Community Columns

Modesto owes its existence to the land, water, railroad

During its early years, the little settlement that became Modesto experienced a number of milestones. A milestone is defined as "an event marking a significant new development or stage," or, in this case, a significant event in the growth of our region. Without those milestones, Modesto would not have become the city we know today.

Modesto's most important milestone was being founded in the first place. If it had not been for the ingenuity and perseverance of the Big Four (Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington), the Transcontinental Railroad probably would not have been completed in 1869. And, just seven months later, the Big Four would not have started construction of the Central Pacific Railroad through our valley. It was the arrival of that railroad that led to the growth of villages such as Modesto, Turlock, Merced and Fresno.

Another milestone was rancher John Mitchell's refusal to let the Central Pacific put its rails through the town he owned, Paradise City. If he had agreed, and had paid the required tariff, the railroad company probably would have expanded Mitchell's town instead of starting a new one, a pattern it followed with other settlements. If that had happened, today's Modestans might be living in a metropolis called Paradise City, originally located in the area of Paradise Road and Grimes and Pauline avenues, extending to the Tuolumne River.

A key milestone in Modesto's history was its incorporation as a city, following a hard-fought election on Aug. 1, 1884, establishing some semblance of government.

The advent of train transportation made it possible for farmers to ship agricultural products by rail to the eastern states and to the rest of the country. Central California became the wheat basket of the nation, leading to growth and prosperity. However, it took another milestone for the prosperity to continue.

When the national and foreign markets for wheat dried up by the mid-1880s, the magic word became Water. As dry farming became unprofitable, farmers needed to plant the crops that have made the valley famous. These included citrus and other fruits, a variety of nuts, grapes for wine and alfalfa for feeding cattle, which would lead to a flourishing dairy industry. But these crops all required water in order to grow.

In 1890, Modesto's population was about 2,400, after which it began to decline. By 1900, the town was in danger of withering away. A battle raged between irrigation proponents and anti-irrigationists. The anti-irrigation group opposed the potential tax increases, with some convinced that irrigation wouldn't work anyway. When the opposition took control of the Modesto Irrigation District board in 1900, the project appeared doomed.

Finally, the proponents went to court, accusing the opposition of not calling the mandated MID election. The irrigationists won, canals were completed, and the great Irrigation Jubilee celebration was held in April 1904, one of the biggest milestones in local history.

As the water flowed, the valley blossomed and the economy boomed. But irrigation couldn't solve everything, and Modesto's crime and corruption still were rampant. It took the next milestone, in 1910, to tackle those problems.

In September, Bare will write about the 1910 milestone.

Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at