Yolo County's Spledid Promise, California
From: The History of Yolo County, California
History By: Tom Gregory
The Historical Record Company.
Los Angeles, California 1913


Yolo county has an area of 1,017 square miles, or 650,880 acres, and the number of acres now assessed is probably 630,000, leaving little government or valueless land on the map. Assessed value of country real estate, $14,000,000; total assessed value of all property, estimated, $22,000,000. Yolo county is practically without public buildings, about $50,000 will cover all, which probably represents the newer Hall of Records. The court house is old, superannuated, and a large portion of the structure is unfit for use, but notwithstanding this unique fact in the history of California counties two bond propositions for the construction of a new building have been voted down by the people. However, the people voted with no uncertain intent when they voted the county "dry." One sturdy citizen remarked: "If we have no court house and county jail, we have no whiskey saloons to fill one with litigants and the other with lawbreakers." Another of the same moral caliber and along the same line said: "Yolo county, working deeply in the problems of soil reclamation, of irrigation, may fittingly adopt the 'water-wagon' faith as her official belief." And, in all, Yolo is on the right track. To bring her six hundred thousand arable acres up to a high standard of culture she will tap the natural reservoirs in the western bills and water the plains; will drain off the tule belt paralleling the Sacramento on the east; and in some day the fruit and garden tracts will lie unbrokenly between the foothills and the river. Steam roads are crossing Yolo longitudinally and the newer electric lines are cutting the county east and west. Big land tracts cannot maintain themselves indivisible when the flood ditches and the road grades cut their areas. Fourteen thouand five hundred may fairly estimate the present population of Yolo (Solano 28,550, Colusa 7,732), but in the coming era of smaller farms and better methods of farming the fourteen thousand must double to Solano's figure. This training of the Yolo agriculturist is the work of the Farm College at Davis.


That this country has several sizable farms for future division the following figures, taken from the latest tax rolls showing acreage and assessment of country lands, may be offered as evidence:

P. N. Ashley, 855 acres, $30,000. It is safe to double the assessment when seeking the market value. Baird Bros., 1,118 acres, Woodland valley, $68,000. Olive J. Bandy, 5,894 acres, $54,620. Bullard Co., 1,661 acres, Woodland valley, $96,050. Capay Valley Land Co., 2,680 acres, $98,380. Ellen W. Coil, 2,030 acres, Woodland valley, $81,550. C. J. Day Estate, 1,893 acres, $20,824. H. P. Eakle, 1,025 acres, Wood Prairie, $46,040. Forbes Estate, 8,079 acres, Fairview, $16,700. H. H. Gable et al., 7,800 acres, $69,700. Eliza Gallup et al., at Willow Slough, Grafton, Fairview, 4,662 acres, $44,940. D. N. Hershey Estate, 15,477 acres, $290,607. G. W. Hollingsworth, 16,470 acres, $21,655. Mrs. J. E. Merritt, 3,605 acres, $152,150. T. A. Sparks, 2,341 acres, $21,045. A. W. Morris, 1,814 acres, $91,155. Sacramento River Farms Co., 10,283 acres, $140,000. Alice Tubbs, 5,715 acres, North Grafton, $43,755. Yolo Ranch Co, 2,055 acres, Grafton, $23,055. Agnes Beverly et al., 13,166 acres, Grafton, $205,240. Thomas Laugenour, 8,448 acres, $118,224. Elizabeth Richie, 2,349 acres, $32,490. Nettie E. Vickery, 4,492 acres. W. G. Duncan, 7,277 acres. G. W. Scott, 12,850 acres, Cottonwood, Gordon, Fairview, $111,742. Matilda Scott, 795 acres, Cottonwood, $12,385. Stephens Agricultural & Livestock Co., 7,828 acres, Guinda Canyon, Capay Valley, $208,848. G. W. Chapman, 23,144 acres, $109,948. T. II. Williams, 6,300 acres, Merritt. Glide estate, 41,347 acres, $190,167. Cowell estate. 16,950 acres, $152,850. Yolo Orchard Co., 399 acres, Cacheville, $48,000.


The valley of the Sacramento is an elongated vessel, a huge earthen basin, lying between eastern and western mountain systems, and its greater diameter being north and south. Into this for ages countless and unrecorded the never failing winter rains have fallen, and through its length, like a great vent pipe, flows the river, carrying the flood waters away to the sea. That this grand central Ilano, lying within its rims of Coast range and Sierra Nevada, is under the warm southeastern rain current where it meets the colder northwest winds is a meteorological fact. Whether in southern or northern rains, the storms that drench the Pacific slope from British Columbia to the latitude of San Francisco come from the contact of polar and equatorial moisture laden airs above and the peculiar formation of the mountain systems below. The waters falling on the eastern slope of the Coast range and the western slope of the Sierras flow into the Sacramento and its tributaries. Their volume is too great for the draining capacity of these streams, hence the winter flooding of their adjacent territory. The first white settlers along these great runways saw them wasting across their banks and levees were built thereon and the war with the river began. For years the river won. Notwithstanding the embankments raised, the floods broke through them and an inland sea covered the riparian lands. The immediate shores of the rivers are naturally higher than the back country, such being caused by the deposit of ages, and when the storm water got on to these lowlands it had a free right of way far and near. In the earlier winters antedating the white people the animal instinct of the Indians led them to camp above flood mark before "heap water cover country all up;" consequently no harm was done rather the inundation leaving its sedimentary deposit on the submerged surface was a benefit. But to the later settler who saw the deluge roaring around and over his house, destroying his livestock and frequently destroying human lives, the winters in the Sacramento valley were horrors. The river became a monster whose force and fatality human ingenuity could not check. If the small levee system of that period kept a winter floor in its river it was because that winter was a "dry" one, but the "wet" seasons swept their surplus waters unobstructed over the country.


The winter of 1850 did not find in Yolo county much to destroy, but on the eastern shore of the river it worked havoc. Sacramento City was large enough and helpless enough for a flood. As is usual, the citizens paid little attention to warnings, but rested in a false security until the disaster was at their doors. The rains during December and January were so heavy that there was a slight apprehension of coming trouble. The Sacramento and American were rising rapidly and the back country was becoming flooded, cutting off communication with the highlands. Dr. John F. Morse, the well known California pioneer, was practicing his profession, and his accounts of the great '50 flood that swept the Sacramento valley and the capital city are interesting as well as authentic. The wave of the deluge seemed to rise suddenly, apparently without warning, so sure were the people that the town plat was above flood level. "This false assurance," says Dr. Morse, "could scarcely be extinguished when the city was absolutely under water, consequently when the waters began to rush in and overwhelm the place there was no adequate means of escape for life and property. Many people were drowned, some in their beds, some in their feeble efforts to escape, and many died from the terrible exposture to which they were subjected. The few boats belonging to the shipping moored at the levees were brought into immediate requisition in gathering up the women, children and invalids that were scattered over the city, having sought safety on higher ground. Some of these were found in tents and canvas shacks. and others in remote low places were frequently found standing on their beds and other articles of household furniture with the water several feet deep on the floor and the flood still rising. The city hospital was a frame and canvas structure situated on very low ground, and was abandoned by the attendants when the water began to sweep around and through it. The dreadful cries of the endangered patients were finally heard and rescuing boats removed them to safety."


The deluge did not come in a gradual rising and swelling of the river waters over the land, but in a rush as of a tidal wave. The back sloughs, filled to the brim, seemed to empty themselves, and the great floods, literally falling into the city, violently tore up the sidewalks, demolished small buildings, wrenching loose articles and even heavy merchandise away to be carried out into the roaring main stream and south toward the sea. The principal streets were deep, swiftly flowing rivers, down which their waters plunged loaded with drift consisting of houses and contents, store goods. fencing and, in fact, everything that would float on the surface of the wild flood. Lucky was the householder whose home was a two story structure and the building itself heavy enough to stand the fierce wash of the deluge Apparently the whole city for a time lived on their second floors and let the river occupy the lower portion of the building.

WINTER OF 1852-53

The winter of 1852-53 broke the flood record of 1849-50, and not only Sacramento City but much of the Sacramento valley was inundated. During November the rains came down and on December 10 the river was over its banks and filling the tule lands. The riparian towns had thrown up levees to protect themselves, all ganged to the '50 flood. By January 1 at Sacramento the rise was twenty two feet above low water level about seventeen inches higher than '50 and a greater deluge was in the streets. From the Colusa hills to the Montezuma hills in Solano the west shore of the Sacramento river was under water excepting the Indian mounds. These peculiar elevations, lifting from the surrounding plain, were never submerged, and were the refuge resorts of stock and frequently people in the vicinity during the floods. At Knight's Landing the mound was the winter town of the place. A steamer when one could buck the stiff river current from. Sacramento would land at the base of the mound, and by wading or flatboating a short distance inland communication could be had with the interior of Yolo county. Transportation and traffic in Sacramento City was by water and on New Year's Day of that year the festivities of the occasion brought into those Venetian like streets every boat, raft or anything that would float and carry a passenger. All through much of January the water washed over the lands adjacent to the rivers, but by the last of that month business could be renewed and by March the lands were clear.

The next great flood was 1861-2. The rains began in November, and, according to the Knight's Landing News of December 7, the river at that time was nearly bank full. "Last week," that journal continues, "while we had cloudy but pleasant weather, it must have been raining incessantly in the mountains. The river is the only indication, however, we have thus far of much wet, as our farmers are complaining of a want of rain necessary for their plowing." The days are recorded as having been unusually warm for two weeks previous to this date, and it is noted that the green grass was two inches high.


December 10 Sacramento was flooded, and the R street levee, which was one of the few objects not submerged, was cut to empty the city. So great was the rush of water through the breach that many buildings in the vicinity were torn from their foundations and washed away. By the 14th a great inland sea spread over the plains on both sides of the river. Large droves of stock were caught in the lowlands and lost. In numberless instances the animals would take refuge on a slight elevation, where they would stand crowded and starve to death. Horses that had stood for weeks in the water were disabled and had to be killed. On the 4th of January the unkindly elements, not satisfied with spreading death and destruction wide over the country, sent a cold spell and a snowstorm whitened the land, adding to the wretchedness of the general condition. January 14 the river at Sacramento was twenty four feet above low water mark, eighteen inches higher than ever before known. The Knight's Landing News says of this flood: "Our town is dry, being protected by a temporary levee thrown up by our citizens, but desolation utterly reigns around us. The loss to ranchers on the river is immense. On the finely fenced lands between here and Fremont all the fencing is swept away, Messrs. McCormick, Kneeland, Dawson, Wilcoxson and Sheriff Gray being the greatest sufferers. They had thousands of acres within fine board fencing set up with redwood posts. Now all is deluged stock mired and starving in the ruined plains and the lands made a waste. Our town is filled to overflowing with outside families driven from their homes above and below here on the river, until not a spare room can be had in the place, and the end is not yet. Still it rains, pours rain, unceasingly, no matter how the winds blow - north, south, east or west. Heretofore all our rain came from the ocean by a south wind, but this year two of our heaviest and longest storms came chillingly from the north, proving true the old adage, 'All signs fail in a wet time.' Toward Cacheville and in the Cache creek district the floods have been also severe. W. G. Hunt had a thousand head of fine sheep swept away and drowned and the losses in that valley are so numerous they cannot be specified."

The Sacramento Union of that period says: "We have been informed by George H. Swingle, who is here from the sink of Putah creek, that the flood has been very severe between that point and Sacramento, covering a distance of nine miles. A great number of buildings have been washed away, among which are the well known Tule House and Miner House, and over their sites are flowing about ten feet of water. There is nothing to indicate the location of the ranches around the sink of the Putah but one solitary windmill. Mr. Swingle says that for three days he saw houses, many of them fine one and one half story edifices, passing down on the flood from the north. No estimate can be placed on the livestock lost. To show the depth of water on these plains it is only necessary to state that a sloop sailed from Washington to Yolo City last Wednesday. Mike Bryte lost on Saturday last by the freshet 150 head of cattle, of which 85 were mulch cows. He lost about 100 head a month ago.

"The steamers and other vessels on the river are constantly answering calls for help from endangered people on the shores and large numbers have been rescued. Frequently the small boats would go some distance over the submerged lands before the rescuers would find and save the castaways from their tottering buildings or where they had taken a temporary refuge."


During 1867 and 1868 the valley got a re-drenching As early as May, 1867, the piled up snow in the mountains melted under the warm showers and the plain streams were soon running bank full. Considerable levee work had been done, especially in District No. 18, and most of this went out with the flood. The American river plunged across the Sacramento, broke the levee on the west bank north of Washington and filled up the Yolo tule basin. As usual, large droves of stock were caught in the lowlands and perished, frequently while swimming becoming entangled in barbed wire fencing. The summer finally ended this flood, but in December another was due and came, bringing the same brand of destruction. The rains were accompanied by heavy windstorms which backed the high waters into places which under other conditions_ might have escaped the deluge. These gales also prevented rescues and made boating on the flood as difficult as navigation on the surf of an ocean beach. The Tule House, which had been rebuilt and securely fastened to its foundations behind strong levees, stood firmly, but through the broken levees the water stood eight feet on the lower floor of the building. By the middle of January, 1868, a passenger could quite comfortably make daily boat trips from Sacramento to within three miles of Woodland.


The great storm of January 15, 1878, came down like a wolf in the fold. Until that date the rains had been holding off and the farmers were sadly anticipating the disaster of another dry year. But a continuous three day storm changed the aspect of current things. All the streams went over their banks, washing bridges away and destroying everything on their shores. The west side of Sacramento seemed to get most of this storm, and Yolo county got a wetting down that washed away all fear of a dry year. The flood waters in Colusa county came down into Reclamation District 108, filling that basin and threatening Knight's Landing. The river levees were cut to turn the surplus water back into the stream, but a portion of the town was flooded. The levee breaks on the Yolo side of the river relieved that overburdened stream of its winter water and saved the capital city, but it was hard on the "Tuleites."


The foregoing pages devoted to the winter floods of the great valley really tell little of the havoc spread by the deluge over the land on both shores of the Sacramento, from Colusa to Suisun bay, before the levees and canals began to protect the flood menaced plains. From season to season it was a recurring tragedy. Congress in 1850 conveyed to the state of California all the swamp or overflowed land, unfit for cultivation, that was within her limits, but nothing was done with these great tracts until 1861. Then a Board of Reclamation Commissioners was created by a legislative act, consisting of A. M. Winn of Sutter, president; J. C. Pemberton of Tulare; W. J. Hooten of Solano; B. B. Redding of Sacramento. and T. T. Boulden of San Joaquin. The board, with a large force of civil engineers, worked steadily for two years and laid out about thirty reclamation districts. Among them was No. 18, extending from Knight's Landing to Cache slough, containing about 160,000 acres of land. In 1863 levee building along the Yolo bank of the river began in earnest, and the work went on till 1867, the farmers over whose land the embankment passed performing the labor by contract. But the flood of 1867-68 struck the new, soft structure and most of it went out in a deposit over the submerged lands. In 1864 a drain canal through the center of tule marshes had been dug, James Moore excavating twelve miles of the ditch. and for which he received $18,000. This system of canal and levee was abandoned and the board abolished in 1866. It cost Yolo county $213,797 and was found to be impracticable.

In 1869 Charles F. Reed of Knight's Landing organized the Sacramento Valley Reclamation Company for the purpose of applying a system of reclamation to the tule country west of the Sacramento, north of Knight's Landing and extending up into Colusa county, embracing an area of almost 75,000 acres. Among its promoters were such well known capitalists as W. C. Ralston, L. A. Garnett, A. H. Rose and William Blanding. Then was organized Reclamation District 108, with Messrs. Reed, Rose and Garnett, trustees, about 41,000 acres in Yolo and 34,000 acres in Colusa. Levees were built from Knight's Landing to Colusa City, the first year the construction being completed to Upper Sycamore slough, a distance of thirty eight and one half miles, costing $450,000. At this terminus a channel was cut from the river to the tule basin by which the water when high could flow thereinto, and at the south end of the district, near Knight's Landing, another channel let this water back into the river when that stream was low or over the tule lands during high water. The levee system of course controlled this inlet and outlet and the necessary bulkheads cost $12,000 and $15,000, respectively. In 1879 the late Dr. Hugh J. Glenn completed the levee across his great ranch, making eighty continuous miles of embankment from Knight's Landing to a point seven miles above Princeton, completing the reclamation of District No. 108.


The board of supervisors in 1870 formed Swamp Land District No. 150, enclosing Merritt's Island and tule lands in that vicinity. In 1877 District 307 was organized This territory lies between Merritt Island and Babel slough and contains about 6,000 acres of swamp land. For years the work of solving the flood problem of the Yolo basin has gone on, scientifically and successfully. Levees to hold the river waters within their lawful channels and canals to drain the seepage from the lowlands of the basin have been the dream of the land owners of the great valley since the first winter flood swept over their homes. As the big river, dredged and cleared, washes its own free channel to the sea, the levees on its banks will control that surplus, but the back tule marsh lands, slightly lower than the river bank lands, will always be the catch all from the Coast range on the west. Hence they dream of the time when drainage ditches will relieve the basin of its winter waters.


Another dream of the Yolo agriculturist is the compounding, the conserving of this drainage from Coast range on their west. Up in these mountains is Clear Lake, its mean level 1,325 feet above the surface of the sea, twenty miles long, seven miles wide, from thirty five to fifty feet deep, and it drains an area of about 417 square miles. The only known outlet to this splendid natural reservoir is Cache creek, and year after year a continuous flow of fresh water comes down that natural canal to be used for irrigation or to be wasted in the Cache sinks at the edge of the tule belt. For years this useful stream has supplied limited water for irrigation, but a plan is being perfected, inaugurated, by which Clear Lake will be made to distribute its water where it will do the most good. A dam at the lakes outlet to control the water without needless waste or without lowering the lake level to the inconvenience or injury of people living on its shore will be constructed, and a system of canals tapping the creek as it approaches the plain completes the work. At this writing the dams and other work on the creek are being finished and the work on the lake will be inaugurated as soon as the rights of way have been obtained. The Yolo Water and Power Company, as the corporation is called, comprises a syndicate of New York and London capitalists. It proposes to be able from its stored water to effectively irrigate at all seasons of the year 200,000 acres of land. And as for power - Cache creek soon after leaving Clear lake strikes a lively gait, and for twenty five miles it falls down its canyon thirty feet to the mile. When it leaves the canyon it enters Capay valley, where its irrigating labors will begin. Some idea of the value and importance of this enterprise may be formed when it is remembered that government engineers have reported that the topographical, physical and hydrographical conditions are such that a more economic, comprehensive and profitable system of irrigation can be developed for Yolo county than for any other locality on the Pacific coast.

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