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Rise of Industrial America
The American West
California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence

Charles Nordhoff was a journalist who traveled to California in 1871-1872. In 1873, after returning to the East Coast, he wrote a guidebook, included in California As I Saw It, 1849-1900, that became very popular and convinced many Easterners to head for California. The excerpts below are from a chapter on agriculture in California. What potential problem for farmers did Nordhoff identify? How did he believe this problem could be solved? Do you think he was right? Why or why not?

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THE greater part of the farming lands of California lies in the two large valleys of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, including the Tulare. The Sacramento Valley is forty miles wide, bounded on the west by the Coast Range, and on the east by the Sierra Nevada. It is an immense fertile plain, containing about five millions of acres, becoming mountainous in its northern part, but having a vast area of fertile land, much of which never needs irrigation, and produces fine crops in the driest years. In the spring of 1871, when a drought prevailed all over California, I saw a field of oats of one thousand acres at Chico, on the California and Oregon Railroad, so high that I could and did tie the oats over my head.

Northern California--namely, the Sacramento Valley, and the counties which lie on the same parallel with it--has a climate mild compared with that of our Easter States; but it has frosts and some light snows, and the semi-tropical fruits do not flourish there, except in certain favored localities. Southern California, which includes the San Joaquin Valley and its extensions, the Tulare and Kern valleys, as well as the sea-coast counties parallel with these, is the real garden of the State.

At Stockton begins the great San Joaquin Valley, which has an area of about seven millions of acres. This stretches from Stockton to the Tejon Pass, a length, north and south, of three hundred miles. It has, without including the foot-hills, an average width of forty miles, or with the foot-hills, which contain excellent land, fifty miles. With the foot-hills on each side, and the smaller mountain valleys, this region has over eighteen million acres of land, of which not less than ten millions are susceptible of highly profitable cultivation. The plains alone contain nearly seven million acres of land, of which less than seven hundred thousand were cultivated last year.

The whole valley has at this time a population of less than fifty thousand persons.

The San Joaquin, Tulare, and Kern valleys, included in the general term of the San Joaquin, form the "new country" of the State. Its soil is the richest, its plains are the broadest, its climate is semi-tropical, and in it already the orange, cotton, ramie, the sugar-beet, as well as corn and wheat and the other cereals, have been grown. At present two railroads , the Southern Pacific and the San Joaquin Valley (a branch of the Consolidated Central Pacific), are rapidly building, which will open the whole of this immense territory to settlement; and already its natural wealth is drawing thither not only farmers, but capitalists with schemes for irrigation upon an extensive scale. Shrewd men in San Francisco begin to see that if it was profitable for companies to build canals and flumes, sometimes a hundred miles long, to facilitate mining operations, it will be more permanently profitable to build flumes, canals, ditches, and reservoirs for irrigation.

One irrigation company is already at work in the San Joaquin country upon a large scale; it has forty miles of canal dug, and a large force of men is now at work extending this canal. The plan of this company contemplates not only irrigation, but incidentally the reclamation of a million of acres of swamp and overflowed lands. An able engineer, Mr. R. M. Brereton, long experienced in extensive irrigation works in India, made during the summer and fall of 1871 a reconnaissance of the valley, and his report to the company proposes the construction of canals and ditches, at a cost eventually of $7,660,000, which would irrigate 2,806,000 acres of land, every acre of which will, with water, produce two crops a year. Mr. Brereton writes me: "Irrigation can only grow with the increase of population. It must be small at first; and my object has been to design such a system as would be capable of future enlargement, as population increased the demand for water. Therefore, under my plan, canals that in the next fifty years may cost $10,000 per mile will not at first cost $1500 per mile."

During the season of 1872 not less than 100,000 acres will be irrigated in the San Joaquin Valley. The cost to the farmer for water is about one dollar and a quarter per acre for each crop, and two crops are taken off in the year. Mr. Brereton writes: "I saw in Bakersfield and its environs magnificent crops of Indian corn growing, which had been planted about the end of June and beginning of July, after a crop of wheat had been obtained off the same land. The corn in one field averaged from 16 to 18 feet in height; the cobs were of immense size, and about a span in length. This was the result of irrigation. I was also shown fields of alfalfa (a kind of lucern) which had already yielded under irrigation three crops, averaging from six to eight tons to the acre."

Meantime the people in this valley have already constructed between forty and fifty irrigating ditches of different lengths, of one of which, near Visalia, I shall give some details in another chapter; and on the fields which have been thus watered corn, wheat, cotton, flax, barley, and a number of other products have been raised. At present the San Joaquin Valley is largely used for grazing. The immense quantity of government and railroad lands which it contains were reserved from sale until the railroad companies should locate their grants. This work was completed during the summer of 1872, and the whole great valley is now open to settlement, while the two railroads , which are being energetically prosecuted by wealthy companies, will give to farmers a quick and certain access to market.

It is my belief that in the San Joaquin Valley farmers coming into the State from the East will find the most eligible locations for some years to come. The soil is rich and very easily cultivated; the climate is such that not only the cereals, but cotton, and the sub-tropical fruits, can be safely and profitably cultivated there; irrigation has now been so far advanced that it will keep pace with the needs of settlers; as soon as the railroad companies locate their grants it will be possible to buy the best land of them or of the Government at two dollars and a half per acre, in quantities of from forty to six hundred and forty acres; two railroads will give access to markets; two crops a year from irrigated land will make less land necessary to the farmer, who can do as much with eighty acres here as with one hundred and sixty elsewhere, even in the cereal crops only; where land is irrigated the farmer can plant live fences of willow, sycamore, and cotton-wood, which, after the second year, will yield him all the fire-wood he needs without further trouble; and it is an incidental advantage of this region that farmers will for some years to come be able to graze stock freely upon the unappropriated government and railroad lands near them. . . .
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View the table of contents for Nordhoff's guidebook from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.