Fresno: History

Settlement of Fresno Delayed Until Arrival of Railroad

Fresno means "ash tree" in Spanish, and it was the name given by early Spanish explorers to a stretch of white ash trees along the banks of the San Joaquin River. These explorers did not settle the region where Fresno is now located, however, because they considered it uninhabitable. The site was in fact to remain undeveloped until the late nineteenth century. In the early part of the century, potential settlers were discouraged from staying permanently by the presence of the native population. Unlike other California cities, Fresno did not get its start during the gold rush, for prospectors simply passed through the area on the way to the Sierras. After the gold rush the land was used for cattle grazing.

The first permanent settlement is said to have been established in the 1860s by an immigrant from Holland who was joined by a few other people; but the cluster of dwellings was not actually considered a town. In 1872 the Central Pacific Railroad was constructed through the San Joaquin Valley; the railroad builders laid out a town, calling it Fresno Station for the name of the county, which had been taken from the grove of trees along river. A station was built on the present site of downtown Fresno.

The county seat at that time was Millerton, a town 25 miles to the south. In order to gain access to rail transportation, Millerton residents voted to transfer the seat to Fresno Station and the entire population moved. The town was rough and desolate, the countryside barren. The introduction of irrigation and grape-growing in the valley brought prosperity, however; Fresno was incorporated as a city in 1885. Soon vineyards were being planted by local inhabitants as well as Italian, French, and Swiss immigrants who had bought 20-acre parcels of land.

Development of Raisin and Fig Industries

When the dry white wine produced from the area's vineyards proved less than satisfactory, the grapes were cultivated for raisins, which were naturally produced by the continuous sunlight in the valley. Following an unusually large yield of more than one million pounds of raisins that drove the price down to two cents a pound in 1894, the Raisin Growers Association was organized in 1898 to protect the raisin industry. In 1886, Frank Roeding and his son began growing figs in the area; having experimented with caprification, the cross-fertilization of the Smyrna fig by the fig wasp, they started another successful industry.

By 1900 the population of Fresno had reached 12,470 people, and the city drafted its first charter. During the following decade agriculture continued to flourish, with cotton growing and sweet wine production emerging as new industries. Fresno became the residential and commercial center of an increasingly prosperous region. With the expansion of manufacturing along with agriculture, Fresno was by the end of World War II a major metropolitan area. Today Fresno County is the nation's leading agricultural county, producing more than three billion dollars' worth of crops each year; crops now include nuts, melons, grains, rice, and vegetables. The city of Fresno has become the center of trade, commerce, finance, and transportation for the San Joaquin Valley.

Historical Information: California History & Genealogy Room, Fresno County Library, 2420 Mariposa, Fresno, CA 93721; telephone (559)488-3195