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 Rivers of California

The rivers of California are quite numerous, and some are of great extent, although few are navigable. The largest is the Colorado, running near five hundred miles along the eastern border, and having a total length, from the source of its principal branch. Green River, in Idaho, of about two thousand miles. This great stream drains all the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, from the Snake River to Mexico, receiving in its course the Yampah, Uintah, White River, Grand, San Juan, Colorado Chiquito, Gila, and others of less note. From California it receives no water, the arid desert through which it flows having no streams. The Colorado, at ordinary stages, has a breadth of about four hundred yards, and always a rapid current flowing over a changing bed of sand, often so shallow as to forbid navigation by vessels drawing throe feet of water. At its mouth, in the Gulf of California, its strong current meets the rising tide in a dangerous swell, rolling up the river a wall of waters, grand to the sight, but a terror to navigators, its season of flood is in the months of June and July, when the melting snows of the Rocky Mountains have reached the mouth, sending the water over the valley lands and flowing a large stream into the desert of the Colorado. This stream bears the name of New River, but exists only when the Colorado is above its banks. An effort has recently been made, or rather was long ago proposed and now renewed, to obtain governmental aid to conduct the waters of New River over a large extent of desert for the purpose of irrigation, but as it leaves the parent stream within Mexican territory, a serious obstacle to the enterprise is interposed. A survey shows that much of the country is below the level of the Colorado, and that the valley of New River could, by proper engineering, be reclaimed. This stream, in periods of very high water, extends one hundred and fifty miles into the desert, and as the soil possesses elements of great fertility, upon receding, vegetation is rank and prolific.

White River, or Agua Blanco, rises among the snows of Mount San Bernardino, draining the eastern slope of that towering peak and flowing southerly into the desert, is soon lost in the sands. While in its mountain course this is a very pretty stream of from twelve to twenty yards in breadth, and takes its name from the purity of its waters. The basin into which it debouches is at the eastern foot of the San Gorgonio Pass, and is the northern extremity of the great Coahuilla Valley, which extends to and includes the valley of New River, the whole evidently being below the level of the sea.

The Mohave is one of the largest of the desert streams. Rising in Mount San Bernardino it drains the northern slope, and flowing northerly and northeasterly for a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles, sinks in the basin of Soda Lake. Several fertile valleys are along its line, but in the latter part of its course the desolation is supreme.

The Amargosa is a singular river of the desert, rising in the State of Nevada, on the northeastern side of the Amargosa Mountains, and in a course of about two hundred miles, sometimes on the surface and then disappearing beneath the sands, making a circuit of the southern portion of the range, turns northwesterly and disappears in Death Valley, a depression reported, (though doubtful) to be near four hundred feet below the level of the sea.

Owens River is another of the basin east of the Sierra, but from the fertile valley through which it flows cannot be called a river of the desert. Rising in the Sierra Nevada, in latitude: 37° 40', it flows south into Owens Lake. Running a course of about one hundred and fifty miles in length. This river and valley has attained increased importance in late years from the discovery and development of rich lead and silver mines in the vicinity. Owens Lake, which receives the water of the river and all drainage of the surrounding country, is a body of water eighteen miles in length by twelve in width, and is intensely impregnated with salt, alkali and other substances. A small steamboat is employed on the lake in transporting ores and merchandise between the mines of Cerro Gordo and the road leading to Los Angeles; also to the town of Swansea, on the shore of the Lake, where reduction works are established, convenient to the forests of the Sierra Nevada.

Along the southern coast are a large number of unnavigable streams, flowing to the ocean, which furnish water for a few mills and for irrigation. The principal of these are the San Diego, Santa Ana, San Gabriel, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Santa Inez and Santa Maria. Some of these sink before reaching the sea during the summer, but are rapid torrents in the rainy season. The Santa Ana is the largest of these, rising in Mount San Bernardino; it, with its numerous branches, drains the southern and western slopes of that peak. In the early part of its course this is a large and rapid stream, but dwindles in size as it approaches the ocean. San Bernardino, Riverside, Anaheim and other towns are on its banks. The general course of the stream is westerly, and its total length about one hundred and forty miles. The San Gabriel rises in the mountains of the same name, and flowing southwesterly a distance of fifty miles, enters the sea near Wilmington, into the roadstead of San Pedro.

The Santa Clara rises in Soledad Pass, Los Angeles County, and flows westerly one hundred and twenty miles, entering the ocean near San Buenaventura, in Ventura County. The valley is generally broad and inviting, and with proper irrigation and cultivation would be productive. Upon the headwaters of this stream gold was discovered in 1830, and mining is still carried on in a simple and indifferent manner. The precious metal is found in nearly all the streams flowing from the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains, and energetic mining is carried on in several localities.

The Salinas is a river of considerable magnitude, rising in the southern part of San Luis Obispo County, its principal branch being the Rio San Juan, and has a total length of more than two hundred miles, emptying into the Bay of Monterey. But even this stream does not always reach the sea, as, during periods of drought, the thirsty sand of the valley absorbs the water. The river, in a great part of its course, flows over a sandy bed half a mile to a mile and a half in width, and a hundred or more feet below the general plain of the valley. The tide rises for several miles from the mouth of the river, and for that distance is navigable, affording a good harbor. The valley of the Salinas extends in an unbroken plain for eighty miles up the river, and with a width of from six to fifteen miles, comprising a half million acres of arable land, of great fertility when watered by rains or irrigation.

The Pajaro is a river of about fifty miles in length, receiving the San Benito from the valley of the same name, and flowing into the Bay of Monterey a few miles north of the mouth of the Salinas. It is navigable to the town of Watsonville, six miles from the bay, and is important from the commerce carried on and the great productions of the adjacent country.

The San Lorenzo is a small stream running through the town of Santa Cruz, and entering the northern side of Monterey Bay. Flowing to the ocean from the same vicinity are the San Gregorio and Pescadero, from the latter of which it is proposed to conduct water for an additional supply of the City of San Francisco. On the eastern summit of the Santa Cruz Range rise the San Francisquito, Redwood and Pillarcitos Creeks, the latter furnishing the principal part of the water now used in San Francisco.

North of the Golden Gate, the mountains approach near the coast, but are much broken, and permit the passage of many small streams and some rivers of large size. The principal are Russian River, Walhalla, Garcia, Novarra, Albion, Big River, Noyo, Matole, Eel River, Mad River, Redwood, Klamath and Smith's River.

Russian River is one of the most important of the northern coast streams, from the fact of its long course through a succession of some of the finest valleys of the State. Rising from several branches in the mountainous region of Mendocino County, in latitude 39° 30', it flows southerly for about seventy-five miles to the middle of Sonoma County, thence westerly to the ocean in latitude 38° 30', having a total course of about one hundred and twenty-five miles. In its course it receives the Mark West, Santa Rosa, and Green River creeks, which flow through the center of Sonoma County, and water some of its most lovely valleys.

Eel River has its source in the immediate vicinity of Russian River, but runs northerly and empties into the ocean in latitude 40° 40', a few miles south of Humboldt Bay. This stream receives several large tributaries from a wild and sparsely populated region. The valleys are comparatively small, but of great beauty and fertility, and are rapidly filling up with settlers. The river is navigable for several miles from its mouth, but its entrance is obstructed by a bar, preventing its becoming valuable as a harbor. Its length is about one hundred and fifty miles. At some seasons the river is thronged with salmon, and extensive fishing and curing establishments are carried on near its mouth.

Mad River enters the ocean a few miles north of Humboldt Bay. It has an average width of about one hundred yards, but a bar at the mouth prevents its being used as a harbor or for navigation. The ancient name, given it by the old navigators, Husta and Bodega, was the Rio de los Tortolas.

The Klamath is the largest river entering the ocean south of the Columbia. It has its source in the lake country of eastern Oregon, and flowing through the high plateau which forms the connection, or the division, between the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade ranges, past Shasta and Scott's valleys, it breaks through the Coast Mountains in deep and rugged cañons. The total length is about three hundred miles, and it bears a large body of water to the sea. The mouth is obstructed by a dangerous bar of shifting sand, but the river may be navigated for some forty or fifty miles by light-draft steamers with power to stem its strong current. During freshets, the Klamath rises to extraordinary heights, reaching at times over one hundred feet above its ordinary level. The mouth of this river is in latitude 41° 33' north and longitude 124° 05' west. The other streams of the coast are short and rapid, affording fine water-power for mills, and several have good harbors at their mouths.

Several small streams empty into the Bay of San Francisco and its contiguous waters. Entering the southern extremity are the Guadalupe and Coyote, running through the large and fertile valley of Santa Clara, and holding between them the beautiful city of San Jose, the northen part, or San Pablo Bay, receives the Petaluma, Sonoma and Napa creeks, which water valleys of the same names, remarkable for their fertility of soil, loveliness of climate, and quiet beauty of scenery. The tide rises in these streams, rendering them navigable for several miles from their mouths. Those constitute convenient little harbors for vessels of light draught, and beautiful and prosperous villages are built upon their banks.

The Sacramento and the San Joaquin, with their tributaries, constitute the great fluvial feature of the State, as the Sierra Nevada, which they drain, is distinctive among mountains, and as the great valley through which they flow is conspicuous for its exhaustless resource of agricultural wealth. The Sacramento, the larger of the two, has its source at the western base of Mount Shasta, and running almost directly south, emptying into Suisun Bay, thence through the bays of San Pablo, San Francisco and the Golden Gate to the ocean. The total length is four hundred and sixty-five miles, and is navigable for three hundred and ten miles, to Rod Bluff, at all seasons of the year. The tide rises in it to Sacramento City, seventy miles above its mouth, and to that point it is navigable for vessels drawing seven feet of water. The towns of Rio Vista, Sacramento, Knights Landing, Colusa, Princeton, Tehama and Red Bluff are on its banks.

The San Joaquin is a sister river, rising in the southern portion of the Sierra, and flowing north, drains the southern half of the great valley of California, joins the Sacramento at the point where both enter the bay. The total length is two hundred and seventy-five miles, and in time of high water, is navigable for one hundred and fifty miles from its mouth. Vessels drawing five foot of water ascends it to Stockton, a distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles, by water, from San Francisco. The water of these rivers was once clear and sparkling, but the washings of the gold placers have discolored it and filled the beds with gravel and sediment from the mines.

Pitt River is the principal tributary of the upper Sacramento, being larger than the stream bearing the name. One of its branches. Fall River, rises in Mount Shasta and flows eastward; other branches have their sources in the great northern plateau of the Sierra, and after a course of near two hundred miles, join the Sacramento near the town of Shasta. This stream courses through several important mountain valleys and a region of superb forests. Those resources are receiving increased attention since the subjugation of hostile Indians who disputed their development, and this long neglected section is advancing in importance.

McCloud River bears the happy distinction of being one of the clearest, prettiest, and most romantic of the many beautiful mountain streams of the State. The lofty Mount Shasta furnishes its source, and tumbling with many grand cascades, and sparkling through rocky canons and leafy vales for a course of some eighty or ninety miles to the south, it empties into Pitt River, a few miles above its junction with the Sacramento. This is a favorite fishing stream, and has been selected by the U. S. Commissioners superintending the propagation of fish, as the principal scene of their operations in this State.

Feather River, the Rio de las Plumas of former days, is the largest tributary of the Sacramento, draining the Sierra between the latitudes of 39° 10' and 40° 30', and is formed of numerous forks and branches. The principal of these is the North Fork, which rises on the southern slope of Lassen's Peak, and becomes a rapid stream of one hundred yards in breadth as it flows through the valley of Big Meadows, Rush, Indian, and Spanish creeks, and East Branch, flowing through beautiful mountain valleys, and past rich mining camps, join the South Fork from the east, and Cherry Creek and West Branch enter it from the west, all considerable streams. The Middle Fork rises in Beckwourth Valley, a plain apparently of the great plateau east of the Nevada range, and cutting through the mountains flows south west ward, joining the North Fork four or five miles before entering the valley. The South Fork and Nelson Creek are smaller streams and branches of the Middle Fork.

The Yuba is an important stream, and drains a large area of the Sierra. This too, has its North, South and Middle Forks, with many branches to each, all of which have become celebrated from the richness of the gold diggings in their beds, bars and neighboring hills. The Yuba enters the Feather at Marysville, whence the latter is navigable for light draught steamers to its junction with the Sacramento, forty miles distant. Bear River is the most southern branch of Feather. In the mountains it is quite an important stream, but in the dry season it disappears in the valley before reaching the main river. The American joins the Sacramento by the city of the same name, and is one of the most important of its branches. This river will ever be connected with the history of the State, as it was on its banks that gold was discovered in 1848, which dates an era in the commerce of the world. The nomenclature of the mountain branches is the same as usually adopted by the gold hunters, being designated as forks. These have their source in many beautiful crystal lakes, high up among the eternal snows, which, by simple engineering, could be turned into capacious reservoirs, thus reserving the floods of winter for use in the fields and cities of the plains below. The Rubicon, Pilot, Hangtown and Silver Creeks are names of streams entering the American.

The branches of the Sacramento entering it are the Clear, Cottonwood, Elder, Thorns, Stoney, Cache and Putah creeks. These all have their sources in the Coast Range and after running through many lovely valleys in the mountains, these considerable and ever-running streams debouch upon the great plain of the Sacramento, and in seasons of drought seldom reach the main River.

The system of the San Joaquin is the counterpart of the Sacramento with the exception that no stream flows from the Coast Range to water the western portion of the broad valley. Flowing from the Sierra Nevada are the Cosumne, Dry Creek, Mokelumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Cowchilla and Fresno, all noted for the gold mines of the section of their drainage. The Merced is the river of Yosemite, and, as are the Tuolumne and Stanislaus navigable for a short distance from their mouths. The southern portion of the great valley of California embraces Tulare, Buena Vista, Kern and other lakes, which receive Kings, Kaweah, White and Kern rivers, all large streams, having their sources among the lofty peaks of the most elevated portion of the Sierra Nevada.

East of the range and north of the streams previously mentioned, and partly within the State, are Walker, Carson, Truckee and Susan rivers, with their numerous branches flowing eastward to lakes in the great basin. These, before reaching the valley, are strong and beautiful streams, affording waterpower or for irrigating the bordering land. The first two empty into large lakes of the same name, the Truckee into Pyramid Lake, all in the State of Nevada, and the Susan into Honey Lake.

California Gazetteer | AHGP California

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

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