BARE: Valley businessman's legacy was irrigation

columns@modbee.comJuly 20, 2013 

Henry Huffman was a businessman who left his mark up and down the valley and whose legacy includes a project that stands today and that brought him worldwide acclaim.

His full name was Charles Henry Huffman, but friends and acquaintances called him Henry Huffman. He was an amazing man who saw fame, fortune and great heartache.

Born in Germany in 1829, young Henry immigrated to the United States at age 3. He became a sailor, and then a ship's commander at age 19.

Mining in California during the Gold Rush, he founded a prosperous 20-year teaming (freighting) business in 1855.

Huffman married Robert McHenry's sister-in-law Sarah Hewitt.

He became a prominent wheat farmer, so much so that he was described by the Merced Express as "for years the largest and most successful wheat farmer in the county."

Huffman built a number of large warehouses in the Central Valley for storing wheat. They were in locations such as Paradise City, Stockton, Modesto and Merced. The one in Modesto was at Ninth and I streets. It may be recalled that Modesto's first Fourth of July celebration was held in Huffman's Ninth Street warehouse in 1874.

However, Huffman's major contribution, which brought him worldwide fame, was designing and constructing what was then a technically advanced irrigation system for the county of Merced.

After seeing the plans, financier Charles Crocker agreed to fund Huffman's irrigation project. The endeavor began in 1883 and took five years to complete at a cost of $4 million.

It involved the digging of a 27-mile main canal and the hazardous construction of two tunnels, one of which was a mile long and required blasting through solid rock. The project also required the building of a reservoir with a 50-foot high dam and a 60-foot tall water tower.

That reservoir is now called Lake Yosemite, and its tall tower still stands.

After completion, the irrigation project was described as the largest and the finest in the state, in the nation and, by some, in the world. The system was dedicated in February 1888, and 6,000 people gathered at the Merced dam for the ceremonies.

The trail leading to the dam was lined with hundreds of horses, carts, carriages and wagons that stretched for more than four miles.

The night before the dedication, Crocker arrived with two railroad cars filled with 150 guests, as a band played and cannons boomed.

It was Huffman's time of glory. It was a time when he was regarded as a hero.

After the dedication in 1888, Crocker wanted to buy out Huffman and offered him $10 million for Crocker-Huffman Corp. But Huffman declined, saying he had conceived and developed the project and wanted to keep it. That was a great mistake because, in the early 1890s, a worldwide depression occurred, considered as bad or worse than the depression of the 1930s.

The value of Huffman's holdings plummeted.

Crocker died in August 1888. Huffman was forced to sell everything to Crocker's heirs for $600,000, including his interest in the irrigation project, his home, land and prize horses.

This downward twist of fate so depressed Huffman that, for a while, he considered suicide.

In 1893, Huffman and his family moved to San Francisco. He lived there until his death in 1905.

Bare is the author of several books about area history and is the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to columns@modbee.com.

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