From the time of the first families settling in the greater Oakdale area, the main way of life in the area was agriculture and could be easily divided into two types — livestock or crop farming.
The original settlers brought their livestock with them. Be it cattle or sheep, they walked the animals across the plains with the wagon trains and put the herds to pasture on this fertile land. Both the cattle and sheep multiplied and a livestock industry was born in the area that later would support the town of Oakdale and it continues today in an expanded form.
On the land southeast of Oakdale early settlers who felt more comfortable working the land engaged in a different agricultural industry. They sowed grain seeds and harvested the resulting crop. Thus was established a reputable grain industry in the area.
Both of these groups needed the same commodity — water! And, it should be controlled water. Too much at the wrong time or not enough at the correct time was a prescription for disaster. The only solution was a controlled irrigation system. The first thought or reference to irrigation was by Silas Wilcox, the county’s first surveyor in 1854 when he made the suggestion of taking water from nearby rivers to use on crops. Although the interest in irrigation goes back to the time of the county’s organization, George H. Tinkham, in his History of Stanislaus County, published in 1921, states, “the actual use of irrigation began in the area with the law that was approved by the legislature on May 30, 1878 establishing the Modesto Irrigation District that was divided later into three districts – Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale.”
Tinkham continues, “In the legislature of 1887, C.C. Wright, a lawyer of Modesto, and an assemblyman from the county, introduced what was later known as the Wright Irrigation Law. It authorized the organization of irrigation districts, allowing the people of the district to form a public district for the purpose of bringing water from the Sierras, by means of canals, ditches, dams and other means to irrigate their lands.”
Again quoting Tinkham, “There was formed in 1888, a corporation known as the San Joaquin Land & Water Company. They purchased the old Knights Ferry Ditch, then used as an irrigation ditch by the ferry people, and announced that they would build it down into the San Joaquin Valley. It failed to materialize because of many problems. Time passed and in 1899, a company was incorporated as the Stanislaus Water Company.” Among the incorporators was Charles Tulloch, the mill man. Their proposal was to supply water to Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and electric power for Oakdale, Modesto and Stockton. There were no results from this company, again from various causes.
There was also in existence in 1890 an organization called the Oakdale Irrigation Company and the 1891 and 1893 Oakdale business directories show A.S. Emory as president with offices in 1891 in the Sproul Building and in 1893 in the Bank of Oakdale Building. A report indicated that they must have done a considerable amount of work as, “a party of Stockton business men went through the 800 foot canal that heads in the river one mile above Knights Ferry and were told when completed it would be eleven miles long, ten feet at the bottom and carry four feet of water. It was to be completed in October and Oakdale would have a celebration.” It was not completed, for “after the death of Louis Kahn the Oakdale Banker and principal owner of the Oakdale Irrigation Company stock, it was discovered the company was in a bad shape financially.”
In 1905, Mr. Charles Tulloch, manager of the Stanislaus Power & Water Company took over the company. He then told the members he could not furnish water at $10 for water rights and $1.50 per acre, but his rate would be $3.00 per acre and no water rights fee. The company was commonly known as the “Tulloch system” and was operating with the flumes and irrigation system from prior companies.
“In 1909 it became apparent to the well informed land owners of Oakdale that they must have an irrigation system. A mass meeting was held under the Wright Act. So great was the enthusiasm shown that the City Hall was not large enough, and larger quarters were obtained. A committee of twelve was appointed to take charge of the preliminary work — boundaries were surveyed and a petition signed by a majority of the land owners, then it was sent to the county supervisors to declare it an irrigation district. The approved request was then submitted to a vote of district land owners. Mayor Bill Reynolds, in a lecture he presented in 1971, reported that the vote passed 349 in favor to 27 opposed. Officers were elected and bonds voted almost unanimously for $1,600,000. In 1910, the new Oakdale Irrigation District joined with the recently formed South San Joaquin District and together they purchased the Tulloch system for $650,000, the amount paid being divided equally between the two districts.
Mayor Reynolds reported in his 1971 Oakdale Centennial Lecture that the, “early work of the district consisted of building the so-called Goodwin diversion dam at a cost of $325,000. From this dam each district constructed main canals extending to their respective lands, the OID consisting of a main canal each side of the river, the north approximately fifteen miles and the south side approximately twenty-two miles in length. From these main canals approximately 250 miles of lateral ditches were built. The Goodwin Dam was completed in 1913.
Continuing to use information from Mayor Reynolds’ 1971 lecture, we find that, “until 1925, irrigation was dependent upon the natural flow of the river, which was far from being adequate to irrigate the district acres. With the growing demand for late summer water, the two districts joined hands and voted bonds to build a storage reservoir, known as the Melones Reservoir (original). The two districts negotiated a 40-year contract with P.G. & E. for their use of the storage water for generating electric power.” This not only paid the principal but the interest on the bonds, giving the two districts free water storage. This reservoir was completed in December 1926 and had a capacity of 112,500 acre feet.
According to Mayor Reynolds, in 1938, both districts found themselves desperately short of irrigation water and in searching for a solution the idea of the Tri-Dam Project was born. OID Chief Engineer Russ Hartley, a major figure in the development of this project was authorized back in 1924 to pack in by horseback into the Sierra country to make a survey of the Beardsley Flat as a possible site of future growth. So after 21 years of effort, this goal was reached. The Tri-Dam Project – Donnells Dam, Beardsley Dam & Tulloch Dam – was financed by a $50 million bond program.
A review of the 70,000 district acres and the amount irrigated as listed in Sol Elias’ 1924 book entitled Stories of Stanislaus shows the continued historic growth:
1913 – 4,246 acres irrigated; 1914 – 7,639 acres; 1915 – 11,257 acres; 1916 – 12,920; 1917 – 18,791; 1918 – 18,928; 1919 –19,082; 1920 – 19,473; 1921 – 20,976; 1922 – 19,200; 1923 – 19,300.
In 1922 the list is divided by commodity; alfalfa – 8,818; garden – 798; trees – 3,458; corn – 2,032; grain – 328; melons – 49; vines — 1,560; clover – 196; beans – 263; and rice – 446 acres.
Elias lists in 1910 water taxpayers as 705 and the number in 1923 as 2,424 and then states, “OID more than trebled its number of taxpayers in 10 years and its taxable wealth has doubled during the same period.” This indicates remarkable progress and a solid and substantial, prosperous and growing commodity.
In an article in the Golden Anniversary Issue, Oakdale Leader, May 25, 1939, Chief Engineer Russ E. Hartley, in addition to presenting the history of the Oakdale Irrigation District, reports that a little less than 40,000 acres were currently being irrigated of which 25,000 was planted in ladino clover.
The Oakdale Irrigation District is looking forward to celebrating its centennial later this month.