At one time, Fresno was nothing more than a water stop for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Canals and irrigation transformed it from dry desert into one of the most fertile and agriculturally diverse regions in the world.
As a result of the Mexican War, the area that Fresno now stands on became part of the United States in 1846. Soon after, the gold rush of 1849 provided the incentive for tens of thousands of miners to flock to the foothill areas of the San Joaquin River.
Fresno County was created in 1856 in the tiny community of Millerton. The town of Fresno was born in 1872; its name is derived from the Spanish word for ash trees, which are native to the Central Valley. The coming of the railroad provided the necessary economic base needed to start a town in the frontier lands of the Old West.
Fresno of the late 19th century was typical of any frontier town, where saloons and dance halls outnumbered churches and schools 10-to-1. It wasn’t until 1876, four years after it was founded, that the city built its first place of worship. Several fires and a giant flood convinced early residents of the need to establish a centralized form of government. On October 12, 1885, Fresno became a fully incorporated city.
The lifelines of the area were the first canals, built by Moses Church. Locals later gave them the name “church ditches.” Used for irrigation, these canals turned the barren land and dusty soil into the rich, fertile ground that produces most of the world’s supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Wheat was one of the first products to be produced, paving the way for the thousands of different crops that are grown in the San Joaquin Valley.
Called the father of the wine industry, Frances Eisen started the raisin industry when he accidentally let some grapes dry on the vine before he was able to harvest them. Today, nearby Selma is the world’s top producer of raisins, giving it the distinction of “Raisin Capital of the World.” Fresno County is the nation’s leading agricultural region, producing more than 250 different commercial crops worth $5 billion per year.
Lumber mills were constructed in the late 1800s, with the rich harvest of the nearby Sierra Mountains providing the wood to supply an up-and-coming community. The discovery of gold, petroleum and copper, along with a rich supply of oil in the western part of the county, solidified Fresno’s role as a major contributor to the growth of a still young United States of America.
Fresno’s history is as rich and diverse as the people who live here, with over 30 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.