Founding and Settlement – 1870 to 1900

Modesto was founded as one of the San Joaquin Valley’s railroad towns. In the late 1860s, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker (the “Big Four”) announced plans to construct a railroad down the San Joaquin Valley to connect the northern and southern portions of the state. They decided to extend the Central Pacific Railroad, but were unable to secure land grants to finance construction, as they had for the recently-completed Transcontinental Railroad. Instead, land was purchased, then subdivided and sold. Modesto’s original town layout is still visible today: downtown is an approximately 640-acre tract with numbered streets oriented parallel to what is now the Union Pacific Railroad and lettered streets oriented to the perpendicular (Section 29, Township 3 South, Range 9 East Mount Diablo Meridian). The first Central Pacific train reached Modesto on October 11, 1870, allowing local farmers to transport their dryland wheat to the Bay Area and providing passenger service. (The Central Pacific Railroad merged with Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959, shortly after Congress relieved land-grant railroads of the requirement to provide passenger service in 1958.) Modesto’s first post office was established in November of 1870 on 9th Street (then called Front Street) and the Tuolumne City News moved to 11th and I Streets and was renamed Stanislaus County News.

The arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad increased Modesto’s importance and the county seat was moved from Knights Ferry in an election on September 6, 1871. The county seat had been moved several times before transportation made Modesto the most important place in the county. Empire, too, had served as county seat at one time, as had Adamsville, a town that no longer exists. County records were moved to a temporary courthouse at 8th and I Streets and a permanent building was completed in 1873 on the site of the current courthouse, on the block bounded by 11th, 12th, H, and I Streets.

From 1879 to 1884, Modesto was a prosperous frontier town with a lively nightlife. It was so lively, in fact, that a secret vigilante group called the San Joaquin Regulators was formed in an attempt to establish some order. The San Joaquin Regulators raided various businesses. A number of offending characters were invited to leave town and at least one was killed when he refused to leave. The violence and chaos associated with the San Joaquin Regulators and their targets, combined with a major fire that destroyed
much of downtown Modesto due to a lack of organized firefighting efforts, apparently convinced Modestans of the need for government. The City of Modesto was incorporated on August 6, 1884. At that time, the original city limits consisted of the area we think of today as downtown and some additional tracts of land.

During the middle to late 1880s, many civic organizations were established as Modesto became a more established, organized city. These include the Masonic Lodge, International Order of Odd Fellows, Native Sons of the Golden West, Order of the Eastern Star, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and
Society of California Pioneers. Several of the organizations established during that time continue to exist today. Community baseball was organized in 1872, becoming the (independent) minor league Modesto Reds in the 1890s. Theater, dancing, and music were also popular with Modestans. In 1886, Modesto’s first graduating high school class held commencement ceremonies to celebrate the completion of basic studies of 10 young people, seven young women and three young men.

Modesto was a commercial and transportation center during California’s wheat boom, from the early 1860s to the Panic of 1893. The San Joaquin Valley’s climate of hot dry summers and wet winters, combined with a lack of irrigation made reliance on dryland farming necessary. Wheat, an important
dryland crop, was important during this period because of wheat crop failures in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, Modesto was seriously affected and experienced a 15 percent population loss between the censuses of 1890 and 1900 [California Department of Finance].

Electric lights illuminated Modesto for the first time in early 1891. The city’s first sewer system was built in 1892, with a main on 9th Street draining laterals into the Tuolumne River. The city’s first public water system was also established in 1892, on 10th Street near G Street, on a property first operated by the Rogers family as a water plant in 1876. The first hospital in Modesto was built in 1891 across from cemetery on the site of the existing County Hospital. All of these advances allowed Modesto’s economy to grow and diversify and caused Modesto to grow in importance. During this time, ice deliveries began. Ice was shipped by train from the Sierra Nevada and delivered by horse and wagon until the 1920s to keep food fresh in household iceboxes. After the turn of the century, Modesto Creamery began
manufacturing ice locally.

By the late 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad had a virtual monopoly on goods movement in the San Joaquin Valley, resulting in rising prices for San Joaquin Valley farmers. The San Francisco Traffic Association was formed in 1891 to break the SPRR’s monopoly and lower shipping rates in the region by
developing a second railroad through the Central Valley. The association established the San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley Railroad in 1893, financed by Claus Spreckels. The Stockton to Bakersfield line, built through Empire between 1895 and 1897, broke the Southern Pacific monopoly. The San Francisco Traffic Association sold the railroad line to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1898. Railroad transportation opportunities were further increased in 1909 when the Modesto Interurban Railway was completed by the young city. The five-mile passenger electric railroad connected Modesto with Empire, making a connection between the Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads, originally connecting in downtown at H and 9th Streets. This connection was later moved to C and 7th Streets in the 1980s. The Modesto Interurban Railway was little used, however, and was sold to T.K. Beard, who renamed it Modesto & Empire Traction in 1911. The Beard family owned significant property near the railroad, and began to develop that land in the 1910s. Modesto & Empire Traction shifted from primarily passenger to primarily freight traffic and ran the last passenger train in 1917.

The passage of the Wright Irrigation Act in 1887, named for Assemblymember from Modesto C.C. Wright, allowed the formation of publicly-owned irrigation districts. The Modesto Irrigation District was
the second district formed (July 9, 1887) and Robert McHenry was elected board president. The board subsequently authorized the sale of bonds to finance the building of the LaGrange Dam on the Tuolumne River, completed in 1893. Completion of the canal system was delayed until the early 20th century by lawsuits filed by anti-taxation farmers. The eventual establishment of a reliable irrigation system allowed the variety of agricultural crops to diversify substantially and wheat farming quickly declined. With the
conclusion of the final lawsuit, canals began delivering water to dry farms in 1904.


  • December 27, 2016
  • Bare, Colleen Stanley. Modesto Then and Now, McHenry Museum Press, 1999.
  • Elias, Sol P. Stories of Stanislaus. Modesto, CA 1924.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “Caltrans Historic Bridge Inventory Update: Concrete Arch Bridges.” Prepared for State of California, Department of Transportation, Environmental Program. April 2004.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “Historical Resources Evaluation Report, Seventh Street Bridge Project.” Prepared for Stanislaus County Department of Public Works, Environmental Impact Statement.
    February 2015.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “General Plan Master EIR, Section 8, Disturbance of Archaeological/Historical Sites.” Prepared for City of Modesto, Community & Economic Development Department, General Plan Amendment, 2014.
  • for information about baseball in Modesto.
  • for information on various events and individuals.