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 Valleys of California

The many mountains of California naturally have their corresponding valleys, and these are, in greater part, as fertile and lovely as the others are towering and grand. The massive chains and lofty peaks inspire the beholder with awe, but the quiet sun-bathed valleys give the impressions of peace, prosperity and comfort. The system may be regarded as peculiar to California, a more marked distinction being made between mountain and valley in this than in any other state of the Union. Precipitous acclivities are on the one hand, and broad plains or expanded meadows on the other. Everywhere the soil contains elements of great fertility, and with the aid of abundant water vegetation is prolific. Soils of every character are found; drifting sands; erinaceous loam; reddish gravel and the deep clayey adobe. All are productive under irrigation, but under the dependence of rains, great sections pass as sterile deserts when the uncertain season or the capricious elements fail to supply the fructifying element. When, therefore, the area of the valleys is considered and the amount of arable land contained in them is estimated, the present condition is disregarded, for that which is now apparently a barren desert may, under different circumstances, or at another season, become a luxuriant garden.

There are two classes of valleys, the small park-like basins in the mountains, and the lower valleys near the sea or bordering on the great rivers. The great valley of the Colorado, in which may be placed the larger portion of San Diego and San Bernardino counties, is an inhospitable desert, and although it may be possessed of minerals and a soil rich in the elements of fertility, its climate renders it valueless for present purposes. Within this region are several distinctive valleys, as the Mohave Valley, bordering the Colorado, the Coahuilla and New River Valley, the Valley of the Mohave, on the river of that name, and Death Valley, on the Nevada line. This section comprises a vast area, exceeding forty thousand square miles, and is the Sahara of America.

Bordering the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada are numerous valleys of considerable extent, well adapted for agricultural and grazing purposes. Of these are Owens Valley, the Big Meadows of Walker River, Long, Sierra, Beckwourth, Honey Lake and Surprise Valleys. Owens Valley has a length of upward of one hundred miles, and is threaded by the river from which it takes its name. Beckwourth, Surprise and Honey Lake Valleys are of similar character to Owens, and fade away into the wastes of sage brush and alkali. Surprise Valley is embraced in the new county of Modoc, in the northeastern corner of the State, and is rapidly filling up with settlers. This entire section, embracing Modoc, Siskiyou and parts of Shasta, Plumas and Lassen counties, is an elevated plateau, having a lava bed with volcanic peaks and basaltic ridges dividing it into different valleys. The lofty peaks. Mount Shasta and Lassens Butte, are extinct volcanoes, which in all probability have formed the floods of lava now covering the vast region. The elevation is from 3,500 to 4,500 feet, with mountain peaks rising ten thousand feet above them. The climate of these mountain valleys is pleasant and healthful, the summer days being warm, but the nights are often frosty, while the winters are never excessively cold. The water is abundant and of the purest quality, and as the grazing is excellent, these valleys are peculiarly adapted to dairying and stock-raising. The Valley of Big Meadows is one of the most romantic and beautifully situated of this plateau. This is about fifteen miles in length and from two to three in width, and is enclosed in volcanic peaks and ridges. The North Fork of Feather River and several branches of the same run through it, and a luxuriant growth of grass gives it its pleasant name. The Mountain Meadows, lying to the eastward, are a part of the same valley, connected by an easy pass. These are several miles in extent, and roach, with slight rise, to the summit of the Sierra, whence, through Summit Valley, the waters of Susan River flowing eastward to Honey Lake.

Indian and Genesee Valleys are parts of a great basin south of Big Meadows, and without the lava formation. The altitude is not so great as the former, and the snows are not so heavy nor the frosts so severe. The area of this basin is of about twenty-five square miles, and is occupied by a thrifty and prosperous farming and mining community.

American Valley, a few miles south of Indian, is similar to the latter though of loss area. These are of the most lovely and picturesque of the great range. Environed by lofty mountain ridges, clothed from summit to base with stately pines, with towering, snow-clad peaks in the distance, and verdant meadows in the foreground, fill a picture at once lovely and grand. Throughout the Sierras smaller valleys of equal loveliness are found, sparkling with lakes and rivulets set like gems on the mountain side, destined to become the pleasant and prosperous homes of intelligent cultivation.

The great valley of California, next to the Sierra Nevada, is the distinguishing feature of the State. This grand basin lies between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range, a level plain having a length of four hundred miles, and an average breadth of forty, giving an aggregate area of li),000 square miles, or upward of ten million acres. The greater portion is arable and very productive, producing grain, cotton, tobacco, root crops and fruit of every variety belonging to a semi-tropical climate. The range of products is almost unlimited. The wheat, which is the reliance of the coldest latitudes, grows with unsurpassed luxuriance and unequaled quality by the side of the cotton field; and the apple and the orange are gathered in contiguous orchards. Within this wide range may be found all products of farm or garden, grove or orchard, park or forest. As its landscape is inspiriting from its extent and loveliness so are its prospects of future wealth and high cultivation limitless. Sixteen great counties, with parts of others in the bordering foothills, make up its political divisions; cities stud its plains and navigable rivers, and lines of railroad open every portion to commerce. Conventionally the valley is divided into three parts, as the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Valley, being the sections bordering the rivers and lakes of their names. The Sacramento flowing from the north enters the valley at Redding, and after receiving many streams in its course of over two hundred miles, joins the San Joaquin in Suisun Bay and breaks through the inner Coast Range on the way to the sea. The San Joaquin has a similar course though in the opposite direction. The southern section of the valley embraces lakes Tulare, Kern and Buena Vista, which in seasons of freshets unite and flow into the San Joaquin. These are usually called the Tulare Lakes. About them and about the lower courses of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Feather rivers are large areas of "tule" or marsh lands, subject to long continued inundation during each year, and requiring protection by dikes and drainage before they can be tilled, but when so reclaimed are very productive. Lying, as the greater portion of them do, along the banks of navigable rivers and sloughs, they are of easy access, and with their warmth and depth of soil their value under cultivation can scarcely be estimated. Grain, grass and trees grow luxuriantly, and several crops can annually ho gathered from the same ground. These lands aggregate several thousand square miles, of which over 1,500,000 acres have been listed to the State and are wholly or in part reclaimed, costing from five to twenty dollars per acre.

Large sections of the great valley, although of fertile soil, are unproductive without irrigation, and for this the lofty mountain ranges afford every facility. The snows upon the mountain peaks and the many lakes hiding like nests at the river sources are natural reservoirs of water which may be drawn upon while the summer droughts desiccate the plain. A proper system of engineering will so utilize these that at some future day there will be no part of the great valley, or the pleasant foothills, not brought under cultivation. Already enterprises of this character have been entered upon, and several large irrigating canals have been constructed. Their success has been proven, and where used the result has been to increase the product several fold, and to make certain a crop where otherwise nothing could have been grown. As an illustration it is shown that an irrigated field in Tulare County produced seven crops of alfalfa, averaging two tons per acre at each cutting, or fourteen tons of hay per acre for the season. One acre of irrigated alfalfa will support twenty sheep, while three acres of natural grass are required for one. With such results, and with the abundant water that may be utilized, the ten million acres of the great valley and contiguous foothills may be transformed into a veritable garden, supplying sustenance for many millions of people. The Kings River and San Joaquin Valley Irrigating Canal, the Fresno Canal, and others, have been constructed, which irrigate large areas, with the most flattering results.

The valley of the Salinas resembles in many respects the valley of the San Joaquin, and is the second in size of the great interior valleys of the State. The Rio San Juan, rising in the hills dividing the valley from Tulare, constitutes the main branch of the Salinas. The valley of this stream is hilly, and with little arable land. After a flow of upward of one hundred miles northwestward, passing the San Antonio Hills, the river enters the real valley of the Salinas. This spreads to a width of from twelve to fifteen miles in its lower extension, furnishing more than half a million acres arable land. Salinas City, a bustling town, has recently been built in the centre of the valley, and Castroville is near the mouth of the river. The Southern Pacific Railroad now extends to Soledad, threading the valley for a distance of upward of forty miles, giving transportation facilities to the most occupied and cultivated portion of the valley. The Salinas and Monterey Railroad, in course of construction, will connect it with a convenient seaport. This valley, like its counterpart, the San Joaquin, is subject to severe winds and droughts, but in years of plenteous rains it yields abundantly.

The Pajaro, San Benito and San Lorenzo Valleys are drained to Monterey Bay, the first having an area of about seventy-five square miles, the second about two hundred, and the San Lorenzo about thirty, all exceedingly fertile, and distinguished for their loveliness of climate and variety of productions.

The Santa Clara Valley is the largest and most important of the coast valleys, extending, with slight interruption, from the southern line of Santa Clara County to the Bay of San Francisco, fifty miles in length and twenty miles broad in its widest place, having an area of about five hundred square miles. This valley, though without the name, embraces the Bay of San Francisco, extending in a broad belt of rich soil along the eastern shore. The beautiful city of San Jose is the entrepot of Santa Clara Valley.

Between the Contra Costa Hills, which border the bay of San Francisco on the east, and the Monto Diablo Range, are the Amador, Livermore, San Ramon and Pacheco valleys, succeeding each other from south to north, and comprising, with other small valleys connected with them, an area of about three hundred and fifty square miles, all possessing a rich, loamy soil, and distinguished for the quantity and 2 quality of wheat grown.

Southerly, hidden among the hills of the coast, or sloping oft to the sea, are many valleys and plains of exquisite beauty and inviting fertility. Many of these localities were settled by the Monks, who exhibited aesthetic tastes of a high order in choosing sites for their Missions. Wherever the name of Mission applied, it is the assurance of loveliness of location and fertility of soil. Soledad, San Miguel, Carmelo, San Luis Obispo, Santa Inez, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura, San Fernando, and numerous others, are well known and seem worthy of detailed descriptions, but to describe all would fill a volume. Some are of large extent, and, where watered, are very productive. Even the hills afford good grazing, and if abundant water were supplied, the greater portion of the country could be cultivated. The entire region is a sanitarium, not being surpassed in healthiness in the world. The mineral resources are important; the recent discovery of quicksilver inciting the people to enterprise and exploration. Coal, petroleum, asphaltum, sulphur and other minerals are found and wrought to some extent, but the field is only now opening.

South and east of Los Angeles, a broad inclined plane extends from the mountains to the sea, constituting one of the most important agricultural sections of the State. This includes the valleys of Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Santa Ana, San Bernardino, Cucomongo, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, San Diego and others. This is the land of the orange and the olive; of soft and genial summers, and mild winters; where the verdure, the flowers, and the ripening fruit of the orange groves give to all cultivated grounds the appearance of a paradise. Here, as in most sections of California, the skill of the engineer is required to render fruitful the fertile soil. Without water all is barren, but with the magic streams grains and trees spring with vigorous life from the ground. Here, as elsewhere, the absence of forests is marked as a serious misfortune to the country, but with irrigation, so quickly do they grow, whether of fruit, ornamental, or woods for building or cabinet purposes, that all the defects on this score can be readily supplied.

North of the Bay of San Francisco, are a large number of small and pretty valleys, the most important of which are Napa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Russian River, Berreyesa, Clear Lake, Anderson, Potter, Hoopa, Eel River, Humboldt Bay, and many others of less note. Those of the southern portion are quite densely peopled and well cultivated, and constitute the most advanced wine-producing section of the State. These, although of a comparatively high latitude, possess a climate but slightly differing from that of the southern coast. Frosts are seldom experienced in winter, and the coast winds modify the heats of summer. Oranges and all the fruits of the South grow in perfection, and health prevails.

Such is a brief resume of the agricultural sections of California. Only the principal valleys have been mentioned, and but attention called to them, the limits of this sketch forbidding a detailed and comprehensive description. But the valleys alone do not comprise all the arable lands of the State. The hills of the coast, when watered by the fogs of the ocean, furnish superb grazing, and large extents can be successfully cultivated. Also, along the western flank of the great Sierra are broad belts that can be converted into productive farms and vineyards.

California Gazetteer | AHGP California

Source: Pacific Coast Business Directory for 1876-78, Compiled by Henry G. Langley, San Francisco, 1875


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