SSJID & Manteca: A history of prosperity By DENN I S WYAT T Th e Bu lletin
The formation of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District did more than just bring needed water to convert 70,000 acres into productive farmland. It literally gave life to Manteca as well as the cities of Escalon and Ripon. At the dawn of the 20th century Manteca had several lots divided but only three or four homes. That all changed after May 11, 1909 when voters by a 396 to 67 margin embraced the formation of the SSJID as well as a $1,875,000 bond issue. Elected to the board on May 11, 1909 were C.M. Carlson, Fred H. Kincaid, B.A. Goodwin, W.J. Woodward and C.T. Wiggin. The formation of the district wasn’t the first attempt
to irrigate the dry, barren blow sand plains that originally encompassed much of today’s SSJID boundaries. The first known settlers in the area – the Mormons who came up from the San Francisco Bay on launches as far as a point near the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers tried to establish an irrigation system in 1846. Their settlement was wiped out the first winter when rain and snow melt sent the San Joaquin River spilling over its banks to create a swath of water estimated at six to eight miles wide. Joshua Cowell – the man who walked across the Sierra from Nevada’s Carson Valley and arrived here in 1863 where he established his farm in what is present-day central Manteca – attempted
to form a private water district in the 1880s. Cowell – known as the “Father of Manteca” – contracted to build nine miles of ditches to the center of what is today downtown Manteca. His brother Wright Cowell bought up water rights along the Stanislaus River. They went broke within a short time as farmers along the ditch refused to buy water as they did not see the value in irrigating the land. They – like many other farmers of that day and since 1852 – raised dry land crops such as wheat. Oftentimes the lack of supplemental water worked the soil out reducing yields substantially after a year or two. Next up on the list of attempts to irrigate farmland was the San Joaquin Land and Water Company that was formed in 1889. Their plan was to use the Cowell brothers’ ditch and to extend it to bring water from the Stanislaus River to Stockton to irrigate land throughout the county. They invested $170,000 to build a dam on the Stanislaus but that was abandoned when they had repeated partnership disagreements. The first system to actually bring water to the South County was established by the San Joaquin Water Company formed by H.W. Cowell and N.S. Harrold. They put in a series of ditches covering 47 miles from the Stanislaus near Knights Ferry to the center of Manteca in 1895. The main conveyance – the
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Tulloch Ditch – was completed in 1905 and provided water to just 3,000 acres. Its impact was much bigger and set the stage for the formation of the SSJID as farmers saw how much higher the yields were from neighbors who had irrigated water. Alfalfa started to be grown and a major dairy industry grew up overnight to supply the growing market in the San Francisco Bay Area. The support that irrigation had at that point prompted F.A. West and Joshua Cowell to petition the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors in March of 1909 for the formation of the SSJID. The Oakdale irrigation District was formed at the same time under the same state law. Each district owned half of the Tulloch Ditch. The two fledging irrigation districts met and decided to construct a dam and ditches down to a point near Escalon as a joint venture. The first bonds were sold on June 10, 1910. The $342,500 issuance sold for $10 a share. The site selected for the first dam was 2.5 miles above Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus. It was named for the president of the SSJID board at the time – Benjamin A. Goodwin. The 400-foot high Goodwin Dam was completed in December 1912. Virtually overnight, Manteca turned into a boomtown. Lots were selling for between $300 and $1,000 apiece – more than quadruple the value of prior years. By the time SSJID released its first water, the South County had grown from 3,000 to 15,000 residents as people from throughout the state and the West came to buy irrigated land to farm. SEE SSJID, PAGE 23