Fresno, California was founded by the Central Pacific Railroad Company in 1872. Initially, it could be said that the location for the town was uninviting at best, with barren sand plains in all directions. However, Leland J. Stanford, a Company Director for the railroad, was so impressed with a wheat field he saw in the distance that he decided this was the ideal place for the new station.
In 1875 the Central California Colony was established south of Fresno, setting the model for a system of development that was used throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Tracts of land were subdivided into 20-40 acre parcels, irrigated from a system of canals and often landscaped with boulevards of palms, eucalyptus or other drought-resistant trees. By 1903 there were 48 separate colonies or tracts in Fresno County, which drew farmers and their families from across the United States in addition to far away places like Scandinavia.
Fresno became the county seat in 1874 and was incorporated in 1885. By 1890 the population was over 10,000. The first streetcars were introduced in 1892 and suburbs soon followed. The area has had an ethnic mix from the earliest years with Chinese railroad workers and Scandinavian farmers being joined by Germans from Russia, Japanese, Armenians and, by the early 20th century, a large Hispanic population. Currently, there are now more than 70 ethnic groups calls this metropolitan area home.
Museums throughout the area are brimming with collections that tell story upon story of the humble beginnings of Fresno and the pioneers who gave birth to this burgeoning community. The city has come a long way from its early days. Today, Fresno is a vibrant community that has progressed from those humble beginnings but still takes the time to proudly remember its past.
Fresno County is ranked first in the nation for agricultural production with annual sales in excess of $3 billion. Major crops include grapes, almonds, cotton, peaches and nectarines. Notable Fresnans include Maynard Dixon (artist), Audra McDonald (actress, singer), Barbara Morgan (astronaut) and William Saroyan (author).
For more information on the area’s history see the city’s “Historic Preservation” page, the Fresno Historical Society website and Architecture, Ethnicity and Historic Landscapes of California’s San Joaquin Valley (City of Fresno, 2008).
THE FRESNO WATER TOWER
Built in 1894 at the corner of Fresno and O streets, the Fresno Water Tower is a striking historic landmark. Chicago architect George Washington Maher designed the Water Tower in the American Romanesque style. It stands 109 feet high, with a double round interior wall and brick dome that supports a storage tank, which once held 250,000 gallons of water.
The Water Tower closed for water storage in 1963, when the structure could no longer adequately support the community’s increasing water needs. It was subsequently used for a variety of city offices, and remains a “signature” architectural fixture in Fresno. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was declared an American Water Landmark one year later. A partnership of the Fresno Convention & Visitors Bureau, the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, Downtown Rotary Club and numerous private individuals, spent two years and more than $500,000 to renovate the structure in 1999.
The Water Tower is now home to the Fresno Visitors Information Center. Visitors can pick up printed materials on points of interest, use the computer to check local events and websites, and talk with local history buffs. Since 2011 the Water Tower is also the home of Art By Hand, an art gallery and gift shop featuring the work of over 60 local artists. Both projects are sponsored by HandsOn Central California and staffed by the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program.
For more information about the Water Tower and its projects, please call HandsOn Central California at (559) 237-3101.