Modesto History

Modesto History


The city of Modesto sprouted at the railroad terminus in October of 1870 and became known as one of the most raucous boom towns of the central valley. William Chapman Ralston was a wealthy banker who struck it rich with Nevada silver, and became director of the Central Pacific Railroad. The town was originally named Ralston as a tribute to his financial influence on the west coast, but when he refused the honor, the town was thus named Modesto, which is the Spanish word for modest.

Three hundred thousand gold-thirsty miners migrated to the pre-Modesto location with delusions of quick fortunes in their heads during the gold rush era (1848-1855). The majority of these dreams were never fulfilled and instead, the miners settled as famers. This area was known for its livestock up until 1861-1862 when two months of heavy rain melted the Sierra snowpack causing massive floods. Entire villages were swept away, cattle drowned, grazing lands were ruined. If this catastrophe didn’t discourage most ranchers, the following year’s drought wiped out the remaining animals and hopes for beef rearing. There was a world-wide wheat shortage in the 1860’s and the Modesto farmers took their cue to become one of the leaders in the wheat industry.

Although the wheat was plentiful, transportation of the crop remained a formidable barrier since main roads and bridges were not yet constructed. Instead, people used rivers to export their wheat. Around the 1880’s lavish new Victorian homes were erected, but only one remains today. This is the Robert McHenry mansion located east of downtown, built in 1882-83.

In 1887, Governor Washington Bartlett authorized the creation of irrigation districts, and the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) was voted in as California’s second irrigation district. MID constructed canals and the first drops of water hit Modesto soil in 1904. By 1910 Modesto’s estimated population was 4,500 people, and the elders referred to the youth as the “most metropolitan and classy of its size.” Manicured yards and rose bushes inspired its nickname “the Garden City.” In 1912 the Modesto Business Men’s Association built the world famous Modesto Arch, with the inscribed slogan “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.” This was voted in favor of the second place slogan contest winner, “Nobody’s Got Modesto’s Goat.” The slogan winner, Sam Harbaugh, received an award of $3.

The day prohibition ended, the Gallo winery opened. Ernest and Julio Gallo opened this small winery on a borrowed $5,900, and today is the largest winery in the world. Gallo winery employs thousands of workers from Modesto and surrounding regions.

Modesto has become a city of progress, vision and growth that has well surpassed Ralston’s expectation of the dusty wheat field that he founded. The city has attracted retail and manufacturing services as well as kept up with the demands of technological advancement. If he had known, it makes one wonder if the city we know today as Modesto would have instead been called Ralston.





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