Sacramento History Online

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Sacramento Valley Transportation

In the traditions of Sacramento Valley Native Americans, mysterious figures were transported over water in a raft to create the world. One dove from the raft into the water and came up with dirt. From that soil the world was formed.

The transportation by a raft is symbolic of the role of transportation in the evolution of local history. Paleo-Indians arrived about 12,000 years ago. The rich natural resources made the Sacramento Valley a "Garden of Eden." Permanent villages were established about 8,000 years ago. Native Americans walked and traveled the rivers and waterways with rafts. The later arriving Spanish entered the Valley by horse, British and American trappers entered by horse and on foot. Settlers from the midwest and east coast arrived in wagon trains. Gold seekers walked over land along side wagons or by sea on sailing ships and later steamboats. By the late 1840's dreams of a transcontinental railroad were debated. In 1849 the "friends of a Rail Road to California" met in Boston to hear a proposal for a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco. But the shorter transcontinental crossing at the Isthmus of Panama by a railroad would occur first in 1855. Meanwhile, the connection between San Francisco and Sacramento was improved by an expanding, fast, and efficient steamboat service. In 1856 the Sacramento Valley Railroad opened officially for service between Sacramento and Folsom.

In less than a decade, California moved from an ox cart economy, with wheels made from rounds cut from tree trunks, to a complex economy with an industrial age transportation system. By 1869 that transportation evolution would result in a transcontinental railroad, across the nation, and a network of steam ships that connected California to China, the eastern states, and the whole world.

Just as transportation improved travel, it also accelerated the economic development of California. In 1849, California gold fields were referred to as the "Extremity of Civilization" and in the next decade because of transportation, California began to impact the economy of the United States and eventually the world.

The growth and influence of Sacramento in California was a combination of many factors but being at the inland end of a great "river" highway to the gold fields combined with the fortunate timing of the expansion of steam powered transportation in the 1850s and 1860s, strengthened the region and it's stature. The Sacramento River was the major route for steamboats with over fifty boats plying the river between San Francisco and Sacramento. By 1858 the gold mining districts and emerging agricultural communities in the Central Valley were connected by over 270 individual teamsters with wagons pulled by horses and mules. Each wagon could move up to 9,000 pounds and operated seasonally. Between thirty and forty wagons departed Sacramento each day for the mines.

Passengers were moved by stagecoach. By 1854, many of the stage operators were merged by James Birch into the California Stage Company. Birch's stage line controlled eighty percent of the stagecoach traffic over 3,000 miles of routes connecting the western portion of the United States. In 1856, Birch lobbied Congress to establish a national wagon road. He presented Congress with a petition from Northern California with 75,000 signatures. As one of the largest petitions yet received by Congress, they responded by establishing three wagon roads to the Pacific Coast and appropriating $600,000 for a twice-weekly overland mail service from St. Louis to San Francisco.

The Sacramento region exerted great power in the decade of the 1850s, in spite of its small resident population, when compared to San Francisco. The largest portion of the state's population lived in the "Sacramento District." Sacramento representatives strongly influenced the State's Constitutional Convention, landed the permanent State Capitol, and elected the State's first governor. Sacramento's influence was in large part due to its growth in commerce, particularly that portion related to transportation such as railroads and steamboats, as well as wholesale merchants who supplied retailers throughout California and Nevada. Those large-scale merchants of Sacramento saw their success tied to better wagon roads and railroads.

Great wealth was to be gained by a wagon toll road over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Virginia City and even greater fortunes in a transcontinental railroad. The railroad would offer enormous opportunities for California and the Sacramento region to grow. The potential bounty of Sacramento Valley agriculture was to be realized with faster and more efficient transportation. Sacramento merchants would organize and build the western half of that railroad.

By 1887, bicycles were present in numbers that caused the organization of clubs such as the "Capitol City Wheelmen." Groups like the Wheelmen focused on the bicycle as transportation, and sport, and as a contributor to recreation and leisure adventures. They coordinated with other groups and lobbied for improvements that led to a paved road from Sacramento to Folsom suitable for bicycle excursions. The Wheelmen were by the end of the 19th century, able to push the "Good Roads" movement and influence the shape of the State's early highway plans.

By the earliest part of the 20th century, photography of early construction projects show workers who utilized the bicycle as an alternative to other traditional transportation for going to and from work. The "safety" bicycle gave the greater population a taste of the freedom of travel.

In the 1890s the first commercial automobiles began to arrive in Sacramento. By 1905, twenty-seven automobiles were registered in Sacramento County. By 1910, seven hundred more were registered, and by July 1911, in what can only be called an "Auto Frenzy," Sacramentans were buying seventy-five autos per day. Automobiles alone could not make a significant difference. A network of paved roads was essential. Three bridges had to cross the American River between Sacramento and Fair Oaks. Perhaps the best symbol of this growing network would be the completion of the Yolo Causeway in 1916. The Causeway would be a key local component in the completion of a National Road linking by automobile, the East and West coasts, right through Sacramento and across the center of the nation, identified as the "Lincoln Highway." During the first third of the 20th century a competition emerged for a dominant form of transportation between riverboats, railroads, and automotive vehicles.

For the Sacramento Valley, airplanes and other airships including balloons were a novelty until 1917. With the nation gearing up for W.W.I, the Government awarded a $3,000,000 contract to build "JN-4" (Jenny) bi-wing military airplanes in North Sacramento. For the rest of that Century, Sacramento would look to aviation as a vital source of economic sustenance.

By 1919, with the end of the war, many of the Jennys became surplus and were converted to civilian use. One innovative use of the planes earned a pilot the title of "First Air-born Duck Herder." He would drive ducks out of rice fields for a fee with his airplane. The tactic was a great success, but he was later ridiculed for dropping surplus grenades from his plane to scare the ducks. It was reported that he did more damage to the rice fields than the ducks. By 1929, the region's farmers were experimenting with aerial seeding of agricultural crops.

The fascination with flying made the early aviators a huge success. For two decades, aerial shows were put on at the State Fair and Mather Field. "Barn Stormer's" would perform exhibitions or take a passenger for a ride from a hastily prepared open field. Aviation had shown its potential and would become a vital part of the Sacramento region's development.

As urban areas developed, streetcar systems evolved, first pulled by horses and later using electricity. For those in urban areas, it was the first experience at the freedom of cheap efficient public transportation. Urban transportation led to inter-urban systems which would ultimately evolve into an electric passenger railroad system, linking the Bay area with Sacramento and smaller Valley communities all the way to Chico.

The development of the Sacramento region is so intertwined with transportation that the region's history would be incomplete without serious attention given to the impact of wagon trains, steamboats, railroads, and automobiles.

Sacramento Valley Agriculture

A Sacramento Valley Land Development Association pamphlet declared in 1911 that the "Sacramento Valley is one of the great valleys of the world, with a vast and fertile soil area. It produces great quantities of precious metals and structural materials. It is blessed with an abundant water supply, and an agriculture much more diversified than is found anywhere else on the face of the earth."

The Sacramento Valley, that "vast and fertile soil area," covers over 6,500 square miles, is almost 200 miles long, and ranges from 10 to 50 miles wide. It begins in the north near Redding and extends south to the Mokelumne River. Within the territory it encompasses are Shasta, Tehama, Glenn, Butte, Colusa, Sutter, Yuba, Placer, Yolo, Sacramento and Solano counties.

Major influences in the development of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley included the Gold Rush and the resulting influx of miners, climate (droughts and floods), railroads, land speculation, development of irrigation, and the transition to a diversified crop culture.

Millions of years ago, a sea covered what is today Northern California. Mountain ranges eventually appeared, leaving a depression filled with water. When the sea disappeared, the valley floor was exposed, with the Sacramento River providing the major channel for water into which all other streams flow.

By the 1830s, the valley had been explored and mapped, and was being used by fur traders as a route to Oregon. In 1837, Ewing Young drove a herd of cattle from San Francisco Bay to Oregon via Sacramento. Sutter took advantage of a Mexican land grant, acquiring over 48,000 acres in 1841, and began cultivating wheat and other crops.

The discovery of gold in Coloma by James Marshall in 1848 brought more than 100,000 people to California within two years. In response to the needs of these Gold Rush pioneers, agricultural expansion in the Sacramento Valley began in earnest, especially in the mid-1850s. At that time the decreasing opportunities in the mines brought many of the miners into the valley. Grains for flour, and feed for horses and mules were needed. Production of barley, hay, wheat, alfalfa, fruit orchards, and grapes began.

Most of the early farmers concentrated on raising cattle and sheep, in part because of the scarcity of labor. Manufactured reapers - mowing and threshing machines operated by horses - began to appear in 1853, and marked the beginnings of extensive grain farming. Steam power replaced animal power within 10 years.

By 1860, Sacramento County led the state in production of apples, peaches, plums, quinces, lemons, olives, pomegranates, almonds, walnuts, and raspberries. It was second in production of pears, cherries, apricots, figs, strawberries, and grape vines. By 1864, Yolo, Yuba, and Solano counties achieved prominence in the production of fruits and nuts.

Droughts in the late 1850s dried up the range lands, and floods in the 1860s drowned hundreds of cattle, only to be followed again by drought. This vicious cycle brought disaster to the cattle industry, which never fully recovered. Sheep fared better throughout these difficult years, because they were able to adjust to the scarcity of water. Additionally, the Civil War increased the demand for wool for uniforms.

Prior to 1867 and the development of irrigation, crops were grown on lands along the rivers and streams. The fertility of the soil, however, was reduced by the reliance on a one-crop system and the failure to use fertilizers. By the late 1860s many farms along the waterways were completely buried by the debris coming from hydraulic mining in the foothills. The conflict between farmers and miners continued for over 20 years. In 1884, the famous Sawyer decision prohibited the dumping of hydraulic mining debris in the rivers.

As the population increased, more lands were put under cultivation. The federal government had given 11.5 million acres to the railroads and 8.5 million acres of swamp and overflow lands to the state of California. The state in turn sold this land to individuals for less than a dollar an acre. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 led to an increase in immigrants to California, lured by a series of promotional publications glorifying life in the Golden State.

By 1865, the foundations of Sacramento Valley agriculture had been laid. Charles Nordhoff in his book California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence, published in 1873, described the Sacramento Valley as "an immense fertile plain" with oats "so high that I could and did tie the oats over my head." Between 1867 and 1880 agriculture in the Sacramento Valley became productive and profitable. Development of ventilated railroad cars in 1870 opened markets for growers of perishable items such as fruit.

The wheat industry and big ranches dominated the area north of Sacramento. Wheat farming was the backbone of the valley¹s economy from 1867 until the mid 1880s. Just eighty-two people owned approximately one million acres of the best land - one fourth of the total acreage of the Sacramento Valley. Smaller farms were more diversified with fruit, vegetables, and dairy products as their cash crops.

Fruit colonies, such as the English Colony Association, were founded on the eastern edge of the valley between 1886 and 1895, and were generally in lots of 10 to 20 acres with irrigation ditches dug to provide a reliable water supply. Fruit lands in most of Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano counties didn¹t need irrigation because of the high water table. Irrigation made cultivation of orchards, rice, and alfalfa possible in areas not bordered by the rivers and streams. Reclamation and irrigation made thousands of additional acres available for cultivation, helping to lead to a land boom. Propaganda and citrus fairs helped stimulate the change. In addition to making hundreds of thousands of acres available for cultivation, irrigation increased land values and taxes, and forced many owners of large ranches to subdivide and sell their land.

Between 1883 and 1900 - aided by the introduction of competing railroads and the development of refrigerated railroad cars - fruit outpaced wheat as the most valuable cash crop in the Valley. The price of wheat was so low by 1885 that only large ranches with expensive machinery were able to compete in the world market. The decline of the price of wheat reduced the profitability of large grain ranches. Between the 1880s and the early 1900s many of the big ranches in the valley were subdivided since most of the owners were in debt. With the death of the original land barons, heirs subdivided or sold the property and thus contributed to a land boom. New crops such as rice and fruit were better suited to smaller parcels.

Although the Wright Act - authorizing the creation of irrigation districts - was passed in 1887, the first extensive and successful development of irrigation in the valley occurred between 1900 and 1920. The development of irrigation profoundly changed the landscape beginning in 1905.

By 1929, fifty-one irrigation districts were organized into systems that delivered water to 282,000 acres. Twenty-two areas were direct products of the Wright Act, public districts organized under the state irrigation law; 19 were mutual irrigation companies organized to deliver water to stockholders at cost; 10 consisted of public utility water systems.

The rapid expansion of the fruit industry between 1870 and 1900 relied on Chinese labor until the early 1890s when the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act became noticeable. Japanese Americans replaced the Chinese workers, but their numbers were also reduced by the Alien Land Law in 1913 and its amendments in 1924. Since the 1920s, the agricultural labor force has been primarily composed of transient workers.

World War I precipitated the rapid development of trucks and tractors. Farmers increased their production to help feed the armies. After the war, crop prices collapsed and land prices rose. The National Prohibition Amendment in 1919 had a significant impact in the Sacramento Valley. Farmers began to pull out vineyards and convert their land to other crops. The two largest vineyards in the nation (Stanford¹s Vina Ranch and the Natomas vineyards south of the American River) disappeared.

In the 1920s, agriculture still formed the basis of the economy in the Sacramento Valley. Although farmers planted most of the land in grain, the financial return per acre was considerably more for other crops. In 1921, a brochure published by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, Sacramento - The Gateway to California, stated that "a sight more grand seldom stands out before one as strikingly as that which meets your eyes when the Overland train slows down for its initial stop in California. As far as you can see - away toward the setting sun - lies the Sacramento Valley, the most fertile in all the world."

In 1929, the Sacramento Valley had 1,250,000 acres in grain with over one-third concentrated in northern Yolo, Colusa, and Glenn Counties. Rice was grown on 250,000 acres, primarily in Butte, Colusa, and Glenn Counties. Over 300,000 acres of fruit orchards dotted the valley. There were about 130,000 acres in truck crops (vegetables), most of them in Sacramento, Solano, and Yolo Counties.

Eventually, canning processes became more efficient. The development of trucking reduced the need for smaller canneries and those located in strategic areas were enlarged. Techniques in farming also changed with the use of the gasoline engine. It has been estimated that 150,000 horses were replaced with 15,000 tractors by 1919.

Sun-drying for fruit preservation was replaced by a modern dehydrator in 1925. Contour plowing saved labor and irrigation costs and became a general practice in the 1920s. Smudging as a means to prevent frost damage was widely accepted. The large California Valley Rice Growers Association mill in Sacramento eventually forced many smaller mills out of business.

Reclamation was begun in the early 1900s by private investors, and was endorsed by the state in 1911 and the federal government in 1917. Between 1905 and 1920 there was a massive attempt to reclaim valley lands and control the rivers.

Floods, which always played an important role in the valley, brought the 1920s to a close. In 1928 the Feather River overflowed at Hamilton Bend and levees broke on the Sutter County side of Marysville, near Arboga. North Sacramento was flooded and Sacramento threatened. Although the flood inflicted great damage to farmlands, it led to the development of more effective flood control.

Farming in the twentieth century was drastically different from that of the nineteenth century. Reclamation, irrigation, and the land boom reduced general farming and emphasized crop specialization. Valley farmers were no longer as self-sufficient as they had been previously and now relied heavily on an international market. Nevertheless, the Sacramento Valley remained one of the most productive and profitable agricultural regions in the world.