Traces of the Past – Agriculture



Ever since the Spanish landed, trying to farm without adequate irrigation in this area has resulted in disaster. At first, the Spanish missions were wholly dependent on supply ships. Then, they had ruinous experiments with dryland farming. In 1772, the Spanish supply ships failed to arrived, and the only thing that prevented complete starvation at the Monterey Mission and Presidio wasthat  Lt. Fages headed south to present-day San Luis Obispo County to hunt for Grizzly bear. He returned with 9,000 lb of salted and dried bear meat on pack mule.

In 1773, at the San Antonio Mission, the San Antonio River was diverted through man-made acequias (irrigation aquaduct to irrigate several hunderd acres and was the fist formal irrigatio system in Alta California. From 1785-1831, the three Salinas Valley missions averaged 1,160 pounds of grain from 1785-1835. (Anderson) Additionally, the padres grew grapes, fruit trees, citrus, corn, beans, peas, melons and peppers.

After the Spanish mission lands were divided by the Mexican government among Californios and leaders of the Mexican revolution, the Central Coast economy was largely based on cattle production. This only lasted about a decade.

The transition from one dominant social structure to a new structure is never without mistakes and hardship. For example, in 1852, open-range  ranching was still the state’s econmic driver and the California legislature passed the Trespass Law, which required a grower to fence his land in order to claim damages from livestock incursions.

Starting in the 1870s, land with productive soils was planted to dryland crops such as wheat, barley, beans, potatoes and small gardens. During the transition from rancho to farming, one of the factors that impeded agriculture was open range. California repealed the Trespass Laws and passed laws to protect farmers from livestock damages. 

Hauling grain long distances by wagon was challenging. Thus, landowners and civic leaders were heavily involved with enticing the railroads into the area to improve transportation of agricultural crops. The Southern Pacific (fondly known as the Espee) railroad was critical for the evolvement of Salinas Valley Agriculture and the development of the City of Salinas as a commercial hub for the area. According to Ryan and Breschini, the timeline for this development was: 

  • In 1868, the Southern Pacific Railroad was successfully running between San Francisco to San Jose and had extended service as far south as Gilroy. 
  • In 1870, the infamous Central Pacific purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad to form the Southern Pacific. The newly formed company announced plans to run a railroad from San Francisco to Los Angeles. 
  • On November 1, 1872, the coast route reached Salinas via Gilroy/Hollister/Pajaro Junction. 
  • On August 12, 1873, the route was extended to Soledad, which opened the mid-upper Salinas Valley agriculture up freight service. What impact did this have on the development of Salinas as a city? 
  • Between May and July, 1886,  extended the tracks from Soledad to Kings Ranch.
  • On October 18, 1886, the line was connected to San Miguel.
  • In November, 1886, the line was extended to El Paso de Robles Resort Hotel and then on to Templeton.
  • Note: the Soledad to Templeton railroad was built by about 1,500 Chinese laborers. 
  • It wasn’t until 1889, that the Southern Pacific brought the rail line to Santa Margarita but went no further. Crocker indicated that the Southern Pacific had no plans to undertake the expense of a mountainous route over Cuesta Grade. After much machinations by local businessmen which included selling subscriptions to raise money, condemnation of land and a formal construction bidding process. 
  • Work finally began October 1892. By 1893, they were making progess of 35 feet per week. 
  • On May 5, 1894, at 3.25 P.M., the Salinas Valley was, at last, connected to San Luis Obispo County. 

Getting grain to faraway markets was an impediment to agricultural commerce, too. Thus, a harbor was built at Moss Landing to serve the Salinas Valley and at XXXX and XXXX and XXXX to service southern Monterey County and northern San Luis Obispo Counties. The marriage of Railroad and a harbor provided impetus for intensive farming to shift south and east into the Salinas Valley. 

Another development that contributed to major changes to Salinas Valley agriculture “was the development of the the McCormick horse-drawn reaper and by 1880grain was being cut with 12 foot headers. The harvested grain was loaded into header wagons and hauled to the tyhreshing site where a straw-burning steam engine supplied the belt power to run the threshing machine. After threshing, the grain was sown into 100 pound burlap sacks and hauled ot the railhead.” (Anderson) 

In 1872, wheat was the main crop in California, and on the Central Coast. XXXX acres of wheat were grown in the Salinas Valley. Several graineies and mills were located along the main Southern Pacific trunk line.


After the natural disasters of the 1860s, men with vision looked for ways to control risks from flooding and drought. That, comined with advancing mechanical technologies, drove the development of irrigation in the Salinas Valley. Irrigation was introduced into the 







Books and References

Anderson, Burton. The Salinas Valley: A History of America’s Salad Bowl. Monterey County Historical Society. 2000.