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  • Ellen Gorelick

Tulare Lake

When the Yokuts Indian Nation Inhabited the great San Joaquin Valley, scholars purported Tulare Lake to be the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. The lake lay within the borders of what used to be a much larger Tulare County. Its waters once lapped at the edge of Buzzard's Roost, now known as the town of Waukena. In 1868, the lake covered almost 1,000 square miles. The rush-choked lake provided an abundance of waterfowl, fish, clams, mussels, oysters, and Terrapin for the Yokuts living around the lake from prehistoric times. Adept with bow and arrow, the Yokuts also hunted deer, elk, and antelope along the lakes rambling shoreline.

In 1773, Commandant Tagus, an Emissary for the Spanish Governor and the first white man to view the lake, named it "Los Tules." In 1825, the lake became public knowledge when the legendary Jedediah Smith led the first band of white settlers into the San Joaquin Valley. The group found the lake more than 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. In flood season, it has measured as much as 75 miles in length.

In addition to hunting, Visalia Attorney A.J. Atwell started the first white man's industry in the lake. Atwell raised hogs on Atwell's Island, now Alpaugh, in the lake's far southern portion. Atwell built the first boar of any consequence on the lake in 1875 and called the schooner "Mose Andross." It carried cattle and hogs between Atwell's Landing on the northeast shore, Gordon's Point on the west side, and Root Island or Atwell's Island at the lake's southern end. In 1876 the Andross was re-equipped as a side-wheel steamboat.

The "Water Witch" was perhaps the best-known boat on the lake. She was thirty-two feet long and originally called "The Alcatraz" because she served as a dispatch boat between Alcatraz Island and the City of San Francisco. She began as a split sail rigged, 14-oar ship but converted later to a fore-and-aft schooner. The Water Witch proved to be highly successful in extracting Terrapin from the lake, and it sent as many as 300 dozen of the prized turtle to San Francisco for soups and stews within a single season. The Water Witch was first brought to the lake by a man known as "Eating" Smith. Smith had initially planned to gather the eggs from Gulls, Ducks, and other Wild Fowl for sale in San Francisco restaurants. Unfortunately, he ate everything he caught and thus devoured all possible profit.

Corporate farming launched an all-out effort to tame the lake by clearing its fertile bed of water, and fortunes have been made and lost in a never-ending gamble with flood and drought. In 1938 and 1955, the lake flooded, and with the construction of Terminus and Success Dams on the Kaweah and Tule Rivers in Tulare County and Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River in Fresno County, the farmers finally gained the upper hand. However, in 1969 and 1983, the Great Tulare Lake was, once again, in its prime.

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