Some histories of California describe nineteenth-century efforts to reclaim the extensive swamplands and shallow lakes in the southern part of California's San Joaquin Valley – then the largest natural wetlands habitat west of the Mississippi River – as a herculean venture to tame a boggy wilderness and turn the region into an agricultural paradise. Yet an 1850s proposition for draining those marshes and lakes primarily was a scheme to improve the state's transportation. Swampland reclamation was a secondary goal.

Transport around the time of statehood in 1850 was severely lacking in California. Only a handful of steamboats plied a few of the state's larger rivers, and compared to the eastern United States, roads and railroads were nearly non-existent. Few of these modes of transportation reached into the isolated San Joaquin Valley. As a result, in 1857 the California legislature granted an exclusive franchise to the Tulare Canal and Land Company (sometimes known as the Montgomery franchise, after two of the firm's founders). The company's purpose was to connect navigable canals from the southern San Joaquin Valley to the San Joaquin River, which entered from the Sierra Nevada about half way up the valley. That stream, in turn, joined with San Francisco Bay, and thus the canals would open the entire San Joaquin Valley to world-wide commerce. In exchange for building the canals, the Montgomery franchise could collect tolls for twenty years and sell half the drained swamplands (the other half was to be sold by the state). Land sales were contingent upon the Montgomery franchise reclaiming the marshes.

Wetlands in the mid-nineteenth century were not viewed as they are today as fragile wildlife habitats but instead as impediments to advancing American ideals and homesteads across the continent. Moreover, marshy areas were seen as major health menaces, with the prevailing view being that swampy regions’ air carried infectious diseases.

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