Modesto 1870-Railroad Boomtown!

At this point, we may never know why the Central Pacific Railroad chose the site they did for Modesto. Perhaps it was enough incentive that part of the townsite included land it correctly thought it would acquire through two federal railroad land grants (1). About October 10, 1870, the railroad’s agent, the Contract and Finance Company, purchased 400 acres (2) in the area: 80 acres from Archibald Maze, 160 acres from John Atherton, and 160 acres from Solomon Albaugh. However, the map they filed with the county of the first townsite on May 3, 1871, was much smaller, about 230 acres. It covered the area from 5th to 14th street and from F to L street and was about half from the land grants and half from parts of the properties purchased from Maze, Atherton, and Albaugh.

If you had read newspapers from mid-October to mid-November 1870, you would have been confused about the name of the town. Some called it Ralston, some called it Modesto, some called it both. All sources agree that the town was originally named Ralston in honor of William Ralston, co-founder of the Bank of California and the man who arranged financing for the San Joaquin Valley Railroad. All sources agree that Ralston refused the honor. Some newspapers reported the change was made to acknowledge what was thought to be Ralston’s modesty. Other newspapers berated Ralston and the railroad owners, mocking their appeal to modesty in naming the town (3). Ralston had allowed Ralston, New Mexico to be named for him earlier in 1870. There is a bigger story here waiting to be researched and told.

Confusion over the name did not delay the development of the town. Even before the line was completed to Modesto, residents of Tuolumne City and Paradise had arranged to have their houses and commercial buildings moved to the new town (4).  Many hired Hiram Fisher of Stockton to do the job. (5) According to the Tuolumne City News, the first building, a hotel kitchen (6), made the journey on October 29th. Over the next month, dozens of buildings were moved to Modesto and by mid-December the boom town had more than 75 buildings (7). Regular railroad passenger service began on November 8th (8). The Tuolumne City News moved to Modesto and became the Stanislaus County Weekly News with the first issue dated December 2, 1870.


The Stanislaus County Weekly News reported on December 16th, “The depot buildings of the R.R. Company, now nearly completed, are larger and more commodious than any outside of San Francisco and Sacramento, which shows that a heavy business is anticipated at this place”(9). The post office was opened by December 23rd (10). By the end of 1870, there was a hotel, markets, saloons, stables, a restaurant, and more opened everyday. Modesto was booming.

The photo shows the original 1870 depot on the left at 9th and I Street. It burned in 1884.

1. The Central Pacific Railroad received the land grants promised to the Western Pacific Railroad after it acquired the Western Pacific on June 23, 1870. The selections of federal land by the railroads were made before the grants were official. Land grants of 1871 and 1872.
2. Tuolumne City News, October 14, 1870, page 2
3. “We are informed that the new railroad town near the crossing of the Tuolumne river is to be called Modesto. It is safe to assert that the Central Pacific Company, in naming the town have made the nearest approach to “modesty” of which they are capable.” Stockton Independent, Volume 19, Number 74, October 25, 1870. In reference to Ashmore being named for Nelson Ashmore, “Ralston declined the honor of having his name affixed to what is now Modesto. We are happy to know that Colonel Nelson Ashmore has no such weakness.” Stanislaus County Weekly News, January 20, 1871, page 1.
4. Sacramento Daily Union, September 29, 1870, Volume 40, Number 6082
5. Stockton Daily Evening Herald, December 1, 1870 page 3
6. Tuolumne City News, November 4, 1870, page 2
7. Pacific Coast Brevities, San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1870, page 4
8. B. F. Tuttle, Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Transportation for the Years Ending December 31, 1877 and 1878, (Sacramento, State Printing, 1879), page 75. Accessed 29 January 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=RAZFAQAAMAAJ  )
9. Stanislaus County Weekly News, 16 December 1870, page 2
10. Stanislaus County Weekly News, December 23, 1870, page 2