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church—La Madonna del Carmine—where Italian services are conducted
on Sundays. While the Asti Colony is the largest and most distinctly
Italian, there are several other similar communities in this section
and also in the San Joaquin Valley. The greatest danger threatening
them is, no doubt, the growing prohibition sentiment in California. We
found prohibition already in force in Lake County, though there are many
vineyards within its borders. To our request for a bottle of Lake County
wine at one of the small inns, our landlord declared that he could not
sell, but obligingly made up the deficiency by a donation.

All of the foregoing—interesting as it may be—has been relegated
to the realm of ancient history by the enactment of the prohibition
amendment. The results so far as the grape growers are concerned, and as
I have previously noted in this book, were quite the opposite of those
expected. Never was the industry so prosperous and never before did the
"fruit of the vine" bring rich returns with so little labor. It is only
necessary to dry the grapes in the sun or in specially constructed kilns
to realize twice what they would have brought in the palmiest days of
the abandoned wineries.

We were surprised to find a splendid boulevard extending for many miles
on either side of St. Helena; it emphasized on our minds a fact not
generally known, that in the vicinity of San Francisco there is almost
as much improved road as about Los Angeles. Its condition, however,
does not average nearly so good, and a large part of it is in great need
of repairs. The work has been done mainly by the counties, San Joaquin
County having just completed a two-million-dollar system of boulevards.

From St. Helena we continued southward to Napa, a town of seven thousand
people with many fine residences and a substantial business center.
From Napa the road runs through a less interesting country to Vallejo,
a distance of fourteen miles, where we thought to cross by ferry to
Port Costa. We found, however, to our disgust, that these boats would
not carry cars and we were directed to proceed to Benicia, seven miles
farther up the coast. Here we ran on to a large railroad ferry-boat,
which, after a tedious delay, carried us to the desired point on the
western shore of the Sacramento River, which here is really an arm of
the bay.

Port Costa is a poor-looking hamlet, principally inhabited by Mexicans,
several of whom gathered about us to watch our struggles with a
refractory tire. Our objective for the night was Stockton, nearly
a hundred miles away by the roundabout route which we must pursue.
The long wait at the ferry and the puncture—sure to occur under such
conditions—put us behind at least two hours and the sun was already
declining. We recognized that we should have to speed up a little and
probably finish after dark. Our road out of Port Costa, however, was
favorable to anything but speed; after climbing a long grade we came
out on the edge of the hills overlooking the river. The road runs
along the side of the hills, which fall away for several hundred feet
almost sheer to the water beneath, and it twists and turns around the
cliffs in a manner anything but soothing to nervous people. It affords,
however, some magnificent views of the broad estuary, with green hills
and distant mountains beyond.

From Martinez, another decadent little town six miles from Port Costa,
we proceeded over fairly good roads to Concord and Antioch, where we
turned southward into the wide plain of the San Joaquin River. It was
necessary to make a long detour around the San Joaquin Delta, which
has no roads. The highway angles towards Byron Hot Springs in long
straight stretches. It was improved as a general thing, though we met
with rough spots and sandy places occasionally. We struck one of the
latter unexpectedly while bowling along at a forty-mile gait and gave a
farmer who was coming towards us in a cart the scare of his life, for
the car became unmanageable in the sand and started straight for him.
Visions of impending disaster flashed through our minds as well, when
the obstreperous machine took a tack in the opposite direction. We did
not stop to discuss the occurrence with him, seeing plainly that he was
in no mood for a calm consideration of the matter—but we had learned

A little beyond Byron Hot Springs we entered San Joaquin County and from
this point we followed a splendid new boulevard as smooth and level as
a floor—part of the county's new two-million road system. We coursed
through the center of a wide plain, shut in by ill-defined mountains,
and one of these, standing in solitary majesty against the evening sky,
seemed to dominate the valley. It is Mount Diabolus, which no doubt
received its appellation from some ancient padre who thought it safest
to give his Satanic Majesty a habitation on this lonely peak, then so
remote from the haunts of the white men.



Stockton has a population of over forty thousand according to the 1920
census—a gain of nearly one hundred per cent in ten years. You would
be likely to guess even a larger figure when you note the metropolitan
appearance of the town—the broad, well-paved streets, the handsome
stores, and the imposing public buildings—or when you enter Hotel
Stockton, a huge, modern, concrete structure that it would be hard to
match in most eastern cities of a hundred thousand. The town is situated
at the gateway of a vast, fertile plain, rich in grainfields, orchards,
vineyards, and garden and dairy products. It is a sightly city, with
eleven public parks and numerous fine homes and churches; many streets
are bordered with shade trees, the elm, maple, acacia, and umbrella tree
being most common. Orange trees and palms are also plentiful, reminding
one that a mild winter climate prevails in the valley.

The town was incorporated in 1850 and was named in honor of Commodore
Stockton of the United States Navy, who raised the first American flag
in California. It had previously existed as a mining supply camp and
the site belonged to Captain Weber, who received it as a grant from
the Mexican Government in 1843. It has been a quiet, steadily growing
commercial center and its history has never been greatly varied by
sensational incidents. Its first railroad came in 1869, its commerce
having been carried previously on the San Joaquin River. To-day a canal
connects the river with the heart of the city and good-sized steamers
arrive and depart daily. It is also served by main lines of three great
transcontinental railways, an advantage not enjoyed by many California

Stockton is seldom the goal of the tourist and most travelers get their
impressions of the town from a car window while enroute to or from San
Francisco. Not one in a thousand of these, nor one in ten thousand who
only hear of the town, knows that in its immediate vicinity, almost
adjoining its borders, is the greatest and most remarkable enterprise of
the kind in America. I refer to the land reclamation projects of the San
Joaquin Delta, comprising the marvelously fertile tracts already under
cultivation, and the efficient methods employed to ultimately reclaim
a million acres of peat swamps still untilled. Thirty years ago this
land was supposed to be absolutely worthless—a vast tract of upwards
of a million and a half acres, covered with scrub willows and "tule"—a
species of rank reed—and overflowed at times to a depth of several feet
by flood and ocean tides. The soil in the main is black peat, made up
of decomposed tule and sand washed in by the floods—a composition of
untold fertility if properly drained and farmed.

I was especially interested in this enterprise since a pioneer in
reclamation work and president of one of the largest concerns operating
in the delta was an old-time college-mate who came to California some
twenty-five years ago. He had little then save indomitable energy
and unusual business aptitude, and with characteristic foresight
he recognized the possibilities of the San Joaquin swamps when once
reclaimed and properly tilled. He succeeded in interesting capitalists
in the project, which has steadily grown until it has merged into the
California Delta Farms Association, a ten-million-dollar corporation
which owns and controls more than forty thousand acres, mostly under
cultivation. The company also owns a fleet of a dozen great steam
dredging plants, principally engaged in reclaiming new tracts on their
own properties, though occasionally doing work for other concerns.

Besides the Delta Farms Association, there are several other large
companies and individual owners operating in the delta, which now has
upwards of three hundred thousand reclaimed acres, and it is said that
a million more will be brought under cultivation within five or six
years. The aggregate value of the land at that time will not be less
than two hundred millions, figures which speak most eloquently of the
almost inconceivable possibilities of the Netherlands of California,
and any tourist whose convenience will permit will find himself well
repaid should he stop at Stockton for the especial purpose of seeing
this unique wonder of America.

We found no difficulty in arranging for a good-sized motor-boat capable
of twelve to fifteen miles per hour, in charge of a man familiar with
every part of the delta and well posted upon the details of farming
and reclamation work. The harbor is at the foot of Washington Street,
well within the confines of the city and a canal about two miles long
connects with the main channel of the San Joaquin. There are no roads
in the delta, the river and canals serving as highways; each tract in
cultivation is surrounded by water held back by a substantial levee
usually about twenty-five feet high and one hundred and fifty feet thick
at the base. The tracts range from one thousand to thirteen thousand
acres in size and are usually spoken of as islands. It is hard for a
novice to get a clear idea of the lay of the land—the waterways twist
and turn and interweave in such a baffling manner. Nor can one see over
the high levees from an ordinary launch; the top of the pilot house on
our boat, however, afforded views of most of the tracts. The main stream
is several hundred feet wide and the canals average about twenty-four
feet, with a depth of ten to fifteen feet.

The first step towards reclaiming a tract of land is to surround it by
a large levee or bank of soil scooped from the swamp by great floating
dredges, the resulting depression serving as a canal. When the levee
is completed, the island is cleared of tule and brush and the water
pumped out. It is then ready for cultivation, but breaking up the tough,
fibrous peat is laborious and tedious work, which the average white
man seems unwilling to do, and Oriental labor has played a big part in
reclaiming the delta.

Should the peat become too dry, it is liable to take fire and smoulder
indefinitely, though this can be controlled by flooding from the river.
Its fibrous composition makes it an excellent material for levees; when
thoroughly packed it is quite impervious to water and little affected
by floods.

Our guide informed us that the actual cost of reclaiming the land
averages about one hundred and sixteen dollars per acre and that
its value when in cultivation is from two to three hundred dollars.
Irrigation, when necessary, is accomplished by elevating water from
river or canal at high tide over the levee by means of huge siphons.
The tide rises three or four feet, though salt water does not come in
so far. Thus the water supply is never failing and a crop is always
assured. Disastrous floods are now so guarded against as to be of rare
occurrence, though in earlier times they frequently wrought great havoc;
even then they were not an unmixed evil, a layer of rich fertilizer
being deposited in their wake.

It is not strange that the owners of the San Joaquin Delta lands are
opposed to the anti-Japanese legislation now the fashion in California.
The work of reclamation has been done mostly by Orientals—Japanese,
Chinese, and a few Hindus—and farming operations are largely carried
on by laborers of these nationalities. In the earlier days white men
suffered severely from ague and malaria, though conditions in this
regard are better now. The Jap seems perfectly at home in the San
Joaquin swamps; hot sun and drudgery have no serious effect on him and
he has the industry and infinite patience necessary to succeed under
such conditions. He requires less supervision than the white laborer and
in this regard the Chinaman is still better. Altogether, the Oriental
is the ideal laborer for the delta; and he is at his best when employed
by a fellow-countryman.

This fact partially accounts for the phenomenal success of George Shima,
who is probably the most extensive farmer in the whole region. He not
only owns considerable land, but leases great tracts which he farms
in a thorough and scientific manner. His problem is not to secure a
big yield—he is sure of that—but to get a favorable market. The flood
danger, which wiped out his possessions in 1907, is said to be well
guarded against now, but the danger of a glutted market remains. On
the other hand, there is the gamble of a shortage of potatoes in the
rest of the world—a thing which happened in 1910, when Shima is said
to have cleared over half a million dollars on this crop alone. The
wily Jap held his crop until the demand was keenest and let it go at
two or three dollars per hundredweight. He has learned to depend on
other products besides potatoes, both to avoid danger of a glut and to
provide for proper rotation of crops. Rich as is the delta soil, several
successive crops of potatoes will impoverish it. Alternating with
barley, beans, asparagus, alfalfa, or onions, all of which thrive in an
incredible manner, serves to stave off the evil day of soil exhaustion.
It is Shima's boast that he farms scientifically and employs experts on
soil chemistry, and the results he gets seem to bear out his claim. He
lives on a fashionable street in Berkeley and has done much to overcome
prejudice against his nationality by intelligent and liberal donations
to public and charitable causes.

Besides Shima there are several smaller Japanese operators and two or
three Chinamen who lease land on a large scale. Shima markets as well
as raises his product, but the others sell mainly through brokers and
commission men. There are several white ranchers who farm their own land
and who have demonstrated that success can be achieved in this way.
The millennium of the delta is expected to be attained by wholesale
subdivision into farms of one hundred acres or more, operated by the
owners. Indeed, the Delta Farms Company is already planning to dispose
of a part of its holdings in this manner and there is certain prosperity
for the farmer who buys a small tract and tills it himself. A good yield
is always sure and by proper rotation and division of crops a market for
the majority of products is equally certain. It has also been proved
that hog-raising and dairying can be profitably engaged in. The time
will come, say many, when this Holland of America will support a large
population of thrifty American farmers and the bugaboo of Oriental labor
will have faded away. Schools, roads, and bridges will come, and there
is already a daily mail delivery by water and an elaborate telephone
system in the delta. The splendid system of water highways upon which
every farm will front, will afford quick and cheap access to markets.
Every farmer will have his motor-boat instead of automobile, and this
will put him in easy touch with towns, cities, and schools. This ideal
state is still in the indefinite future; most of the land is held by
absentee landlords who are more than satisfied with the returns from
the present system and whose holdings are not for sale. The reclamation
of new tracts and the increasing scarcity of Japanese and Chinese labor
may, however, change conditions more rapidly than now seems probable.

Our skipper landed us at several of the islands and it gave us a queer
sensation to walk over ground that quaked and quivered to our step as
though it rested on a subterranean lake. The improvements were generally
of the flimsiest type—clapboard houses resting on piles afforded
quarters for the laborers. Near the superintendent's home on one of the
tracts was a field of carmine sweet peas in full bloom—a pleasing patch
of color upon the general drab monotone of the landscape, suggesting
the possibility of flower-farming on a large scale. The quarters for
the help make it clear why Chinamen and Japanese can be so profitably
employed—they demand little in the way of comforts and are satisfied
with the cheapest and plainest fare. Wages, even of this class of labor,
are not low, the average Oriental earning forty to sixty dollars per
month besides his keep. Chinese and Japanese do not readily affiliate
and men in adjoining camps may scarcely speak to each other during
the entire working season. A good many Chinese live in house boats
on the river and we saw the curious sight of a house-boat saloon, for
the difficulty in getting in a supply of opium has driven the Chinaman
to the white man's tipples and he has learned to carry a comfortable
load of gin without losing his head. There were also camps of Chinese
fishermen who take quantities of bass, shad, and catfish, which we
were told were shipped to China. The smells from these camps frequently
announced their proximity before we came in sight of them.

Asparagus is one of the large and profitable crops and on our return
trip we saw a thousand-acre tract of this staple and a big factory which
turns out many hundreds of carloads of the canned article. The Delta
brand is famous as the largest, tenderest, and best-flavored variety
known. Celery is also raised in large quantities and here is the only
spot in the west where chicory thrives.

During our round, which covered eighty miles of river and canal, we had
the opportunity of observing reclamation in progress, as well as many
phases of farming. The huge steel dredges were slowly eating their way
through the waste of reeds and willows, their long black arms delving
deep into the muck and piling levees alongside the canal, which served
as a pathway for the monster's advance. A little farther we saw a tract
around which the levee had been completed and which was being cleared
of tule and brushwood, fire being freely used, as the peat was still too
wet to burn. Beyond this a field was being brought under the plough and
desperately hard, heavy work it was, breaking up the matted fibrous soil
that had been forming for ages. In another place a break in the levee
had permitted an inflow of water and this was being thrown out with a
mighty floating pump capable of handling some seventy thousand gallons
per minute. Farming operations require a fleet of barges, for horses and
heavy farm machinery must be carried and the products transported from
the markets.

Altogether, the San Joaquin Delta was very interesting and surprising;
well worth seeing aside from the personal element, which was the prime
motive in our case. It is only because this wonderful region is so
little known that visitors are comparatively few, but the tourist tide
will surely come before long and many will find profitable investments
in the lands. Of course the ordinary tourist will be able to see only a
small section of this vast tract until the age of airship touring comes,
but that small section will be so typical as to afford a fair idea of
the whole. The story of the delta makes a unique chapter in American
agriculture and it is bound to prove a fertile field for research and
experiment, which will result in still greater production and a wider
variety of crops. Its vast extent and endless resources make it a
notable asset, even in a state so famed for big things as California,
and some day it may be comparable in population and thrift to the Dutch

It was late when our skipper turned the launch homeward and there was
something exhilarating and inspiring in swirling through the long sunset
stretches of still water between the high green banks. We agreed that
the boat ride alone as a variation from weeks of dusty motor travel
would have been worth while, even if we had not seen and learned so much
of the wonderland of the San Joaquin Delta.

On our second visit to Stockton a year later we passed through without
delay on our way to the state capital. We came from Oakland—where we
passed the night at the magnificent new Hotel Oakland, unsurpassed
by any of California's famous hotels—by the way of Haywards, Niles,
Pleasanton, and Altamont. The direct road by way of Dublin was closed
and we were saved a useless twenty-mile jaunt by an obliging garage
man at Haywards, who hailed us as he saw us turning into the obstructed

"You'll have to take a round-about road," he declared on learning of our
destination. "A car which tried the Dublin road just returned, having
found it completely closed. The county board is cutting down the big
hill near Dublin—commenced a year ago and was held up by a lawsuit. They
had to condemn a piece of land—so steep a goat couldn't stand on it—for
which an Eastern owner wanted seven thousand dollars. The jury awarded
the owner seventeen dollars, and now the work can go on."

"Our Eastern friend must have thought he saw a chance to get rich
quick," we ventured.

"No, the funny part of it was that he wanted just what he paid for the
land, which he had never seen. Some real estate agent had sold it to him
for seven thousand dollars and he only wanted his money back. I reckon
that any man who buys land in California on someone's representations
is a sucker,"—a proposition that we did not feel called upon to dispute.

We had no reason to regret our enforced change of route, for we
passed through some beautiful country—quite different from what we had
previously seen in this vicinity. Following the railroad southward to
Niles, we turned sharply to the left, entering the low green hills
along which we had been coursing. Crossing a moderate grade, we
came into a narrow valley lying between rounded hills, which showed
evidence of having been in cultivation for many years. The roads,
bridges, farm houses, and other improvements indicated a prosperous and
well-established community and the towns of Pleasanton, Livermore, and
Altamont must have sprung into existence as far back as the "days of
gold." These were quiet, pretty villages connected by a fine macadam
road, evidently a temptation to the "scorcher," for placards in the
garages warned motorists against the despised motorcycle "cop."

It was a glorious day and the well-groomed valley showed a wonderful
display of color, the prevailing green being dashed with the brilliant
hues of wild flowers. The low hills on either hand were covered with
lawnlike verdure and dotted with ancient oaks, while an occasional
cultivated field redeemed them from monotony. Beyond Livermore we
came into the San Joaquin Valley, which at this time was reveling in
the promise of an unprecedented harvest. The wide level plain was an
expanse of waving green varied with an occasional fringe of trees, and
a low-lying, dark-blue haze quite obscured the distant mountains.

Beyond Stockton the characteristics of the country were much the same,
though it seemed to us as if the valley of the Sacramento were even
greener and more prosperous. The vast wheatfields were showing the
slightest tinge of yellow and the great vineyards were in bloom. Some
of the latter covered hundreds of acres and must have been planted many
years ago. The luxuriant, flower-spangled meadows were dotted with
herds of sleek cattle and it would be hard to imagine a more ideal
agricultural paradise than the Sacramento Valley at this particular
time. On either hand the rich plain stretched away to blue mountains,
so distant that only their dim outlines were discernible, and at times
they were entirely obscured by low-hung clouds or sudden summer showers.

The road between the two cities is a recently completed link of the
state highway and the smooth asphalted surface offers unlimited speed
possibilities if one cares to take the chances. In the spring and early
summer Sacramento is surrounded by vast swamps and we crossed over a
long stretch of wooden bridges before entering the city. Our original

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Online LibraryThomas D. MurphyOn Sunset Highways → online text (page 20 of 25)