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Catastrophic flood mars quiet 1950s

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POSTED December 27, 2009 1:40 a.m.
Editor’s note: The following is part of a series recapping Manteca history as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close.

“Sleepy” and “tranquil” are adjectives historians could use in looking back on the 1950s in Manteca.

It wasn’t a time of earth-shattering events in the course of Manteca’s growth.

It was a time when Manteca High and its sports teams served as the focal point of the community. Cruising was gaining in popularity and Manteca was viewed as a small San Joaquin Valley farm town by those passing through from San Francisco en route to Yosemite Valley or traveling Highway 99 that served as the main route connecting Los Angeles and the rest of the Pacific Coast states.

A four-way stop with a suspended red blinking light at the start of the decade marked where Highway 99 and Highway 120 crossed at what is now the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street. The Highway 99 freeway would take the traffic load off Main Street as 1960 neared.

The decade gave little inkling of what was about to happen in Manteca during the 1960s but there were signs of change on the horizon.

Two of the worst disasters in Manteca history - the flood of the winter of 1950-51 and a fire that devastated a large chunk of the central district in 1952 - occurred during the decade.

The 1950-51 disaster made the January 1997 floods that covered 70 square miles south of Manteca, damaged 700 homes and racked up $80 million in losses pale in comparison.

Unusually severe storms from Nov. 13 to Dec. 8 caused extensive flooding from the Durham Ferry/Airport Way bridge on the San Joaquin River to Bowman Road in French Camp.

Prime farmland was under water for weeks.

By January 1951, levees had broken on both sides of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers. Highway 50 west of Mossdale was closed for several weeks after flood waters washed away bridges. Flood waters came within four miles of downtown Manteca. The county hospital was threatened.

More than 2,000 people had been evacuated between Mossdale and French Camp. The same widespread flood today would force the displacement of over 20,000 people.

Stockton also suffered major flooding with 125 blocks covered in water for up to eight days with the water reaching a height of six feet in spots.

What was possibly Manteca’s largest fire in history started in the back of the Courtesy Market on Dec. 11, 1952 and quickly spread to the furniture store next door. The fire was first spotted by Dr. Robert Winters at the southwest corner of Center and Main streets. Winters ran two blocks to report it.

The grocery store, barber shop, Sadie’s Beauty Shop and furniture store sustained over $200,000 in damages or the equivalent of almost $1 million in 1999 dollars.

The 1950s also saw upheaval in the fire department when the City Council removed Chief Sam Hanna after 22 years when he refused to resign to make way for the department’s first full-time fire chief.

Hanna contended the need for a full-time chief was unfounded. The council disagreed and in 1958, fired Hanna and took full charge of the once all-volunteer department.

The 1950s also saw the start of a number of positive changes in Manteca.

A bond to build the first phase of today’s existing library for $75,000 was placed on the ballot thanks to a committee headed by Dr. Lloyd Henry whose dental practice was on Sycamore Avenue next to the rose garden his widow still maintains today. The first ballot measure in April 1958 failed by four votes. A repeat election in November 1958 went down by 60 votes. The reason for the defeat was attributed to the failure to select a site.

Henrys committee then engaged in an extensive search for a site. Actual passage of the bond measure did not occur until April 1960 and that only happened when the last three absentee ballots were counted to provide a razor thin margin of two votes favoring the issuance of the bonds.

The completion of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church at North Street and Powers Avenue in 1954 touched off a building boom of churches. Among them was St. Anthony’s. Its first phase was to build a four-classroom school on the parish property on North Street. It was completed in 1955 but could not open due to lack of a teaching staff. It was decided in August of that year to lease the property to the Manteca school district for additional classroom space.

Finally, the St. Anthony’s School opened the following year with the Sisters of the Precious Blood instructing.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s $52 million joint undertaking with Oakdale Irrigation District on the Stanislaus River - the Tri-Dam Project - was dedicated on June 15, 1957.

Attending dignitaries from Sacramento noted the most remarkable thing about the project is that it was funded entirely by SSJID and OID without any aid from the federal government.
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