Print version of chapter
In story and film, it was the cowboy who rode in off the prairie
and shot up the town, but in the real life of Modesto the
"wild West" era came with the wheat boom.
Stanislaus County was born in political strife. In those
days, United States Senators were selected by state legislatures.
The first of the California’s perennial north-south
battles, which today are over the development and management
of water resources, was over the selection of a U. S. Senator.
As a result of an 1854 effort to "pack" the state
Senate in favor of one candidate, Stanislaus County was born.
The adversaries both were Democrats. William M. Gwin was
a well-educated physician, a Southern gentleman whose smooth
political techniques followed the path of Andrew Jackson.
His opponent was David C. Broderick, a glib Irishman who enthusiastically
followed the rough-and-tumble politics of Tammany Hall.
Gwin had assumed leadership at the first California Constitutional
Convention, and the state’s newly-created Legislature
selected him and the "Pathfinder," John C. Fremont,
as the first U. S. Senators.
Broderick wanted the job, which was held in higher esteem
than that of governor. To achieve his ambition, Broderick
attempted through legislative maneuvering, to cut Gwin’s
term short by one year expecting to win the seat for himself.
To insure a safer margin of victory, Broderick conceived the
idea of creating a new county which would be controlled by
It was an ironic April Fool’s Day joke on Broderick
that while his dream child, Stanislaus County, came into being
April 1, 1854, the Legislature had circumvented Broderick’s
scheme by decreeing that the new county would share its state
senator with Tuolumne County, from which it was separated.
Not until 1857 did Broderick finally make it to the Nation’s
Capitol, succeeding Senator John B. Weller, who had followed
Mariposa’s Fremont. However, the Broderick-Gwin feud
continued unabated and with increasing bitterness. The battle
ultimately led to Broderick’s death in the last duel
fought between major political figures in the United States.
State Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry challenged Broderick
and, in September 1859, Justice Terry won. After his death,
Broderick’s faction of the Democratic Party swung to
the Republicans and, as a result, Abraham Lincoln received
the California electoral vote in 1860.
For the first few years, the Stanislaus County seat might
as well have remained on wheels.
Adamsville, where Dr. David Adams had established a ferry
on the south bank of the Tuolumne River in 1849, became the
first county seat by a margin of 30 votes – 495 to 465
– over Empire, which then claimed the honor of being
the head of Tuolumne River navigation for entry to the southern
In the absence of a county courthouse, the first Adamsville
meetings of the new board of supervisors and the county Court
of Sessions were held under a giant oak tree. According to
Superior Judge David Bush, Adamsville never had a jail. Prisoners
were housed in a convenient hotel. A new election a few months
later found Empire victorious and the county seat was moved
there, housed in a one-room shack. Fifteen months later, the
"courthouse" was sold for $51 when the county seat
was moved to La Grange.
In 1860 came "Walden’s Steal," the annexation
to Stanislaus County of 110,000 acres of San Joaquin County
land, including the lively town of Knight’s Ferry. To
this day, no one knows why the San Joaquin delegation allowed
Stanislaus Assemblyman Miner Walden to engineer an annexation
which placed Stanislaus’ northernmost tip north of the
latitude of Stockton, which is San Joaquin County’s
As soon as the annexation was consummated, Knight’s
Ferry moved to obtain the county seat and won by a vote of
422-393 in September 1860 balloting. Thus, the county seat
had moved three times in its first six years.
It stayed put for the next decade, however. Prior to the
coming of the railroad, there was no Modesto. Not until 1870
was a one-square-mile town site laid out of the Central Pacific
George Cosgrove, who at the time was working as railroad
construction foreman Jim Casey’s "rouster monkey"
even though he had not yet entered his teens, recalled in
an October 1928 letter the naming of the new town:
Tom (one of the engineering staff) at irregular places
laid out town sites, apparently for no better reason than
that the (railroad) line cut a section on its catawampus
course in an awkward shape for a farm.
Since Tom concluded to make a township of it, Modesto’s
arc was mapped in pencil. I then marked sheets of Tom’s
valued paper with the stylus, making a map in ink. It looked,
of course, better to me than to anyone else. I wanted to
finish the map by putting a name on it. Asked everyone for
a name, even the Chinese boss. Several names were suggested
which would not look well in print. The weather was hot
and the sand did blow. As I became a pest and was rousted
out of every camp gathering, Charlie Crocker, Mark Hopkins
and W. C. Ralston (Central Pacific’s founders and
directors) came down with engine bell ringing constantly
when moving, the track was so rough.
They spent half a day with Casey and when ready to
start back, Mr. Hopkins noticed the stakes which marked
the block boundaries of the town and remarked, "What’s
this, a new town?" The pest was there proudly carrying
the map which no one else had noticed. I proceeded to unroll
the map and said they needed a name for the town. Heedless
of the side kick from Casey, I held the map exposed to the
big bosses who seemed interested, which prevented a more
pronounced kick from Casey.
Hopkins said, "Name it Ralston" and Ralston
said, "I thank you for the honor but must ask that
some more appropriate name be chosen." Tony, the dapper
supercargo of the Mexican employees, exclaimed audibly "Esta
senor is mucho modesto." Crocker remarked, "That’s
a good name" and Modesto was placed on the map.
In 1870 when it was certain the railroad was coming, a mass
exodus took place in the nearby river-front towns of Paradise
and Tuolumne City. A week after James McHenry’s house
was to arrive in the new town, it was described as a "village
of 12 or 15 buildings, all crowded, and doing a lively business."
Even before the "mobile" buildings arrived, the
first new structure was erected – a saloon. Next came
the schoolhouse, moved in from Tuolumne City. Such were the
priorities of early-day Modesto.
The Tuolumne City Hotel, operated by Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Husband,
was hoisted on wheels and moved in one piece. Even before
the building was lowered from its wheels, Mrs. Husband opened
for dinner that evening in the renamed Modesto House. A few
days later, The Ross House in Paradise was cut in half and
hulled to its new location, but not without misfortune. The
Tuolumne City News reported October 21, 1870:
On Monday last, the dining room was successfully loaded
on trucks and a team of 60 horses attached thereto, they
had not proceeded over an hundred yards, however, when the
wheels of the trucks sank in the soft sand, and at latest
news still remained stationary. More powerful apparatus
has been sent for, and it is to be hoped that the move will
be successfully made.
In November, Tuolumne City Weekly News publisher J. D. Spencer
packed his type cases and moved his shop and press to the
new town. For weeks, Spencer had refused to accept the name
of Modesto, referring to "Ralston, alias Modesto,"
insisting Ralston would have to submit to the will of the
people and allow the town to be named for him. William C.
Ralston had made his fortune in Mariposa’s Marble Springs
Mine, from which he recovered enough gold to build San Francisco’s
Palace Hotel, establish the Bank of California and become
a railroad financier.
When Spencer moved to Modesto he changed the name of his
paper to the Stanislaus County News, avoiding reference to
As Modesto grew, so did the pressure to move the county seat.
With the general election of 1871 approaching, the contest
became bitter. Friends of Knight’s Ferry claimed the
fledging town was not a suitable place for a county seat:
There is nothing inviting in the location; no trees,
no scenery, no water courses, situated upon a plain, and
most objectionable of all is the sand, of which the land
is principally composed in its immediate vicinity, that
is hurled in dense clouds through the air by the prevailing
westerly winds that blow during the greater part of the
Aside from that, opponents of the railroad town saw no excuse
for the taxpayers again having to bear the expense of moving
the county seat, which already had wandered around too much
in the few short years of Stanislaus’ existence.
"To remove it (the county seat) now would be premature,
suicidal, detrimental and fraught with the most injurious
consequences to the best interests of the county. How long
will it be before Modesto will share the fate of Tuolumne
and Paradise Cities?" asked those who forecast the demise
of Modesto when the railroad moved on south across the Tuolumne.
So bitter were some foes of Modesto that they even proposed
eliminating Stanislaus County, ceding that area north of the
Stanislaus River back to San Joaquin, creating a new county
from the Stanislaus and Merced County areas west of the San
Joaquin River and giving the remainder to Merced County.
In spite of its vociferous opposition, Knight’s Ferry
did not have the votes. Modesto outpolled the then-county
seat by a margin of almost 3-to1, with scattering votes cast
for Oakdale, Waterford, La Grange and Graysonville.
The Stanislaus County New, on October 20, 1871 described
the arrival of the county seat:
On Sunday last, the furniture, records, safes and all the
rest of the paraphernalia of the county clerk’s, recorder’s,
auditor’s, treasurer’s and sheriffs offices
reached this place – the whole forming three wagon
loads. Its arrival in our town created some little sensation
among the naturally inquisitive citizens.
A glimpse of the furniture would be sufficient at once
to assure the stranger that our county had been in economical
hands. Everything wore a plain and well-used appearance,
showing conclusively that there had been no "ring"
nor fat jobs in the furnishing department of this county.
A rusty, old iron box, resembling much in size and appearance
an old-fashioned sailor’s chest, with bands of iron
around it, was pointed out to us as having been the first
treasurer’s safe for the county. The old box is itself
a relic of former times. Its age may be unknown, and its
appearance leads us to believe that it was manufactured
when burglars were not as adept in their professions as
Modesto did not "fade away," as forecast by the
dire predictions of Knight’s Ferry proponents. Instead,
as wheat became king in the decade of the 1870s, Modesto blossomed
into a wealthy boom town where money flowed freely. The town
soon became not only the largest in the county, but also on
occasion it had the reputation of being the toughest in the
Wheat production was a rich but rough business, demanding
high finances and strong labor throughout the season, especially
at harvest time. This breed of worker and the riches of the
harvest were followed by a less-than savory element.
Sol P. Elias, for several years mayor of Modesto during the
1920s, wrote Stories of Stanislaus, one of the most colorful
and oftquoted histories of the region. His book tells of Modesto
Like every frontier village that grew up with a rush
and experienced unexampled prosperity from the start –
thereby attracting to its confines the rougher elements
of society who sough opulence without honest endeavor amidst
the primitive customs and the open life of a rudely and
rapidly constructed town – Modesto, in its infancy,
suffered its period of open lawlessness, its era of unbridled
gambling, its reign of brutal thuggery, its sway of the
malign saloon influence, and its season of brazen, flaunting
Such was the strenuousness of its nightlife that it
held the reputation throughout the state of being a place
in which there was literally a man served up for breakfast
every morning in the year…
Money in plentitude was spent with recklessness and
prodigality that baffled understanding…Modesto was
in its golden age… The Barbary Coast had been transferred
to Modesto. It was a "coast" that well maintained
the reputation of its prototype in hilarity, in criminality
and in petty thievery. (Its) establishments contained a
number of private rooms…
The town grew so uncontrollably fast – there was no
such thing as zoning – that all the mixed elements were
thrown together. Chinese opium dens and gambling houses were
in the middle of the business and residential districts, as
were the red-light sections. Saloons were everywhere.
The saloon element dominated politics in Modesto and throughout
Stanislaus County. Saloon keepers controlled and delivered
enough votes to maintain this balance.
A large measure of lawlessness prevailed throughout the decade,
but peaked in 1879 when a bumper crop followed two years of
drought. In that year, counter forces went to work. The San
Joaquin Regulators, masked vigilantes whose identities supposedly
were never known but who privately were recognized as some
of the leading businessmen and "law and order" politicians
of the era, were organized. After six months of planning,
the Regulators struck on a Saturday evening in August 1879.
By the time the northbound train left the next morning, the
bulk of the criminal element was on its way out of town. "Law
and order" prevailed for only a short time, though. In
a few months, it was "business as usual." Saloons
outnumbered churches by more than 2-to-1.
An 1880 inventory of the community included one flour mill,
two large breweries, a soda factory, one foundry, two lumber
yards, six blacksmith and wheelwright shops, four livery stables,
six hotels, three restaurants, 15 saloons (exclusive of hotel
bars), two undertakers, six laundries, two photograph galleries
and some two dozen stores that included five millinery shops,
two jewelers, three butcher shops, a vegetable and produce
market, four druggists and four tailor shops.
Add seven churches, six physicians, 14 lawyers, two dentists,
several music and elocution instructors, two newspapers, and
a hook and ladder company in need of a fire engine.
Elias’ description of the town in the late 1880s, however,
includes this comment:
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 streets at will. (Historian George H. Tinkham noted
that free-roaming hogs also were a problem in the town.)
Fire protection was confined to the old hook and ladder
company. There was little semblance of law and order.
Two of the state’s most infamous desperados associated
with the Stanislaus region were not active in that period,
It was on Stanislaus River diggings that Joaquin Murietta’s
beautiful young wife was raped and fatally beaten, which resulted
in Murietta’s embarking on a course of revenge. Within
a few months, death had come not only to the five Americans
who had ravaged his wife but also to the 20 who had lynched
his brother on an accusation of horse stealing. From then
until his own death in 1853, Murietta was a bandit feared
Chris Evans of the notorious Sontag and Evans gang operated
a livery stable in Modesto when an 1891 fire destroyed all
of his stock. A short time later, a train was held up at Ceres
and Evans was accused of being the robber. Although subsequently
identified with many other crimes committed after the fugitive
teamed up with John Sontag, Evans never admitted the Ceres
train robbery nor was his involvement in it ever proved.
The Stanislaus region had more than its share of colorful
characters in the early days. Among them was James Capen Adams,
better known in film and television as "Grizzly Adams"
and described by P. T. Barnum as an "extraordinary man,
eminently ‘a character’."
An 1849 argonaut from Massachusetts, Adams earned and lost
three fortunes in the mines and on Valley farms before taking
to the hills along the Tuolumne River. Adams captured and
tamed some two dozen grizzly bears. Included were his constant
companion, Ben, a grizzly with whom he ate and slept; General
Fremont, trained as a pack animal and, according to Barnum,
ridden by Adams through hundreds of miles of the Sierra, and
the 1,500-pound Sampson, the biggest of his menagerie.
Adams and his animals toured the nation with Barnum and independently
until his last performance in San Francisco in 1880.
These were the influences which affected Stanislaus and its
county seat in the decade of the 1880s. A host of diverse
personalities ranging from Murietta to Fremont, from General
Sherman to inventive muleskinners, from the worst criminal
elements to the vigilante Regulators left their mark on the
It was to be in the decade of the ‘80s that the people
of Stanislaus, still the king of California wheat, came to
the realization that irrigation was necessary to insure a
more stable farm economy, especially in dry cycles, and to
permit the diversification of agriculture.
That the concept of community-owned irrigation, where the
land truly owned the water – a concept to be followed
throughout the rest of the state and much of the nation –
should come from a relatively small frontier community of
no more than 2,000 people, attests to the inspiration and
determination of the people of Modesto and the immediate area