Grange dam. The plan outlined by Wm. Ham Hall at one of the earlier meetings in the infancy of the irrigation movement was accepted in the final analysis as the basis of operations. The report of Mr. Hall appears in Chapter II. It is a noteworthy fact that at this early meeting held in the old Grange hall in Modesto, April 21, 1877, A. G. Carver presided and F. A. Cressey and W. H. Finley were interested participants. The planted seed of the early effort was now bearing valuable fruit.


The directors decided to join in the construction of a joint dam at what was known as Watchman's House, about 1800 feet above the Wheaton dam. The claims of M. A. Wheaton were adjusted and all litigation with him brought to a close by the payment to him of the sum of $35,000, of which $32,500 was to be paid by the Turlock District and $2,500 by the Modesto District. Engineers Wagoner and Barton of the districts were instructed to prepare the plans for a rubble masonry or stone dam, the Boards in joint session to accept the one which in their judgment was the best. The agreement reached concerning the distribution of water was that each district divide the water on the basis of acreage of each of the districts. It was further agreed that if either district in the future desired to acquire additional water rights, the other


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district was to be given sixty days' notice of such intention and such district would have the option of paying one-half the cost and receiving one-half the benefit accruing form such additional water right. The joint dam agreed upon was to be higher than the one that would have been constructed by the Modesto District alone. The additional height permitted the district to go further back on the river and enabled the building of the canal at a lower cost and at the same time give it more permanence.


This agreement was generally hailed by the inhabitants of both districts as the most important event that had transpired in their history. It was likewise deemed the most valuable step that had yet been taken by either of the districts. It secured unanimous praise for the directors participating.


The Wheaton dam and water right had in June of this year been purchased by the Modesto District through the efforts of F. A. Cressey for the sum of $21,000, but disagreements having risen with reference thereto, suit was entered to condemn this property. This agreement of the district obviated further difficulty with Mr. Wheaton.


This joint agreement caused the rescission by the Modesto District of its prior decision to establish its source of supply on the Stanislaus river and definitely settled the selection of the Tuolumne river for the purpose.


During this period the most active members of the Modesto Board of Directors were F. A. Cressey and G. D. Wootten, who devoted their entire time and effort to the development of the works.


In August, 1890 Chief Engineer Luther Wagner reported to the Board a plan for a canal from the Tuolumne river source which was adopted and also submitted an outline for the La Grange dam.


In December, 1890, the office of secretary theretofore filled by W. W. Granger, was declared vacant and F. A. Cressey was elected to this position. Resigning in March of 1891 to give more of his time and effort to the construction of the dam and the canals of the district he was succeeded by Charles S. Abbott. Mr. Abbott has held this office continuously through all the successive administrations of the various boards of directors of the district.







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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