Founded in October 1870 with the coming of the railroad, Modesto was one of the wildest towns of the central valley. It was a frontier boomtown, thriving with life and energy. Since then Modesto has developed into California’s 15th largest city with over 200,000 residents. While growing into a major American city Modesto has remained true to its early history and is now the center of one of the largest and most diverse agricultural regions in the United States.
William Chapman Ralston, a millionaire banker whose wealth came from the Comstock silver mines in Nevada, was a director of the Central Pacific Railroad and known as “the most resourceful and daring of the West Coast's financiers.” Modesto was originally to be named Ralston to honor him. When he objected the town was named Modesto, a Spanish word meaning modest, after Ralston's modesty.
The Gold Rush had a great impact on Modesto. Some 300,000 people migrated to California in search of gold. Dreams of quick prosperity were soon shattered for many, and hundreds of former miners became farmers. Stanislaus County was the land of livestock until 1861-62. During this time the area experienced two months of steady rain, melting the Sierra snow pack. Rivers overflowed, washing away entire villages Land used for grazing was destroyed, and much of the livestock was drowned. The following year Modesto braved the worst drought in record history. The drought killed most of the remaining animals and threatened to end valley farming. But in the mid 1860's the world experienced a shortage of wheat. Local farmers rolled up their sleeves and planted thousands of acres of wheat. From 1867 to the mid-1880's Stanislaus County was a leader in the wheat industry.
While Stanislaus County had plenty of wheat, farmers had a significant problem in how to transport it because primary roads and major bridges were not yet built. But the creativity and determination of the people shined through once again. They started using rivers as highways.
In the 1880's lovely new homes were built east of downtown. Today only one of those beautiful homes stands in its original state. Robert McHenry built the restored Italianate Victorian, referred to as the McHenry Mansion, in 1882-83.
The McHenry Museum was originally a library funded by Oramil McHenry. The library was converted to a museum when a new library was opened.
In March 1887 California's Governor signed legislation authorizing the creation of irrigation districts. Modesto Assemblyman C. C. Wright introduced the bill. Local voters authorized the formation of Modesto Irrigation District (MID) in mid-1887, California's second irrigation district. MID built a canal system and started delivering irrigation water in 1904.
The now world famous Modesto Arch was inspired by the Modesto Business Men's Association and built in 1912. The slogan, “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health,” was the second place winner of a contest held specifically to find a slogan for the arch. The entry that came in first, “Nobody's Got Modesto's Goat,” was passed by in favor of the slogan that remains on the arch today.
Founded in 1921, Modesto Junior College is the oldest junior college in the State of California This College has helped tens of thousands of students blaze a path to higher education and a better future. Modesto Junior College continues to be a place that thousands of students seek out each year for an affordable quality education.
The day prohibition ended in 1933 was an important day in the United States but that day is also one of the most significant in Modesto’s history as well. That is the day two brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo, opened a small winery in Modesto with $5,900 borrowed dollars. Now 70 years later the winery that Ernest and Julio opened that day is now the largest winery in the world employing thousands of workers in Modesto, the Napa Valley and other locations throughout California.
From its wild beginnings through its years of hardships and uncertainty, people have always been attracted to the City of Modesto. Today, just as it has for over a century Modesto's energy and charm draws people from all over the country. We invite you to explore our rich history for yourself!