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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Bond Burning of 1903

The first pioneers came into the Southern San Joaquin Valley in the 1850s. Still, until the arrival of the railroad in 1872, farmers had no economically feasible means of transporting large amounts of grain, fruit, vegetables, or milk products to the markets in Southern California or the Bay Area.

Southern Pacific altered the dynamics of agriculture in the Great Central Valley. With access to state and national markets, farmers could plant hundreds of acres of fruit and thousands of acres of wheat – the only limiting factor was the availability of life-giving water.

Diverting water from the creeks and rivers flowing from the Sierras' melting snow irrigated some farmland. Unfortunately, these streams tended to dry up during the height of the growing season. People began to drill wells starting in 1880 to tap into the aquifer under the Valley floor.

But for the Valley to live up to its agricultural potential, a reliable source of water was essential. In 1889, a 477 to 7 vote by the men in the district approved the formation of the Tulare Irrigation District (TID). (Women did not gain the right to vote on state and local questions until 1911.)

On June 7, 1890, the same voters approved the issuance of $500,000 in bonds by a vote of 348 to 50 and formulated plans to build a water storage and delivery system.

Almost from the beginning, the grand plan ran into trouble. Businessman Joe Goldman stepped forward to invest $50,000, but then sales lagged. In 1891, Southern Pacific moved its shops to Bakersfield, taking the $40,000 monthly payroll. The financial panic of 1893 hit Tulare as hard as the rest of the country, leaving little money to buy bonds.

Unable to sell the bonds, the district traded many of them for construction work and the purchase of water rights. This strategy proved disastrous as it raised no money, but with interest payments due, it did incur more debt.

They completed fifteen miles of the central canal on time, but many of the 40 miles of laterals were not. Worst of all, the district ran out of money before it could construct the entire system's essential part – a dam and reservoir at the canal's head.

Without the reservoir, the amount of water delivered to the thirsty farmland was inadequate. More than half the water lost to evaporation and seepage before it reached Tulare.

The troubled district defaulted on a $30,000 interest payment, thus adding to the burden. By 1902 the debt had risen to $663,000. A committee of leading citizens appointed by the Board of Trade (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) contacted all 130 bondholders and persuaded them to accept 50% of their investment's face value. Meanwhile, many Tulareans had given up and left town, some even taking their houses with them to neighboring communities.

The city taxed the desperate people of Tulare a staggering 36¢ on every dollar of assessed valuation in an attempt to raise nearly $300,000. Then they raised an additional $4,000 to stage the biggest party in Tulare’s history.

The celebration began early on October 17, 1903, with an anvil salute – hammers pounding on 20 anvils. An estimated 10,000 people, including Governor Pardee, joined the festivities. The parade got underway at 9:a.m. with distinguished guests riding in carriages at the head of the procession.

The featured float in the parade carried the redeemed bonds and a large wire basket designed to hold them and was guarded by a state militia contingent.

The parade ended at the city park (now Zumwalt Park), where residents filed past the float, picked up a bond or two, crumpled them in their fists, and tossed them into the basket. When the governor held a torch to the basket, the crowd cheered, and the long nightmare was over.

Then there was the barbecue. Before the celebration was over, the crowd had consumed 16 steers, 12 hogs, and 14 sheep, plus several thousand loaves of bread and 10 tons of grapes. Barrels of ice water stood on every downtown street corner, and they offered free lemonade in Linder Park.

The organizing committee had scheduled horse racing, foot races, and athletic events on downtown dirt streets. Firecrackers and small bombs exploded continuously.

The revelry continued into the night, with dancing in the Pavilion. Front Street saloons did a brisk business, and it was there that a tragedy marred the joyful celebration. In attempting to break up a disturbance, someone shot City Marshall George Martin to death.

TID finally had an abundance of water when they completed the Friant-Kern Canal (part of the Central Valley Project) in 1949. This statewide project developed from a meeting held in Hotel Tulare in the 1930s. They did not construct the dams on the Tule and Kaweah rivers until 1960.

On Saturday, Oct. 18, 2003, the City of Tulare and TID collaborated to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the “Burning of the Bonds.” The event featured a steak dinner, entertainment, and a burning basket of the original bonds' replicas.

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