History of Washington, California
From: The History of Yolo County, California
History By: Tom Gregory
The Historical Record Company.
Los Angeles, California 1913


With the dissolution of Fremont, Washington, a settlement upon the Sacramento river opposite the city of Sacramento, became the principal scene of judicial, political and commercial activity in Yolo county. Its proximity to Sacramento and the conveniences of transportation afforded by the river, constituted the natural advantages which influenced the trend of progress in that direction. The removal of the county seat, as has already been mentioned, contributed of course in necessarily compelling the transaction of all county business there.

James McDowell was the first settler in that territory which afterward became the town of Washington, although it was his widow, so far as accomplishment was concerned, who was really the founder of the town. It was she who bestowed its name and filed the first and subsequent plats of the town. The first of these was filed for record in February, 1850.

Mr. McDowell purchased six hundred acres of land on the Yolo side of the Sacramento river, from John Schwartz. The latter claimed to have a grant to the land, but subsequent events indicated that the title was not all that it should have been, and years later, after Mr. McDowell had passed away, his widow caused a pre-emption to be entered upon one hundred and sixty acres of land, which holding included the site of the town of Washington.

Of the tract purchased from Schwartz, for which, by the way, Mr. McDowell paid only twelve and one half cents per acre, he fenced one acre in the northwest corner and in the inclosure erected a log cabin. He crossed the river from Sutter's Fort in August, 1847, and with his family took up his residence in the cabin.

In 1848. Kit and J. B. Chiles with J. C. Davis settled upon some land just north of McDowell's possession and there immediately ensued much controversy between them as to the exact location of the dividing line. Mr. McDowell died from wounds in 1849. There is no mention in the early records of how he received those wounds, but in view of the bitter strife which continued between his widow and said adverse claimants of possession to the land in controversy, the inference is obvious.

The first deed to be recorded in Yolo county was one in which Mrs. McDowell conveyed lot 4 of block 4, Washington, to William Dearbour and Jeremiah Callahan for a consideration of $500. The deed was filed April. 1850:

The plat recorded by Mrs. McDowell in some mysterious way became lost, but fortunately she possessed a copy. In September, 1862, another plat was made of the town and again, in February, 1869, an amended plat of the town was recorded. In each of these plats the location and names of the streets were changed, but the last filed has ever since been recognized as the official plat and the streets named therein have become permanently fixed. The records show the first unquestioned title to any land in the townsite of Washington to have been a patent issued by the state of California to Dr. C. E. Taylor under date of February 3, 1869. Dr. Taylor had in the meantime married the widow of James McDowell.

In August, 1849, the population of Washington was augmented by the arrival of Dr. Presley Welch and Col. J. H. Lewis, who cleared and settled upon one hundred and sixty acres of land adjoining the south line of the McDowell property. In December of the same year Job N. Peck purchased a third interest in this property and the joint owners erected a "shake" house and engaged in the dairy business. Their house was the second structure erected in Washington, the first being a log house built by Mr. McDowell and which was then occupied by his widow. Kit Chiles and his family resided in a tent on the bank of the river. Mrs. McDowell soon afterward erected a frame house on the north side of what is now Harriet street, into which she moved her family, deserting the log cabin.

The fourth house built in Washington was made of zinc and was erected at the corner of Second and Ann streets and the fifth was the Olive Branch hotel, built and conducted by a man named Bryant, opposite the new residence of Mrs. McDowell. The old records inform us that the dimensions of this pioneer hostelry were 22x32 feet. This hotel was afterward purchased at a cost of $6,000 by Amos Waring, who took possession of it on July 4, 1850. In the meantime Doctors Heath and Brown had built homes for themselves, the former close to the ship yard and the latter opposite the old cemetery.

The steady increase in the population of the river town received something of a check in the summer of 1850, when an epidemic of cholera appeared among the inhabitants. The dreaded disease carried off seven victims and for a time threatened the whole settlement with annihilation, but by resorting to heroic measures the sturdy people finally checked the disease for the time. Two years later it reappeared, but was less malignant and therefore not so disastrous. Dr. Heath fell a victim to the epidemic which he fought so valiantly and he was buried with the honor which belonged to him by reason of his untiring and unselfish conduct in the face of danger.

Up to 1850 J. B. Chiles and others operated a rope ferry across the river between Washington and Sacramento, but at the July meeting of the court of sessions of that year the franchise for the said ferry was given to I. N. Hoag for one year at a cost of $300 per annum as license. The former owners of the ferry were applicants for the license, but through some technicality were unsuccessful. The court of sessions officially fixed the rate of tolls for the bridge as follows: Loaded wagon, $2; light wagon, $1.50; loose stock, per head, fifty cents; pack animals, seventy five cents; horse and rider, $1; sheep, per head, twelve and one half cents; freight per cwt., twelve cents; lumber per 1,000 feet, $5; foot passengers, twenty five cents.

Mr. Hoag after considerable trouble and expense converted the motive power of the ferry into steam. His venture in a business way was a big success, the receipts for three months in the fall of that year aggregating $27,000. He opened negotiations for the sale of the ferry, together with some other real property on the river soon afterward and although the bargain progressed as far as the agreement upon the price, which was $40,000, it fell through on account of some trouble regarding the land and the amount of fuel that was included in the bargain. About this time competing ferries were established and the business declined for everybody.

Toward the close of the year 1850 the people of Washington, whose numbers had rapidly increased, believed that their town was destined to become a city. This prophesy was not without foundation. The topographical situation on the Yblo side of the river gave promise of rapid growth and conditions which then existed indicated that Washington was the favored site for the habitation of men. In. the winter of that year the city of Sacramento was flooded, while Washington remained high and dry. Again in 1852 the river people had severe floods to contend with. From an old print we learn that "with the exception of the Indian mounds and high places there was no land along the river between Knights Landing and Benicia that was not inundated."

It was not, however, until later years that the people of Washington suffered much from high water. With the construction of levees on the Sacramento side of the river and the gradual filling in of the river bed with debris from the placer mines in the mountains there came a time when they were compelled, for their protection, to construct levees around the town. These embankments have been maintained ever since at much cost to Washington, but although there has been very high water in the tules adjacent to the town, the water has been effectively kept out of it.

In the meantime most of the traffic from the north and west of Yolo county passed through the town of Washington and it became quite an important commercial center. A census taken in 1852 gave the following statistics for the town: Four hotels, two general stores, three laundries, a postoffice and blacksmith shops. According to a private record compiled by Jonas Spect, the founder of Fremont and a candidate for state senator, there were sixty votes cast in Washington in 1851, reckoning on established tables that would have given the population of the town about three hundred.

Isaac Owen held the first divine service in Washington in 1850. He was succeeded by Rev. M. C. Briggs, who afterward became baggage master for the California Pacific Railroad Company. Rev. O. C. Wheeler and Rev. H. B. Shelden were also among the early preachers in Washington. The latter was succeeded in 1853 by a young man named Benham of the Methodist Episcopal church, who came from Brooklyn, N. Y. He was afterward drowned in Cache creek while attempting to ford it during a freshet. The Monumental Class of the United Brethren church was organized in 1859.

A private school, probably the third institution of learning in Yolo county, was established in Washington in 1850, with Mr. Wheaton as teacher. Mr. Wheaton was a lawyer by calling and he afterward engaged in the practice of his profession in San Francisco. The school was maintained intermittently, terms being held from time to time, and in 1855 the following statistical figures were given in a record furnished the county; number of children between the ages of four and eighteen years, sixty four; number of orphans, eleven; teachers, M. A. Wheaton and Emma Alexander; salary, $80 per month; trustees, H. C. Griffith, I. N. Hoag, E. C. Taylor.

The political history of Washington was confined principally to the efforts of the people to retain the seat of government there. In 1851 an election was held in the county to determine the location of the county seat and a strenuous campaign ensued with the people of Fremont opposed to those of Washington. A majority vote was east in favor of the latter town and the first meeting of the court of sessions was held in the new county seat in July of that year.

Again in May, 1855, an effort was made to wrest from the river town the seat of government, but the people were not ripe for a change and returned a verdict through the ballot box in favor of Washington against its ambitious rival river town, Knights Landing.

By an act of the legislature of March 25, 1857, Washington lost the county seat for a period of four years, it being transferred to a village on the banks of Cache creek called Cacheville. In this the legislature was probably actuated through arguments regarding the geographical situation, Cacheville being situated in about the center of the county, but the gentlemen who constituted that august body four years later thought better of the action of their predecessors and by an act regularly passed, re-transferred the county seat to Washington.

By this time, however, the people of the county took a hand in the game and after the records of the county had reposed snugly in the old archives at Washington for one year from the time of the last act of the legislature, they removed the county seat to Woodland, a town more favorably situated, which had been growing rapidly, while the older towns were fighting for the county seat, and it has remained there ever since.

The permanent removal of the county seat to Woodland very naturally had a depressing effect upon the people of Washington and a corresponding effect upon the business of the town. That together with the railroad had much to do with the defeat of the hopes of the Washington people, for until late years, the growth of that picturesque river town was not what early conditions gave promise of. Contrary to expectations, the establishment of more convenient and cheaper transportation across the river resulted in benefits to Sacramento alone, which began to grow when the railroad company established its shops and yards in that city. Overshadowed by a city from which it is separated only by the river, Washington is commercially at the mercy of Sacramento. Its people do most of their trading in Sacramento, attend its churches and even belong to the fraternal societies of the larger city. In fact many of the residents of Washington earn their living in Sacramento, working in the railroad shops and other places of business.

Since the railroad and transportation facilities across the river constitute such important factors in the history of Washington a paragraph or two regarding the evolution from the ferry to bridge seems pertinent in this work. For the following facts the author is indebted to T. E. Harrison, a pioneer resident of Washington.

The first bridge across the Sacramento river between Washington and Sacramento was built by Major Gillis, John Q. Brown and Johnson Price, under a franchise issued jointly by Yolo and Sacramento counties. They began the work in 1856 and finished the structure the following year at a cost of $65,000. Under this franchise they were privileged to exact toll for traffic, and foot passengers were charged ten cents each for crossing.

Just before the expiration of their twenty year franchise they sold their interest in the bridge to the California Pacific Railroad Company, which converted it into a railroad bridge. This was done in the year 1875. It soon afterward became the property of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, into which the former corporation was finally merged.

About the year 1878 there appears upon the records of the court of sessions an order authorizing certain members of that body to treat with the officials of the railroad company to the end that free use of the bridge might be had for the people of the river section and the negotiations finally terminated, several years afterward, in the construction of a joint bridge in which the railroad company and the counties of Yolo and Sacramento shared the expense. In this manner the people were assured free transportation across the river. The railroad company has changed the location of the bridge four different times since acquiring the property and is now engaged in the construction of a new magnificent bridge, with the co-operation of both counties. This bridge will cost when completed in the neighborhood of $800,000, and the cost to Yolo county will be about $45,000. It has the heaviest drawn span of any bridge in the world. It is constructed almost entirely of concrete and steel and gives promise of serving all for a great many years to come.

During the last few years there has been a marked improvement in the conditions of Washington. The population has increased materially, and naturally property values have increased. This was brought about, no doubt, through a corresponding improvement in Sacramento, which during the last decade has made wonderful progress along all lines of public improvement. The cheaper rents and property in Washington, together with the better water, the free transportation across the river and its close proximity to the shops and yards of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which are situated principally on or close to the opposite bank of the Sacramento river, has induced many people employed on the Sacramento side in the down town districts, to take up their residence in the Yolo town.

At the present time the prospects of Washington give better promise of the materialization of the hopes of its pioneer residents than at any period since the railroad company dashed those hopes by establishing its works in Sacramento. The advent of the Northern Electric Railroad Company in Yolo county is bound to do much for Washington. In addition to the immense bridge just completed by the Southern Pacific Company, there is also a bridge of almost equal proportion and cost about completed by the electric road a short distance down the river. This bridge will have an entrance into Sacramento at the foot of M street. In this structure the counties of Yolo and Sacramento will have an interest and an overhead roadway for all traffic. It was built jointly by the two counties and the railroad company under a similar agreement as obtained with the other bridge.

The Electric Railroad Company has acquired considerable property lying just below the town of Washington and has promised Yolo county to establish thereon its railroad shops and yards in consideration for the county's affiliation in the matter of building the bridge. This acquisition of property for which the railroad company paid $1000 per acre has had the effect of enhancing property values all along the river and especially in the town of Washington, where land on the river is worth now between $200 and $250 per front foot.

A new enterprise launched within the past few months has also added impetus to the boom in Washington. The West Sacramento Electric and Reclamation Company, with the backing of unlimited capital, is even now engaged in what is considered the most gigantic and most effective work of reclamation ever attempted in Yolo county. The company owns and controls a huge body of land extending from river points above Washington many miles below that town and they are constructing levees with concrete bases, believing that it will prevent seepage and thus do away with the necessity of pumping that water out of the district. This company has also acquired rights of way for an electric line to traverse Yolo county from Washington to its western boundary, where connections will be made with tide water transportation lines.

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