Salinas Valley History

History of Settlement and Agricultural Development in Monterey County

The following is from the report SOIL SURVEY OF THE LOWER SALNAS VALLEY first published in 1901. 
Authors are Macy H. Lapham and W.H. Heilman.

The county of Monterey, in which the area surveyed lies, is in date of settlement one of the oldest portions of California.  Its early history is that of the founding and occupation by the Spanish friars of the historic missions, now crumbling into ruins.  To the persistent and faithful work of the Spanish fathers in penetrating these unknown regions much credit is due.  Their indomitable courage not only gave them conquest over savage tribes and discouraging natural barriers, but paved the way for the more recent settlers and for the advent of varied and important agricultural industries.

The Early Years

Agricultural development, however, during this period was very meager.  The early efforts put forth by these conscientious and venturesome people were for the conversion of the pagan tribes rather than the planting of crops for the support of the convents.  At this time game was plentiful and rich natural pastures free.  The Indian tribes, who took shelter in the missions, were, however, deprived of this easy mode of existence, and farming in a small way began, in some cases aided by the construction of more or less complete systems for irrigation.  This was, however, for many years limited to the growing of a few acres of grain and vegetables, under the supervision of the church, and to the supplying of only the immediate wants of the inhabitants.

Later on nearly all the valuable lands of the county lying in the valley and rich creek bottoms were applied for and obtained under Spanish Crown as extensive land grants or ranches.  These grants were honored later when the land was ceded to the United States.  The old Spanish surveys of these ranches, with the original boundary lines, are still recognized throughout the Salinas Valley.  Some have since been subdivided and sold to settlers in smaller tracts, while others are still intact and leased to tenants.

Owing to this cause, coupled with the slow development of irrigation, an extensive rather than intensive system of agriculture prevails in the Salinas Valley.

With the gradual settlement of the lands grazing became the principal industry. 

The first record of wheat growing for market in the older portions of the Salinas Valley dates back to about 1853, but not until several years later did wheat become an important agricultural product. In the neighborhood of Gonzales and Chualar wheat growing upon a commercial scale began about 1874.  At that time a most excellent yield was obtained, reaching in favorable seasons 30 sacks per acre.  From this time on wheat was raised continuously for about fifteen years, with no rotations of crops and no application of fertilizers, with the result that the lands, consisting chiefly of the weaker upland soils, were greatly impoverished.  About this time also the grain smut made its appearance and, finding favorable conditions for growth, spread rapidly.  In the later the yield of wheat had fallen off to 8 or 10 sacks per acre, and the crop proving unprofitable, barley was taken up and is now the staple crop upon the uplands of the Salinas Valley.

The Sugar-beet Years

Sugar-beet culture has within the past fifteen years come to be one of the important industries of the valley.  The areas devoted to the successful cultivation of beets are under irrigation, and necessary conditions for profitable beet culture are being rapidly extended.

Dairy products, potatoes, beans, and fruit have within recent years become important agricultural products.

The agricultural development of the Salinas Valley, owing to existing natural conditions, presents a somewhat checkered aspect.  A fertile soil, good markets and shipping facilities, and favorable seasons have cause rapid progress, but in late years there have been dry seasons and the scourge of bacterial and fungus diseases, and seasons of plenty have alternated with those of total failure.

The following is from the report SOIL SURVEY OF MONTEREY COUNTY, CALIFORNIA first published in 1972.  Author is Terry D. Cook, Soil Conservation Service.

Dairying began in Monterey County in about 1862 when a herd of 500 cows was established near Spreckels.  Low-lying land at the end of the Salinas Valley supported large quantities of lush feed, and a thriving dairy industry developed, with Monterey Jack cheese as one of the products.  In 1924, with more than 25,000 dairy cows in the county, dairying was reported as the most important industry in the Salinas Valley.  During and immediately after World War II, dairying decreased drastically, and by 1951 the county had only 1,400 dairy animals.  Rather than undergo the expense of qualifying for Grade-A milk production, some dairymen chose to shift to vegetable production.

Sugar beets, the first major cash crop to be irrigated, were introduced into the Salinas Valley about 1885.  Tariff legislation of 1894 and 1897 encouraged local sugar production, and in 1897 a factory was built at Spreckels which replaced one in the Pajaro Valley.  The Spreckels factory became the largest sugar beet refinery in the world, processing more than 3.500 tons of beets per day.  For some years sugar prices fluctuated widely, discouraging plantings, but legislation passed during the 1930’s tended to stabilize the sugar market.  Accordingly the acreage devoted to sugar beets has remained relatively stable, at about 20,000 acres.

Commercial Development of Fresh Products

In 1916 the first wagonload of lettuce was shipped from the Pajaro Valley to San Francisco.  By 1931, after the development of improved methods of refrigeration, Monterey County lettuce production rose dramatically to 20,000 freight cars per year.  Plantings generally fluctuate between about 47,000 to 55,000 acres, far more acreage than any other irrigated crop in the county.  In large measure, Monterey County’s rank as the leading California county in vegetable production is due to its lettuce fields.  In some weeks 90 percent or more of the nation’s iceberg lettuce comes from shipments originating in the Salinas area. Cole crops (Crucifers), as a group, are increasing within the county.  In part this reflects advances in freezing technology, changes in consumer eating habits, loss of cauliflower fields because of urbanization in the Santa Clara Valley, and the development of varieties that can withstand more heat during their growth.

Cauliflower plantings increased from 300 acres in 1951 to 3,700 acres in 1961 and to 9,400 acres in 1971.  Broccoli followed a similar trend, increasing from 6,000 acres in 1951 to 24,000 acres in 1971.


The surge in celery production, increasing from 1,500 acres in 1951 to 5,000 acres in 1961, has been attributed to the discovery that superior quality stalks could be grown in a longer harvest season.  This led to a shift in production from the San Joaquin delta to the Salinas area.

In 1920 the largest single planting of strawberries west of the Mississippi, covering 100 acres, bordered Gabilan Creek near Salinas.  However, the acreage remained relatively low until 1950, when there were about 500 acres of strawberries.  During the next decade, acreage rose steadily to a high of 6,800 acres in 1957.  Low prices in 1958 triggered a downward trend, a trend accelerated after 1964 by instabilities in the labor scene.  Although acreage has declined drastically, production had remained high because of increased yields attributable to improved technology and to intensive care by operators of small holdings.

Castroville produced more than 90 percent of the nation’s artichokes.  In recent years some bottom land in the lower Carmel Valley has changed from artichoke production to urban uses.  Other more rolling land nearer Castroville has shifted from pasture to artichokes.

Dry beans, tomatoes, dry onions, and grapes are some crops which more or less center in the King City area.  The census for 1900 reported 466 acres of beans in Monterey County, mainly small white beans grown without irrigation in the King City area.  Bean acreage expanded to more than 55,000 acres in 1937, but after World War II it declined.  During the 1950’s some sprinkler irrigation was used and bean acreage shifted from some of the lower lands, which went into vegetables, to areas which formerly had been dryfarmed for grain.  A more general decline in bean plantings began in about 1960, and considerable acreage has shifted in recent years to grapes.

Decline in tomato acreage is attributed in part to quotas set by processors.  In recent years more tomatoes have been produced on fewer acres.  Plantings have declined from 8.500 acres in 1961 to less than 5,000 acres in 1971 and 1972.

In 1972 there were about 14,000 acres planted to grapes, of which 2,500 acres were of bearing age.  Another 14,0000 acres were scheduled for planting in 1973.  Most of this acreage is in the Salinas Valley from south of Chualar to San Ardo.  The soils planted to grapes generally are sloping rather than nearly level.

The most important industry in Monterey County is food processing.  Large quantities of vegetables are processed and frozen for shipment throughout the United States.  There are also several canning industries in the area.  There is a large sugar beet refinery at Spreckels.  The wine industry is growing rapidly.  Industries allied with food processing include container manufacturing, waxed paper, string, chemicals, and commercial ice.  Many companies sell and service farm machinery.  There are livestock sales yards and meat packing plants in the area.

NOTE: currently, there are no canning, tomato processing, or sugar beet processing facilities in operation in Monterey County.  There are also no confined cattle operations, livestock auction yards, or meat packing plants remianing in operation.

The Founding of the City of Salinas

From a Vigorous Beginning … to a Metropolitan Area

Excerpts from the California Rodeo Salinas Souvenir Program 1961

The story is brief but its repercussions are formidable.  A lone man making his way southward on the trail of the Padres and the Dons of history, quite by accident, established the City of Salinas … right in the heart of an agricultural and economic Eden.

Little did the self-styled “Deacon” Elias Howe consider this as he trudged the high road in 1856.  He was bent on reaching Natividad, a flourishing stage depot of six years.  Instead, a breakdown of his wagon, heavily laden with construction material, induced him to choose the north-south-east-west “Caminos” crossroads for his tavern site.  He dubbed it the Half Way House and {later became} the location of the Caminos Hotel.

Howe was not the first man to own this land.  He bough a portion of the Rancho Sausal land from Jacob Leese.  Later is passed into the hands of Alberto Trescony, then on to A. Riker, and finally to Carlisle Abbott who later build his Abbott House there.

Those and other familiar names are closely linked with Salinas history.  Eugene Sherwood, barrister and rancher, who gave the City of Salinas its municipal park, rodeo grounds, and sites for schools and churches, was one.  For this he is known in Salinas history as its “Father.”  There were Laceys and Hughes, Harveys and McCollums, Stones (W.H. Stone deeded Central Park to Salinas before the turn of the {Nineteenth} century) … and many, many more.

This was Salinas of 1872 … 700 residents, 3,123 acres … ambitious and alive!  It was ready to grow.   And grow it did!

The name “Salinas,” meaning salt marshes or beds, probably was derived from that given the river where those abounded.  It has been the city’s only name, and its records go back to 1857.  California Registers of 1857 and 1859 list it as a post office.

Upon chartering as a city on March 4, 1874, Isaac Julian Harvey became the first mayor of Salinas.  It was 59 years later before there were any additional annexations … the 1933 addition of Romie Lane territory.  The year 1868 was an important one for the infant city … the Southern Pacific Railroad located in Salinas.  There was a narrow gauge railroad that steamed through the valley as early as 1864, but the Southern Pacific Railroad proved to be more of a boon and success than the narrow gauge developed earlier by David Jacks and Carlisle Abbott.  The county seat was moved {to Salinas} from Monterey in 1872.

Salinas is situated on U.S. 101 Highway at the north portion of the 110 mile long rich and productive Salinas Valley of Monterey County.  It has developed into the agricultural, commercial, and industrial hub of California’s central coast section.  {Past} industries such as the Nestle Company, the J.M. Smucker Co., Streaters Store Fixtures and others rapidly discovered the friendly business climate making the area ideal for industrial expansion.

Historial Trivia

As published in the Watsoville Pajoronian in March 1868, “At the present time Salinas contains one store, one blacksmith shop, one stable, two dwelling houses, one hotel, … and one town drunk, plus one hay stack.”

Railroad bridges over the Salinas River (connecting Monterey to Salinas) were washed out by flooding in 1875, 1876, and 1880 before the line was shut down in 1900.

The first telephone “to be operated” in Salinas took place on June 3, 1878.  That same week there were a reported 25 saloons in Salinas.

Per the Salinas Daily Index a few days after the 1906 earthquake that damaged the City Hall building bulit in the 1870s, “We recommend that the whole of said building be condemned as unsafe and unfit for use and that the council order the remaining portions be taken down.”

The first Salinas Rodeo in 1911 was advertised as a Wild West Show; it ran an entire week and, thus, was called “Big Week” by many locals.

The Salinas Brewery achieved a capacity of 25,000 barrels annually in 1915; their most famous and celebrated brew was labeled “Scholss Brau” with distribution from Santa Barbara to San Mateo.

In 1925, it was reported that the Spreckels Sugar Company was probably the “foremost irrigator” and has developed the largest quantity of water in the Salinas Valley, pumping over 130 million gallons per day, more than the entire city of San Francisco used at the time.