Every so often someone asks a question about our area's river towns. One recent such query was typical: "In the good old days, what was meant by the saying 'river towns'?"
In fact, it has been such a long time since that term was mentioned that many readers may not know anything about it. Yet the river towns played an important role in our history.
It all began with the 1849 Gold Rush, which lured more than 300,000 people to California and changed the state forever. Those settlers came from all over the world; some not only were enticed by the appeal of gold riches, but also by the promise of cheap land, sunny weather and adventure.
After most of the disappointed miners had failed in their quest for wealth from the gold mines, a number settled in our valley, in the area that later became Stanislaus County.
A significant number turned to farming and learned to work the soil, a few achieving exceptional success. Three of those high achievers were Robert McHenry, Charles Henry Huffman and John William Mitchell.
McHenry became wealthy by developing and streamlining his Bald Eagle Ranch, an extensive agricultural operation considered by some to have been the best in the West. Today, that site is a housing development on Crawford Road just a few miles north of Modesto.
McHenry also used his wealth to found and operate banks and became politically prominent as a member and chairman of the irrigation district board of directors.
Huffman, of Merced, grew the finest wheat in the area, earning the nickname of the "wheat king of the Central Valley." Rather than planting the standard wheat seeds of the era, he imported special seeds from overseas, thereby improving the quality of his crop.
In addition to becoming financially prosperous, he designed and built Merced's first irrigation system.
Mitchell also became known for founding a town, which he called Paradise City. Established in 1867, it was near what today are Grimes and Pauline avenues and Paradise Road, west of Modesto.
Historian Jack Brotherton describes the town in his book "Annals of Stanislaus County," noting that it had 18 blocks divided by 20-foot-wide alleys, with every lot measuring 20 by 140 feet.
It is of interest that only about a third of the lots were sold. In just a few years, most of the residents had moved away to the new town of Modesto.
Mitchell's primary reason for founding his town was to establish a riverboat landing to manage the huge crops of grain being harvested during the mid- to late 1860s.
Other industrious pioneers developed small villages on the banks of the three major rivers the San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne each settlement referred to as a river town. There, they built houses, general stores, hotels, blacksmith shops, saloons and more.
Because major roads and bridges were not constructed in the county until the late 1800s and into the 1900s, these resourceful men developed a system of toll ferries to transport passengers and goods back and forth across the sometimes turbulent rivers.
Brotherton describes the location of what was probably the first ferry in the Modesto area. Established in 1868, about two years before Modesto was founded, it was just a few yards below where the Seventh Street Bridge crosses the Tuolumne River today. Beginning in 1877, large landowner Daniel Whitmore became the owner of the ferry franchise.
In 1854, Whitmore, with his wife and their three children, joined a wagon train emigrating from Michigan to California, a journey lasting five months.
Later, while engaging in carpentry, he also worked in farming, cultivating 9,000 acres of wheat. However, Whitmore continued the operation of the ferry until 1884, when the construction of a bridge, within a few yards of the ferry crossing, made the ferry unnecessary.
The stories of our early history continue to fascinate and inspire.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.