This article was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, by Tim Stanley.
Before the coming of the Americans, an early Californio would never have thought that the Santa Clara Valley could be referred to as “The Garden of the World.” Rainfall in most of the Valley is less than twenty inches per year, and it usually only occurs between October and April. The best of the streams are seasonal, and for half the year the place is naturally quite dry. It was just cattle country—on the surface.
But there was water, plenty of good, sweet water deep underground. When the Americans came, they began drilling wells. It is not that the Californios did not dig wells; they did. But the Americans, with the help of modern drilling equipment, went deeper and were handsomely rewarded for doing so.
It is one thing to capture groundwater by digging a shallow well a little deeper than the water table, the depth at which the soil is saturated. It is quite another thing to drill into a deep aquifer, a gravely underground reservoir. Groundwater is quite limited in most places in California due to the lack of rainfall during much of the year. In addition, it usually contains a high concentration of organic matter that negatively affects its taste. Deep well water is entirely another matter. It is filtered far better and tends to be sweet, and if the aquifer is large, it is plentiful.
It turned out that water could be found just about anywhere under the Valley floor and surrounding hills. There was so much water that when the first deep wells were dug, there was often sufficient pressure to bring artesian water to the surface. When this abundance of water was discovered, it changed everything. The possibilities for farming in the Santa Clara Valley became nearly unlimited.
In 1854, very shortly after this great discovery, a man named Daniel Halladay patented and began building American style wind pumps, or windmills. Halladay’s design differed from previous wind machines in that it automatically changed direction to face the wind and automatically controlled speed—huge improvements that changed farming the world over.
In a very short time, the Santa Clara Valley was dotted with the tank houses and wind pumps that many of us remember. The Valley, with its incredibly fertile soil and abundant water, would eventually produce an enormous volume and variety of foods and became known as “The Garden of the World.”
Before the Santa Clara Valley was to receive that designation, however, it was know for its wheat farms. These farms could never have existed without Mr. Halladay’s wind pumps.
I’ll tell you about the wheat operations next time, and at a later date I will tell you about the further technological developments through which the Valley became known as The Garden of the World.
Here, while discussing water and water development, it is appropriate for me to mention that there can be a subtle down-side to irrigation.
Irrigation can give a false sense of security. Earlier in this article, I stated that with the discovery of abundant underground water the farming possibilities in the Santa Clara Valley became nearly unlimited. Nearly. But not unlimited. As the farming industry exploded in the Valley, eventually more water was being taken out of the aquifer than could possibly be replenished. Naturally, the water table dropped. So more irrigation was needed. With excessive pumping, the aquifer began to collapse and when that happens, even if abundant rain comes, it can no longer hold the water it once did. So the land settled, and in some places, such as Alviso, the Valley has settled more than ten feet since the beginning of the American era.
The along Los Gatos Creek and elsewhere in the Valley are later efforts to recharge the precious aquifer that remains.