It was the ultimate power walk.
Joshua Cowell — the Father of Manteca — arrived on the sandy plains in 1863 on foot.
Cowell had literally walked across the Sierra Nevada to what is now modern-day Manteca from the Carson Valley in Nevada. Originally from Tioga, N.Y., Cowell’s family migrated to Grant County, Wisconsin. It was from there where other Manteca pioneer families including the Salmons, Reynolds, Castles and Graves among others. Cowell headed west with his brothers in 1861. His brothers went directly to California while Cowell opted to linger two years in the Carson Valley.
Cowell arrived here in January 1863 and immediately purchased the ranch he lived on until his death in 1925. It was a ranch that contains most of present day Manteca.
His ranch house, built roughly where the Bank of America branch now stands today on the southeast corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street some 154 years later, was the epicenter of the community.
While Cowell gave Manteca life and the railroad helped nurture it along, it wasn’t until South San Joaquin Irrigation District was formed in 1909 to develop the Stanislaus River watershed that Manteca took root and started growing.
The idea of moving water about to make Manteca grow was not a new concept.
The first American settlers in the Manteca area — a 20-man Mormon contingent led by William Stout in 1846 who established a colony southwest of Manteca near the Hays Road bend in the San Joaquin River — were the first to build an irrigation ditch for farm crops, a modest three-quarter of a mile perfectly graded ditch that was still visible in 1910.
The devastating floods in the following winter of 1846-47, though, swelled the San Joaquin turning it into a three-mile wide river. Too much water forced the area’s first settlers to give up and head back to San Francisco. It was the start of Manteca’s perennial swings between not enough water to too much water.
Cowell envisioned a town and vibrant farming district. He was the first to push for an elaborate irrigation system in the 1870s. Other farmers just laughed. He tried to dig a 45-mile ditch from Knights Ferry to Manteca but farmers refused to cooperate. Charles Tulloch took over the project while Cowell simply contracted to build the ditches.
But It wasn’t until the first bonds were issued on June 10, 1910 to build the South San Joaquin Irrigation District that great success was obtained.
It was so successful that by the first water flowed on April 6, 1913 into SSJID canals from the just completed Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus, the South County’s population swelled from 3,000 to over 15,000 residents anticipating the prosperity irrigated water would bring.
In that sense, the story of Manteca mirrors that of California. Harnessed water from Hetch Hetchy allowed San Francisco to prosper. The Owens Valley aqueduct fueled Los Angeles growth. Up and down the Great Central Valley farmers and struggling town sites were creating irrigation districts.
Total acreage under cultivation in 1909 was 15,359 acres. Midway through the 1910s with irrigation in full swing, productive land increased to 51,095 acres.
The Manteca town site created by Cowell was booming.
Speculators from throughout the state were trying to cash in on the anticipated South County agricultural boom. The Manteca Enterprise in 1912 reported merchants were flocking to the town to provide clothing, plumbing, tailoring., druggist, steam cleaning, optical, and legal services. There was even a “moving picture show” preparing to open in Manteca.
Claus Spreckels saw the potential for sugar beets in the Manteca district. His company arranged for the shipment of 28,000 pounds of sugar beet seeds from Germany at a cost of nearly $15,000 that arrived in Manteca on Dec. 31, 1915.
By the end of January 1916, more than 50 farmers had planted 7,000 acres of sugar beets.
Spreckels originally wanted to build its refinery at Mossdale Crossing or in Stockton where boats could easily ship the refined product back to San Francisco. The Manteca Board of Trade lobbied extensively and even offered to provide 449 acres for the sugar plant.
The impact of Spreckels’ decision cannot be overstated as to the impact it had on Manteca. The Manteca district had 371 residents in 1915. After Spreckels announced its decision to build in Manteca, the community’s population jumped to 567.
By the time the plant opened in 1918 after deals caused by World War I, more than 300 new families had settled in the Manteca area.
The town was growing and prospering as South County trade center thanks to the dual impact of irrigated fields and Spreckels Sugar. The actual town site had 200 residents in 1918. Talk of incorporation started.
By June 8, 1918 after a successful election, Manteca was incorporated as a city. The first year was spent getting sewer bonds passed, repairing and extending streets, shoring up the volunteer fire department, property owners were fined for not clearing their lots of weeds, a marshal and deputy marshal were hired and ordinances governing citizens’ behavior were adopted.
In just one decade, Manteca was transformed from a wide spot on the rail line into a new city bracing looking forward to a prosperous future while struggling to deal with growth issues.
It would not have happened if men didn’t have the vision of harnessing the Stanislaus River to bring irrigation water to the Manteca district.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org