Published in The Vacaville Reporter

Vacaville goes from a rural township to a city

July 5, 2021

Broken wooden sidewalks, dusty or mud-filled streets which were described as dangerous and unsightly, and fires that repeatedly burned much of Vacaville in 1877, 1888 and 1890 plagued the township of Vacaville before the turn of the last century.

Vacaville goes from a rural township to a city Read More

But fixing sidewalks, improving streets and building an effective fire department cost money that unincorporated Vacaville, with its total 1890 population of 725 souls, did not have.

It spurred city residents in the late 1880s to finally consider incorporation to turn Vacaville from a rural township to a city in order to create a central government that could raise tax revenues.

Petitions started circulating in the late 1880s.

A late 1889 meeting attracted advocates who wanted to organize to fight fires, build sewers, pave streets and sidewalks, abate nuisances, erect public buildings and establish a school system.

Taken in 1885: Bob Cernon (left, blacksmith) and Joe Stadfelt (right, constable) on a muddy street caused by rains after the install of a main water line down. The building directly behind Stadfelt was the “Central Hotel,” that was located on the corner of Main and Bernard Streets.Courtesy Photo, Vacaville Heritage Council

A fear of increased property taxes spurred business leaders such as W. J. Dobbins and orchardists such as state Senator William Parker, to fight vigorously against the first efforts to incorporate.

“All this would all be done at public expense, noted the wealthier landlords who would have to bear the major tax burden,” wrote historians Ronald Limbaugh and Walter Payne in a 1977 history of Vacaville.

While the Vacaville Reporter came out supporting raising funds for a water works in town, it was not as initially supportive of incorporation.

“Vacaville would strut for short time in peacock’s feathers,” an August 1889 Vacaville Reporter article stated. “We would be handicapped with a lot of red tape. Our taxpayers would not realize a cent’s worth from their taxes and the consequences would be that more harm than good would be done. Give us a water works if you will, but excuse us from the shame of incorporation.”

Incorporation promoters and reformers didn’t help matters by demanding items such as laws against Chinese wash houses and cruelty to animals, adding a reading room and picket fence to the town’s school.

A letter published at the time argued that Suisun City’s 1883 incorporation cost its residents $16,000 “with almost nothing in return.”

It seems the Reporter came around to the need for incorporation. In a Sept. 18, 1890, article, the Reporter came out in favor saying “Vacaville has been stunted ever since it was christened ‘cowtown.’ Now let us break down the corral fence and take steps of a permanent nature which shall rebound to the credit of the future city of Vacaville.”

A modified version of the incorporation proposal was brought to the voters in town in January 1891 and passed with 79 votes while the opponents could muster only 56.

Opponents contended that the election was illegal and the Reporter fired back saying those accusations “were preposterous.”

The victory didn’t last long. The County Board of Supervisors threw out the election returns citing numerous errors and ballot irregularities.

Some of the opponents then immediately started a campaign to incorporate the entire township, not just the town itself. The idea was that it would spread out the tax burden.

“The township advocates did more to confuse the issue than resolve it,” Limbaugh and Payne wrote. “perhaps it was a deliberate red herring as their detractors charged.”

In a Jan. 29, 1891 article, the Reporter opposed the township idea saying “we fail to see where the legitimate benefits to the town come in.”

What was needed, the Reporter continued, was a central power to enforce police and sanitary measures.

The Reporter stated it was needed to improve streets “to compel the improvement of streets and sidewalks that Messers Idleness, Slack and Don’t Care may be compelled to do such things which are necessary to their own and their neighbor’s welfare.”

A March town meeting held by supporters of incorporation did a nose count which showed that most of the north side of town was opposed, so supporters redrew their proposal to exclude them.

When the county supervisors reheard the issue in April 1891, they faced a room that held as many opponents as supporters. They delayed their vote twice and then voted to re-submit the proposal to Vacaville’s residents, but failed to order an election.

“Verily, Vacaville is in a bad way as it seems destined for an infinite time to linger on the ragged edge,” The Reporter started.

One year later, at about 3 a.m. on April 19, 1892, Vacaville was hit by its largest earthquake. No one was killed, but the property damage was estimated at more than $100,000, a large amount at that time.

“The largest earthquake ever to hit the town shook down the poles and wires; tossed the brick fronts of the buildings into the middle of Main Street; burst the redwood water pipes; shifted the Ulatis Creek bridge three feet; spouted a spring on Capt. Chinn’s ranch; started a clock that stopped three years before; collapsed chimneys all over the township; overturned, tables, lamps and other furniture; and tumbled scores of shocked citizens out of their beds,” Limbaugh and Payne wrote.

What improvements Vacaville had built were wiped out “with one mighty roar” and “now there was no turning back the incorporation bandwagon,” Limbaugh and Payne wrote.

A petition to incorporate quickly collected 97 signature and was passed to the Board of Supervisors.

The Supervisors called for an election in July. A secret ballot was used for the first time and incorporation won, 111 votes to 25. The measure also elected five trustees, treasurer, a clerk, and a marshal.

“Let him crow!,” announced The Reporter of the results, alluding to the rooster, the town’s and newspaper’s mascot.

Led by Board of Trustees President Frank H. Buck, the board drafted a licensing ordinance by September that established quarterly fees for a host of activities and occupations from $10 per quarter for banks and $2 from each pool hall to $25 from the saloons.

Main Street was paved first, with redwood sewer pipes replacing open trenches and macadam covering the dust and mud. The Reporter stated Main Street “now had the appearance of a Parisian Boulevard.”

Instead of imposing street assessments, the downtown property owners paid for putting in concrete sidewalks themselves, replacing wooden planks.

In 1895, the town disbanded its hose company and stood up the first fire department with a chief engineer and uniforms for its 25 men, according to Limbaugh and Payne. The men remained unpaid volunteers though.

Their first big test came on September 8 when a midnight fire started in the Central Hotel on Main and Bernard streets. It tore through nearly all the buildings on the north side of Main Street including the Bowles Opera House and more than 50 shanties in the town’s Chinese district.

The fire department did prove the worth of its investment by several building despite their limited amount of equipment.

By 1916, with better organization, better equipment, fire codes for better prevention, improvements in water delivery and expanded use of pressurized fire hydrants, the Vacaville Fire Department was seen as one of the most modern departments in the county.

The Vacaville Heritage Council is a community organization dedicated to preserving local history.