A Short History of Salinas, California by Kent Seavey
This text was written as a guide for the Salinas Historical and Architectural Resources Survey, a joint project between the City of Salinas and the Monterey County Historical Society. The project implemented the 1988 Salinas Master Plan policies which called for the identification of those properties which are either historically or architecturally significant to the City: and to recognize the existence of such properties when considering future development within the City limits.
The following is not intended to be a written history of the development of the City of Salinas, but merely a guide to its development in order to gain some perspective of the past. The majority of the material described below has been extracted from three publications written by noted historian Robert B. Johnston, retired Professor of History at Hartnell College and past President of the Monterey County Historical Society. Additional material has been derived from other sources which are listed in the reference section.
Salinas to 1850
The Indians of California, and more specifically of the Salinas area, were hunters and gatherers. The Costanoan (Ohlone) Indians, as they became known, occupied the central coast between approximately Big Sur and San Francisco. Two other groups also were found in Monterey County: the Salinan Indians in the southern areas and along the south coast, and the Esselen Indians in the Santa Lucia Mountains and on the coast south of Big Sur.
Salinas lies within the currently recognized ethnographic territory of the Costanoan (often called Ohlone) linguistic group. In brief, the group followed a hunting and gathering subsistence pattern with partial dependence on the natural acorn crop.
Four of California’s Missions were established in what was to become Monterey County (originally including present-day San Benito County); Carmel (1770), San Antonio (1771), Soledad (1791) and San Juan Bautista (1797). The products made possible by the Indians at the Missions provided the basis for much of the commerce in California up until the mid-1830s when the Missions were secularized to make way for the ranchos. It is the establishment of the ranchos toward the end of the Mexican era which marks the true beginnings of Salinas.
The Salinas area during the rancho period of Mexican rule in California included several large land grants but a minimal human population as the range was employed for grazing purposes and constituted a series of hilly swamps with horse-high mustard most of the time. Almost all these holdings had been deeded by Mexican era governors between 1822 and 1840. The Los Gatos or Santa Rita rancho to the north was held by Trinidad Espinosa, the Rincon del Zanjon by Jose Eusebio Boronda. To the northeast was La Natividad owned by Manuel Butron and Nicholas Alviso. The Soberanes family’s El Alisal was to the east and the Estrada’s Llano de Buena Vista to the south. Some adobe structures existed on these large land grants but were mostly used by vaqueros and only inhabited by family members during the annual rodeo and matanza. The Rancho Nacional of Vicente Cantua and the Sausal of Jose Castro (and later Jacob P. Leese) formed the nucleus of what is today the City of Salinas.
Salinas evolved from the purchase of two ranchos (Rancho Nacional and Rancho Sausal) and the business dealings of two early settlers (James Bryant Hill and Jacob Leese). Hill purchased the 6,700 acre Rancho Nacional with the intent of settling up a huge farming project. With financial backers, Hill set up his offices near the Salinas River outside of the present-day city where Highway 68 crosses the river. Although he produced record amounts of wheat and barley, Hill ended up going under financially, and his holdings went to his investors. Prior to this failure, however, a settlement known as “Hilltown” developed (near the intersection of the Monterey Highway and Salinas River), and Hill found himself in 1854 to be the first Postmaster for the Salinas area.
Jacob Leese purchased the 10,000 acre Rancho Sausal on the other side of the Zanjon del Alisal from Hill’s purchase; the majority of present-day Salinas was within this holding. He paid $6,000 for the property. Leese, a wealthy merchant with dealings in both San Francisco and Monterey, sold some 80 acres to Elias Howe, often credited as the real founder of Salinas, in 1856. At the site of “the great bend in the slough,” Howe built the famed Halfway House which was purchased by Alberto Trescony in 1857.
Between 1857 and 1867, Trescony built a general merchandise store, blacksmith shop, stable, and a hotel. In 1864, Trescony’s small hotel, known as the American Hotel, became the site of the Post Office which was moved to “Trescony’s” from Hilltown.
It was during the decade of the 1860s that Salinas began to take on the characteristics of a real town. This was the cattle ranching age in California, and such names as James Bardin, George Graves, Jesse Carr, and others came into the picture. Yet by 1862, the entire population of the county was only 4,700. It was not until the latter part of the decade, when the town began to receive publicity for its fertile valley, that real growth began. Dairy farmers, including a number of Swiss and Danish families began to move into the area, and Isaac J. Harvey (who was to become the first mayor) moved his family to Salinas.
In 1867, Trescony sold the property to Alanson Riker, and under his direction the plans for the town were quickly laid out. In July of 1868, Salinas contained only 12 to 14 buildings, some still under construction. By the end of that year, there were approximately 125 buildings, with half again as many under construction; talk soon arose about relocating the courthouse from Monterey to Salinas.
The Southern Pacific Railroad came to Salinas in November of 1872, the same month the Monterey County Board of Supervisors granted Salinas City limited status of incorporation. The following month, Salinas became the county seat. With the arrival of the railroad and the courthouse, the downtown area could support larger and more permanent development. In March of 1873, Carlisle S. Abbott purchased the American Hotel, relocated it to the back of the same lot, and began the “Abbott House,” a new three-story brick hotel measuring 126 feet wide and 60 feet deep, at a cost of $20,000. (This structure later became known as the Cominos Hotel, when purchased by that family.) From that point, Salinas grew rapidly.
The commercial business of the valley and political business of the county now centered in Salinas City. The Salinas Valley which had been shoulder high in yellow mustard when Riker and Sherwood laid out their town on hummocks bisected by sloughs and surrounded by swamps was covered in wheat and barley from Moss Landing to the Southern Pacific Railhead in Soledad by 1880.
One hundred and forty of the 145,000 acres in cultivation in the county were in cereal crops by that time. This change in agriculture had been precipitated in part by access to new markets through increased transportation at the Port of Moss Landing and the Southern Pacific Railroad and more efficient techniques of production. By 1885, Salinas had the largest flour mill in the state south of San Francisco, producing 500 barrels of “drifted snow” a day. The telegraph (1871), a city gas works (1872), macadamized paving along Main Street (1874), a water company (1874) and electric ARC light system (1884), with three newspapers (The Salinas Weekly Index (1871), Salinas Weekly Democrat (1874) and Salinas Daily Journal (1885) made the city one of the most modern for its size in the state. A Board of Trade was established in 1887 to pursue the commercial upbuilding of the city. In 1874, a group of local businessmen including Carr, Abbott, Vanderhurst and Jacks constructed the first narrow gauge railroad in California to compete with the high freight rates of the Southern Pacific. The railroad ran from a depot in the fields near Hilltown to the Port of Monterey. Its success was short lived for a number of reasons and it was absorbed by the Southern Pacific in 1879.
A major contribution to the agricultural and subsequent financial success of Salinas City during the 1870s and 1880s was the land reclamation undertaken by Chinese labor to clear and drain the swamps, including Carr Lake that surrounded the town. As early as 1873, the Chinese had their own distinct neighborhood in Salinas and accounted for about 10% of the total population. Land worth $28 an acre in 1875 went to $100 an acre in 1877, once cleared by Chinese labor. In the 1880s, the Chinese were leasing 1,000 acres of valley land for agriculture. Their community, north of the Southern Pacific tracks between North Main and East Lake Street served the Caucasian community and seasonal Chinese laborers. The 1880 census for Salinas showed 1,755 whites, 102 Chinese and 8 Blacks. In the first Monterey County History, published in 1882, the editors said of Salinas City:
Its county buildings, churches, schools, hotels, stores, shops and residences cause it to rank among the first of its size in the state. The town is embowered with trees and aspect of the whole is that of a true, enterprising, progressive, permanent American city.
The 1890s in Salinas were characterized in the continuing diversification of agriculture and its attendant effect on commerce. As early as 1877, experiments in various forms of irrigation had taken place in Monterey County. By the mid 1880s, accessing a steady water supply and the ready availability of rapid transport to markets had greatly increased the production of dairy products, especially along the west side of the Salinas Valley. Irrigation was to play a seminal part in the development of the sugar beet industry around the county seat, the next great agricultural advance in the region. The whole of the 1890s was built around Claus Spreckels proposed construction of a major sugar beet processing plant in or near Salinas. Speculation was high and despite the national economic recession of 1893, investment and growth were accelerated in Salinas. Spreckels was able to purchase large acreages cheap and by 1898 enough farmers were willing to change from cereal crops to beets to make Spreckels’ promised plant a reality. As early as 1891, a narrow gauge line had been run into Salinas to supply his Watsonville beet processing operation.
The 1890 census had Salinas’ population at 2,339. The Monterey County Bank (1890) and the Salinas Mutual Building and Loan Association (1897) had joined the Salinas City Bank (1873) as chief financial institutions for the county. Incandescent street lights replaced the older arc light system in 1891. In 1896, the recently formed cavalry troop “C” of the California National Guard, moved into its newly completed armory at the corner of West Alisal and Salinas Streets and began its distinguished career as a military unit and important Salinas social institution. Its first call to duty would be in 1906 to assist in the police and protection of property in San Francisco following the devastating earthquake of April 18 that year. In spite of a national depression and a staggering drought in 1897-1898, Salinas continued to grow in anticipation of Claus Spreckels’ promised development of the world’s largest sugar beet processing factory. In 1899 the plant was finally completed and put into operation for the beginning of a new century. Salinas had grown 40% during the decade to a population in excess of 3,000. Its financial base continued to be in agriculture.
In 1898 over two hundred Japanese workers came to Salinas to work for Claus Spreckels’ sugar beet operation. That same year the Japanese Presbyterian Mission Hall was established to meet the social and cultural needs of this all male population. By the turn of the century the Japanese were generally living in the area adjacent to Chinatown along Lake Street. In 1905, the Salinas Japanese Association was formed to bring order and cohesion to the immigrant community. Excellent agriculturists, the Japanese prospered. They introduced celery and broccoli as crops as well as growing the first strawberries in the Salinas Valley out on Romie Lane in 1911. In 1925 the Salinas Buddhist Church was founded on California Street where it remains today. In 1942 at the outbreak of World War II, all of California’s Japanese population was relocated from the coast for the duration. Salinas Japanese were temporarily interned at the California Rodeo grounds on their way to Poston, Arizona. Those who returned after the war continued to make major contributions to agriculture and the community.
In 1901, the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad finally reached Los Angeles about the same time the first automobiles were appearing in Salinas along El Camino Real. The automobile would soon play an important part in the realignment of some of the city’s transportation arteries. 1900 saw the opening of the new Salinas High School across from the current West Alisal Street Post Office. Of masonry construction and commonly called the “Brick Pile,” it continued a local tradition of building both public and commercial buildings in brick, some reinforced, some not. Those not reinforced with steel frames suffered considerably in 1906 when the same earthquake that hit San Francisco damaged or destroyed every commercial building along Main Street in Salinas. Although no one was killed, the extent of the damage to commercial and residential property was a million and a half dollars. Recovery was fairly rapid. Many buildings could be repaired, but Main Street took on a different appearance with the introduction of reinforced steel structures in the latest fashionable styles to replace those lost to the quake.
The sugar beet was king in the early 1900s and into the teens and twentys. Dairying was also a major factor in the valley’s economy employing newly developed condensing processes for product expansion. As early as 1901, the California Rodeo was beginning to take shape as a Salinas tradition. Its formal inception was in 1911.
Beginning in 1915 with the construction of Highway 101 through the city, Salinas soon had fully paved streets. 1916 saw Troop “C” called to arms once more for duty along the Mexican border. This was excellent preparation for its next action in France in 1917. The European War greatly expanded the agricultural economy of the Salinas Valley which produced crops for the Allied armies abroad. After the War’s end, in 1919, Salinas City, through the adoption of a “freeholders charter” officially became the City of Salinas. Physical changes to the community as a consequence of the charter move saw the removal of wooden awnings along Main Street which reduced the city insurance rates.
The population of the City of Salinas as it entered the “Roaring Twenties” was 4,304. Architect Ralph Wycoff completed the new Spanish Revival style Salinas Union High School on South Main Street in 1921 to accommodate the growing population, a portion of the high school’s south wing was dedicated to the newly established Salinas Junior College. By 1924, Salinas was the wealthiest per capita city in America. Other municipal activities included the extension of telephone service between Salinas and Monterey, the passage of a city bond issue for a complete sewage system, the construction of a new firehouse and a new grandstand and stable for the California Rodeo. Of particular importance was the Planning Commission’s preparation of a zoning system for the city. By 1928, the city had its first airport.
Once again, a major change in agriculture occurred during the decade, sugar beets and beans gave way to the “green gold” of lettuce. The development of ice bunkered railroad cars made it possible to ship fresh produce nationwide and lettuce replaced the sugar beet as the Salinas Valley mainstay, although other row crops began to air their appearance as well, including the artichoke. As the Japanese labor force had succeeded the Chinese with the advent of the sugar beet, so now the Filipinos superseded the Japanese as the labor force for new row crops and the Filipino population of Salinas expanded to the east of Chinatown.
A close knit people by national character, the Filipinos soon formed a local barangay. This functional social concept predates western influence and is the backbone of Filipino community action. Initiated in 1906 as the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang, a Salinas lodge was formed in 1920 with its center in the Filipino community church. The Caballeros’ organization funded a newspaper in 1928, the Philippino Independent News, which in 1930 became the oldest continuing Filipino newspaper in the United States. Prior to World War II, the Philippines Mail had “become a rallying point of Filipino opinion, inspiration and decision” taking on such national issues as the Federal Repatriation Act of 1932 and strongly supporting the position of the Filipino labor during their strike against agri-industrial business in 1934.
For Salinas, the 1930s were far less disruptive than many parts of America’s farming economy in terms of production and markets. Labor strife, as noted characterized a part of the decade in 1934 when Filipino workers organized as one of California’s first farm labor unions, the Filipino Labor Supply Association and clashed with management in a major strike. And, again in 1936 when the mid-western “Dust Bowl” immigrants who settled the Alisal district of Salinas during the depression took on the Associated Farmers over wages as members of the AF of L affiliate, the Vegetable Packers Association. Elements of these actions pushed native John Steinbeck to some of his best writing in In Dubious Battle (1936) and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Grapes of Wrath (1938).
The 1930s saw a physical change in Salinas, not only in the way of expansion to the east (Alisal) and to the southwest (Maple Park and other subdivisions) but in the very nature of the building styles that had characterized the community to date. Salinas was the first and only community in Monterey County to accept modern building designs in a major way. The success of agriculture and access to federal financing for public works projects paired with a progressive spirit welcomed both modern and international building design in the public as well as private sectors. In the private sector, commercial development along Main Street radically altered the turn of the century look of the downtown. Salinas’ tallest office building at the corner of Main and Alisal is an excellent example of the Zig Zag moderne while Main Street’s three movie houses show the variety of the modern form as do some business facades, especially in the 300 block. Residences and apartment complexes around town, continued this expression and the Monterey County Building (1936) at the corner of West Alisal and Church Street may be one of the best Depression Moderne buildings in the state. In 1932, a new armory building was financed by the New Deal to double as a civic auditorium. Schools, including a new campus for Hartnell Junior College were constructed, a new jail and updating of the city’s infrastructure including the Main Street underpass of the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks took place. The airport was enlarged as part of a preparedness program for the impending European conflict. In the winter of 1940, the airstrip became a U.S. Army Air Corps Training Base. Fort Ord expanded rapidly to meet the manpower needs of the coming conflict, bringing many servicemen and their families to the Salinas area. The first permanent USO building in the United States was built on Lincoln Street in 1941 and is used today as the city recreation center. Once again, Troop “C” was called to the colors, this time redesignated as Company C, 194th Tank Battalion of the California National Guard. It shipped out for the Philippines in February 1941 where it saw action in the Battles of Corrigidor and Bataan. That story is told elsewhere in this website.
The farm strife of the 1930s gave way to conciliation on the part of labor and management to meet the common goal of producing “Food for Victory.” Labor shortages due to men in uniform for the war effort saw the re-introduction of imported Mexican fieldhands under the Bracero program in 1942. Mexican labor had filled this need in part during the first World War as well. Reminders of the migrant camps that housed these nomadic workers following the crop cycle can be seen in the San Jerardo complex that was once called Camp McCullum off of Old Stage Road.
While meeting the war effort, the city projected plans for post war development in a three point program prepared in 1943, designated for state and federal funding. It included a street and highway plan that had Highway 101 skirting the city, a public works plan and a parks and recreation plan. As always, a progressive city “of purely American character,” Salinas was making ready for a productive future.