California is anything but ordinary. Whether it is a desert, a forest, or snow-covered mountainsides, California presents it in a neat little package that has sold millions into settling onto her shores and valleys. From its very inception, California has had a unique background and an even more unique population that has often been guided by myths, legends and stories. The year 1848 would begin such a story as the promise of gold and wealth incited the nations largest migration to take place into California.
Almost overnight, California would be transformed into a bustling metropolis of industry and begin an almost unstoppable whirlwind trend of economic and population growth. Cheap land, a temperate climate, gold, jobs, and a new start were only a few of the reasons for California’s immense and sudden growth, but “Gold Mountain” as the Chinese referred to California also suffered its share of problems as it became all too clear that there was not enough to go around as had been promised. But as Californians, we found a way to make it work as thousands of people per year continued to make their way westward.
Analyzing several facets of growth and decline as compared to the nation as well as individual states, we can see how California has turned itself into the unique entity we are lucky to be living in today. In 1848 James W. Marshall would begin an important chapter of California history as he discovered gold along the American River in Coloma, California. The news of gold traveled across the country very quickly beginning the California Gold Rush. Within a few months, thousands of would be miners had found their way to the riverbanks of California with dreams of instant fortunes.
Unfortunately, however, what they found was a treacherous and difficult trade as well as stiff competition among equally desperate miners. As the realization that gold was not as abundant as had been reported finally dawned upon them, dreams soon faded into disappointment. The distraught miners soon turned their frustrations into blame as they began to point their fingers at foreign miners. They urged the government to levy unfair taxes on the foreigners mining activities and in 1850, the Foreign Miners’ Tax Law was passed.
The new law did not have any specific agencies to enforce it, so any white man hungry to satisfy his sense of revenge and anger could collect the taxes. No receipts were given, so many foreigners found themselves having to pay the inflated tax two or three times over. This was only the beginning of a trend of racism that would continue through California for decades to come. In addition to the racial tensions, increasing industrialization also contributed to the development of California’s counter-culture particularly in San Francisco.
The Barbary Coast, as it became known, became a breeding ground for prostitution, crime and other questionable activities. Sailors on leave, harlots, crime lords, and gamblers frequented the area. It became a place where every vice and fantasy could be fulfilled. However grim the situation was for the miners, the gold rush did provide for the nations largest migration and instantly put California on the map. The sudden surge in the population was an important factor in California’s acceptance into the Union in 1850.
Unique of any other state, California came into the Union without ever becoming a United States territory, primarily because of the large population and revenue generated by the gold rush. Despite the great disappointment the gold rush was for a majority of the miners, a few individuals were able to make their fortunes outside the gold mines, selling tools and other wares to those still holding onto the dreams of the Motherlode. California’s Big Four, as they became known, fueled the states economy by opening grocery stores, general stores, hardware stores and other dry goods outlets that provided the miners with their daily tools.
Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington made up the Big Four and their industries would draw in the revenue that would not only fuel California’s growth but also bring the railroad to the West. The railroad made it possible for one to travel from coast to coast in about five days. Prior to the railroad, travelers had to journey by boat around Cape Horn to California. The voyage could last for several months and was very expensive. This new technology would further stimulate California’s ever-growing population and become the states first big business as well as the first high tech industry.
The original land grants to build the railroad were awarded to the Central and Pacific Railroad Companies, led by civil engineer, Theodore Judah and the Big Four. Judah was responsible for designing the railroad and was influential in lobbying Congress for the money needed to begin construction. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company was established by the Big Four and was used to serve as their primary tool for establishing a monopoly within California. In order to take advantage of the Pacific Railway Act passed by Congress in 1862, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company falsified many of their land reports.
Since more treacherous land received more money, they would often misrepresent the area they were building on. Their monopolies were further strengthened when the government began providing land grants to the railroad contractors. As a result, the Big Four and the Southern Pacific Railroad Company owned 11% of all the land in California, as well as a variety of other businesses, which included concrete and farming operations. This led to them controlling much of the politics in California, as evidenced by the fact that Leland Stanford held the position of governor. The corruption did not go unnoticed by California citizens and farmers.
Frank Norris’s The Octopus writes of the social and political turmoil in California between the wheat farmers and the railroads. Based on the confrontation at Mussel Slough where eight men were killed in a shootout against the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, it highlighted a significant problem in California. The new state would have to come to terms with a new dominant force, economic industry, taking over the mom and pop agricultural lifestyle. Ultimately, Californians would have to deal with this change, as the government sided with industry leaving California farmers with nothing but their eviction notices.
Much more economic unrest would follow. Aside from corruption and eviction, Californians still had to face very intense race relations. Once again, tensions would flare as white workers were pitted against Chinese immigrants in building the railroad. Hostilities rose after the railroads began employing Chinese men to lay the tracks as a response to the white workers demands for more money. The Chinese were paid very little and were charged quite heavily for food and shelter. They found themselves working for pennies a day, while still fighting against the torrent of racism being directed against them.
The most drastic example of racism was the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred any further immigration from China into the United States. Citizenship became extremely difficult if not impossible for the Chinese who were already here. These regulations would stay in place until after World War II. A lack of resources was the main reason for the unrest. The economic disparities in California were becoming more pronounced as wealthy and poor districts were beginning to be formed. Water resources and environmental pollution had begun to get more publicity.
The railroad and other wealthy few still monopolized California and its politics and many of the poorer whites and minorities began to feel helpless, thus inciting them into violence and depravity. Yet despite all of these problems, the population in California had risen almost eightfold from 92,600 people in 1850 to 864,700 people in 1880. Compared to the combined population totals of Iowa and Minnesota, whose combined size is comparable to California, growth percentages were about even at this time. In a few decades, however, California’s population growth would become incomparable.
As a response to the complaints of the railroad monopolies, the government amended the state constitution in order to accommodate for the decades of social change that had taken place. The new constitution found that the railroads were to be subject to government control and it also tried to address many other social ills of the time including education and taxation. However, it did reinforce racism by authorizing stricter exclusion laws for the Chinese. The enforcement of the new constitution was weak at first, but it eventually succeeded in lowering railroad prices and to some extent, the monopolies that had been formed.
Although California had its problems, significant developments and trends towards education and preservation were still accomplished. The University of California held its first class in the fall of 1869 and despite a low turnout at first, popularity of the institution began to grow. Soon the university was receiving more financial support from the public enabling them to open the school to females and broaden their curriculum into more extensive areas of art, science, business, government and even farming.
Further evidence towards the desire for education can be seen with the establishment of other universities across California including the University of Southern California, Loyola University and Stanford University. This movement towards education further fueled the economy by inspiring new industries to be created and also served to enrich the cultural sophistication of the new state. Further progress from California citizens can be illustrated in the founding of preservation societies, which worked to protect the environment from complete industrialization.
Led by conservationist John Muir, their goal was to preserve the natural beauty of California for future generations. They successfully saved Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other reserves and national forests across the state. In spite of the turmoil in California, their still remained a great sense of responsibility among the population. With its abundantly fertile land and excellent weather, California’s agribusiness rose dramatically in the 1890’s. Wheat and corn had been California’s first staple crop, but soon a variety of specialty crops followed, which included fruits, grapes and hybrid foods.
In 1893, the California Fruit Growers Exchange, known as Sunkist, began to regulate the amount of food being released into the market. The Agricultural Adjustment Act which paid farmers not to farm as a part of the New Deal, also kept food regulated. This kept the prices of fruits very high and made the industry quite lucrative. By 1900, 23% of the nations canned fruits came from California and established big canning towns in Monterey and Salinas. The state was also responsible for about 80% of the nations wine production. A downside, however, was that many of the families that were farming the land, did not own it.
Instead, they were either sharecroppers or tenant farmers who rented the land for a monthly fee or had agreements with the landowners to share the profits from the crops. This arrangement was responsible for much of the turmoil between the wealthy railroads and the poor because the land agreements were often unfair and provided no protection for the poor renters. Early in the 1900’s, another new industry had arrived in California. The movies, which found their home in Hollywood, California, had not only brought jobs into the state, but also a great deal of publicity and fame that propagated the California mystique.
The move to Hollywood was a result of the vast amounts of different landscapes available in California. Movie producers could shoot year round in temperate weather. Land was still pretty cheap and movies were a good way to make money. By 1914, over 70 movie companies were working in California. Movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford and blockbuster hits such as “The Great Train Robbery” and “The Birth of a Nation” resulted in over half of the U. S. population attending a movie every week. Profits were good and fueling California’s economy.
At about the same time, California’s population had skyrocketed to a little under 1. 5 million people and it was growing larger everyday. The next big problem California had to face was a steady water supply for the growing state. One of the first attempts at finding a water supply ended in failure. Engineers had planned to divert water from the Colorado River into an ancient lakebed that was once a part of the Gulf of California, known as the Salton Sink. A cut was made into the Colorado River and soon water was diverted into the Sink. At first, the new water supply seemed to be a success.
It drew a considerable amount of farmers into the area and provided consistent water until the Colorado River began to heal the cut that had been made, drastically reducing the flow of water. Charles Rockwood would be the engineer to design the new doomed cut. The Colorado River overflowed resulting in an unstoppable breech in the river, creating a new lakebed in the Salton Sink. The California Development Company who was responsible for the water project went bankrupt trying to fix the breech. Eventually the Southern Pacific Railroad Company who ultimately fixed the rupture bought them out.
The preceding water projects would be a mix of successes and failures. Without any other source of water, the growing city of San Francisco was dependent on private corporations for their water needs. In 1900, the city turned their attention to Hetch Hetchy Valley inside the Yosemite National Park. In order for them to dam the valley, the city needed congressional approval since it was inside a protected national forest. Both sides argued their point and the battle between the city and the preservationists lasted for thirteen years.
Then in 1906, tragedy would force the government to approve the dam. The massive earthquakes of that year set the city ablaze and there was not enough water to put out the fires that were destroying the city. San Francisco petitioned the government once again after the fires. President Theodore Roosevelt was torn between his hatred for privately owned public utilities and his desire to preserve Hetch Hetchy. When Woodrow Wilson was elected president after Roosevelt, however, he supported the damming of the valley. In 1913, when California’s population was nearing 2. million people, Congress approved San Francisco’s petition and construction began the following year on O’Shaugnessy Dam, named after the building engineer. Upon completion in 1934, Hetch Hetchy supplied water and hydroelectricity to most all of northern California. The next city in dire need of water was Los Angeles. Former city mayor Fred Eaton and city engineer, William Mulholland, hashed a secret plan to tap the Owens River Valley in the Sierra Nevadas and build the most extensive water project in the nation.
They worked with the city buying land and water rights in the surrounding area. The Los Angeles Times and the Examiner finally revealed their plan in 1905 and the response was immediate. The project, which would need a considerable amount of money to complete, required Los Angeles citizens to vote on approval of bonds, which would increase taxes in the city. Mulholland tirelessly campaigned for the city’s approval and he won it in September 1905 when Los Angeles approved the bond issue. Construction proceeded soon thereafter, closely supervised by Mulholland.
His passion for the project won him the respect of many, but he still had to deal with preservationists who tried to sabotage his work. Despite a few bumps in the road, he finished the project ahead of schedule and under budget and the city now had a consistent water supply. The celebration, however, would be short lived. Afraid that further sabotage might put the city into a drought, he built the St. Francis dam to hold enough water for the city in the event of an emergency. The dam failed and sent a 185-foot wall of water into Ventura County, killing countless numbers of people and destroying large amounts of property.
It seemed that almost overnight, Mulholland turned from hero to villain, but nevertheless, Los Angeles still had its water and it served as the first building block towards even greater growth in California. At this point, the population was nearing four million people. The completion of the various water projects is what launched California’s population growth, and subsequently its economy, so far ahead of Iowa and Minnesota combined. Between 1910 and 1930, the percentage of people entering California would surpass Iowa and Minnesota’s.
By 1930, California would surpass their combined populations of 5,034,900 and California would never look back. Los Angeles was now in need of a suitable harbor to engage in trade and spur on economic growth within the state. The government enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers to do a study to find the best place for the harbor and they found that San Pedro at the mouth of the Los Angeles River was the best-suited spot to begin construction. Problems arose when Big Four member Collis Huntington insisted on having the harbor built in Santa Monica, a city that was almost completely controlled by him.
He stalled construction by using his formidable power in Congress to persuade them into agreeing to build the harbor in Santa Monica despite all the studies. Los Angeles citizens knew of his motives and they feared yet another monopoly of a public utility, so they banded together to get Congress to change their minds once again. Led by Los Angeles Times owner, Harrison Gray Otis, the group lobbied against Huntington using the paper to rally public support for the cause. They established the Los Angeles Free Harbor League to avert Huntington’s plans.
As a result of their efforts, Congress once again sent out the Corp of Engineers to do the same study, which in the end yielded the same results. Huntington’s plans were thwarted and the harbor, which remained in public control, was built in San Pedro. The new harbor would fuel further economic expansion, as Los Angeles was now open to outside trade. Another surge in California’s growth can be attributed to the onset of the Great Depression of 1930. Desperate for salvation, much of the nation left their homes and made their way to California believing that they could start a new life there.
Many still sought the promise of the good life California had to offer, as idyllic visions of prosperity were propagated by the movie industry. In reality it was not that simple. The struggle, hope, and ultimate fate of the thousands who set forth for California is told in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In the novel, the Joads leave their native Oklahoma in search of better opportunities out west. However, they are met instead by death, despair, and disappointment as their dreams are crushed.
It is a good example of the “California owes me something” mentality that has been so prominent throughout the state’s history. While the fate of the “Okies” was almost a complete failure, the trend of movement westward further stimulated California’s growth. By 1940, California’s population outnumbered the combined Iowa-Minnesota population by over 1 million people and accounted for over 19% of the entire nations total population. World War II would ironically be the event that would lift California’s faltering economy after the Depression.
War orders and defense contracts fueled California’s economy and provided yet another surge in population growth. Many soldiers came to California to train before being sent abroad and their families soon followed. Factories were busy fulfilling orders for parts, weapons, clothing, and food, which raised employment and garnered revenue. Unlike Minnesota and Iowa, military bases and defense contracts were won by California. At this point many more people were coming to California because of the jobs and opportunities that were only available here.
After the war, California economy was booming and many of the military veterans chose to stay here and take advantage of the GI Bill, which provided them with educational and home loans. Families began to settle here and soon came the baby boom, which skyrocketed the population. Large cities and tract homes were being built to accommodate everyone and California was growing larger and larger everyday. These great fortunes did not come without a price however. The state could not keep up with demands and it would often be weeks before any water could be turned on in the new homes and about a year before one could get a phone line installed.
The sudden increase in population also resulted in the overcrowding of schools and devaluation in the quality of instruction. Children were being pushed through elementary schools and many fell between the cracks and universities were increasing becoming more impersonal. New schools and campuses could not be built quickly enough. The results were mixed blessings. The impersonal nature of the school system resulted in the “flower power” culture of the 1970’s. The group rebelled against a system they felt underrepresented in, creating an era of confusion.
However, California did have the largest public educational system in the world, comprised of over 29 UC and Cal State campuses as well as several community colleges spread throughout the state. By 1960, the population had reached over 15. 7 million people and was more than double that of Iowa and Minnesota’s combined. Today, California has a population of over 37 million people and boasts the fifth largest economy in the world. The state has had a history filled with ups and downs, but California has always found a way to make it work.
With anything great, sacrifices have to be made and California is no exception. It has seen fire, flood, drought, earthquake, riots, unemployment, and racism, but has continued to persevere. Even today, the 31st state still holds a sense of charm that draws thousands of people to her borders. California’s intense growth is a phenomenon that cannot be explained quite so easily, but with an almost perfect climate and a geography that is so beautifully unique, it is no wonder how successful the state has become. She is truly anything but ordinary.