Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
hen Visalia was young and wild, the small settlement in the heart of Four Creeks country had its share of problems — menacing floods, reckless gunplay and runaway horses — just to name a few. All gave townsfolk plenty to worry about. Those in charge did what they could to tame the town’s rambunctious spirit, but there was one headache that proved especially difficult — city streets.
As Visalia took root in the middle of a large oak forest in 1852, settlers cleared the land. The first streets were laid out in a grid pattern, forming about an eight-square-block area that today is bounded by Mineral King Avenue on the south, West Street on the west, Santa Fe Avenue on the east and Murray Avenue on the north.
Creating streets was a challenge, but maintaining them became an even more difficult one. During the dry season, they were relatively easy to keep in good repair, but municipal services were few, so most roadwork was left to civic-minded residents willing to do the work themselves. Dust was particularly difficult. As wagons and horses traveled the streets, the dirt would be pulverized into a fine powder and linger in the air. Eventually, horse-drawn water wagons were occasionally used to dampen the streets. Potholes naturally developed, and travelers did what they could to avoid them. The rainy season brought a different problem. The soft dirt turned to mud, and regular floods added to the road’s sticky condition. Pedestrians, horses and wagons would sink into the muck.
For its first 50 years or so, Visalia suffered with dirt streets. The local newspapers seemed to be the only voice sounding the alarm for road improvement. For example, in 1869, the Tulare Times newspaper pointed out that the town trustees (council) had a duty … “to grade and level the streets” and control the droves of cattle and horses that were being driven through town. A year later, the Visalia Weekly Delta published a plea for road repair at Main Street near Church Street when a huge muddy hole forced travelers to detour. “Now is a good time for our newly elected town trustees or marshal to show what they can do in the way of street improvement,” it declared and added, “the property owners … should combine and expend fifty or a hundred dollars toward hauling sand and gravel to fill up [the holes] in front of their property.”
By the early 1890s, momentum was building for more permanent solutions. Certainly, comfort and dust control were motivators for action, but an economic reason seemed to be resonating as well. Bad roads caused damage and breakage to products being hauled, and they also caused excessive wear and tear on equipment.
At the same time, Kern County was attracting attention for its oil and related biproduct discoveries. Large deposits of asphaltum, a tar-like substance, were being found. Chunks of this hardened material that oozed to the surface could be collected, heated and spread over streets. Visalia Mayor Harry Levinson and a member of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors made a visit to the oil region, and both men came back convinced that oil products should be used on city and county roads.
In 1894, five carloads of asphaltum were ordered for Main Street to be delivered to W.H. Worswick’s Visalia processing plant. Heated, it turned into a thick but spreadable viscous material. After it was applied to Main Street, the Delta reported, “Every square foot of it has been laid carefully and the Delta can say without fear of contradiction that better work has nowhere been done.” Everyone seemed pleased, especially Worswick himself. When he finished, he “jumped up on the steamroller, turned on the power, pulled the whistle and went down the street at a rapid rate with the whistle screeching.” It became his victory lap.
For the next couple of decades, Visalia streets became a testing ground for different types of road surface material. All of the treatments were expensive so often, property owners that bordered the roads were asked to contribute to the cost.
By 1903, eight blocks in the business district were paved. But complaints about the roads, especially the unpaved ones, continued. In 1907, the Delta complained that “outside of the few paved business blocks, the streets of Visalia are in worse condition today than they were twenty years ago … and yet thousands of dollars have been spent on them.”
The following year, the trustees approved a plan to oil the remaining city streets rather than sprinkle them with water. In order to pay the expense, the council stopped all other street work and laid off the entire road maintenance staff.
But sprinkling oil on the streets was not the same as paving them, so the long-term intention of the council was to pave more streets. In 1919, as they laid out the plan, a group of property owners complained that their paving idea was too expensive and that they could not “handle the additional expenses.” By waiting, they argued, the costs associated with doing the work would come down. But the Visalia Board of Trade disagreed. In 1922, they kept the pressure on the council and pushed for 100 blocks to be paved before the end of the year. They argued that “nothing bespeaks the public spirit of a community better than a well-defined program of paved streets and sidewalks.”
After several citizen protests and at least one legal injunction to stop more paving, Visalia Mayor Joseph Barboni made his feelings crystal clear. “We are throwing away $15,000 a year, raised by taxation, to oil and grade dirt streets,” the mayor declared, “and at the end of ten years will have thus spent $150,000 and having nothing better than that with which we started. Protesting is too much a habit in Visalia.”
In 1923, Visalia had only 7.95 miles of paved streets, while the little town of Lindsay had 11 and Dinuba had 15. Exactly when pavement was applied to the last dirt street in Visalia has been lost to time. But it seems clear that the town was not at the vanguard of the movement for improved city streets.
Looking north on Church Street from Acequia Avenue, a road crew uses picks and shovels to take up defective asphaltum. Circa 1915 (Courtesy Guy Shelley)
Shown here is a water wagon filling its tank from a raised hydrant on Main Street near Bridge Street. Notice the Tulare County Courthouse cupola in the background. Circa 1890
This view shows a street oiler in operation. Note the spray heads at the back of the wagon near the ground. Circa 1902
This oil wagon, on Oak Street looking west from Church Street, is shown next to a Visalia Electric Railroad car. The Tulare County Courthouse is on the left. Circa 1907 (Courtesy Peter Neeley)