To celebrate Kern County’s 150th birthday, The Californian has been serializing history pieces. Today we republish a 1966 Californian profile of Col. Thomas Baker, founder of Bakersfield.
When Capt. Elisha Stevens, an intrepid and resourceful frontiersman who settled on the lower reaches of the Kern River after an eventful career of exploration, awoke one morning in 1862, he found he had new neighbors.
A tall man of soldierly hearing and distinguished manner, and his family, had arrived apparently to establish a home on adjacent land. Since Stevens was not a man to relish neighbors, he doubtless experienced some misgivings, but they were soon assuaged by the friendliness and worth of his neighbors. He gave the family some chickens and formed a fast friendship with the youngest boy.
The new neighbors were worth knowing.
They were Col. Thomas Baker, a former member of both the Iowa and California legislatures, a scion of a distinguished English family, his wife and two sons.
Baker, after a notable career as civic leader and legislator, had come to the land in which he would make and lose a fortune, engage in momentous enterprises and endow with his name and accomplishments a lasting memorial.
HIS EARLY BEGINNINGS
Baker was born in Zanesville, Ohio, Nov. 10, 1810. His boyhood was spent in the usual pursuits of small town youth but with a strong intellect and sense of responsibility, he turned at an early age to the study of law and surveying.
At just 19 he was appointed colonel in the Ohio militia. He returned to the study of law following his military service and was admitted to the bar in Ohio.
In 1830 he migrated to Illinois and a few years later to Iowa, where he was appointed clerk of the district court at Washington, Iowa. He was elected to the territorial legislature twice and was the first U.S. attorney in the territory, resigning when elected to the first Iowa state legislature, serving as president of the state senate.
Gold had been discovered in California in 1848 and the great westward migration was underway. Cities and towns, farms and hamlets, all contributed hundreds of fortune seekers and adventure cravers and just plain restless souls to the trek to California.
The gold fever skipped few places in the east and midwest, and Baker fell under the spell. He came overland in an arduous journey and arrived in Benicia in the fall of 1850.
After a fling at gold hunting in the mines near Sonora, Baker concluded his talents lay in other directions and he moved to Tulare County in 1852, where he helped found Visalia and was later elected to the state Assembly. At the same time, he served under an appointment from President James Buchanan as receiver for the U.S. Land Office at Visalia.
In 1861 he was elected state senator representing Tulare and Fresno counties.
COMING TO KERN
Visalia at that time was a hotbed of secessionists and anyone living there, especially anyone of any prominence, came under suspicion of not being completely in accord with Union principles. Baker was accused of disloyalty to the Union and arrested, but after successfully protesting his devotion to the United States was released and saw the charges dropped.
In the meantime, gold had been discovered at a place later known as Keyesville, and the Kern River gold rush was on. Quartzburg, Whiskey Flat and Kernville drew throngs of miners and their associates.
Havilah became the capital of the new County of Kern, and on the lower reaches of the Kern River, cattle raising had become extensive, the sheep industry was becoming established and agriculture was becoming a stable venture.
Settlers were coming to the place known as Kern Island, and a town was springing up as both a marketplace and a supply center. It was to Kern Island in 1863 that Baker moved his young wife, Ellen M. Whalen, whom he had married in 1857, and his children, daughters May and Nellie and son Thomas.
Here he began the hospitality that gave statewide renown to the place travelers came to know as “Baker’s Field.” The rising town took this name and a post office was established in 1869.
Baker had purchased his land from Christian Bohna, who had taken up 160 acres of land, most of which is now the center of the city of Bakersfield.
He installed his family in the log cabin constructed by Bohna and set forth on his plans for reclaiming the swamp lands of the lower Kern River, the possibilities of which he had investigated in the previous year.
RECLAIMING A SWAMP
In 1857, the legislature had given to W. F. Montgomery, Joseph Montgomery, A. J. Downer, F. W. Simpson and their associates the authority to reclamation of all swamp and overflow lands in the valley between the San Joaquin River and Kern Lake, excepting those that belonged to the federal government.
The grant also carried the authority to construct and operate three canals, and to hold all the odd sections of land along the right-of-way of the canals, together with certain other sections to be designated by the state.
Baker, deeply interested in such a project, associated himself with it and after W.F. Montgomery failed to raise sufficient capital to make progress, he sold for $10,000 a half share of the project to Baker and Harvey S. Brown.
Baker had taken up 30,000 acres of the Montgomery grant, with Brown. Settling on the Bohna place, he began the giant task of reclaiming the 400,000 acres included in the area designated by the legislature.
Undaunted by the lack of capital, which had defeated Montgomery, and the vagaries of the Kern River, he proceeded to accomplish remarkable works of reclamation. These, and the timeliness appearance of the worst drought in the century, enabled him to make such progress that Gov. Frank Low signed the patent that conveyed to Baker 87,120 acres of land in Kern and Fresno counties.
When the new County of Kern was organized in 1866, Baker was named county surveyor. In the same year, he began to survey the site of the City of Bakersfield. He retained only 80 acres of the land upon which the city would be established, deeding the remainder to the city.
Baker realized that the new city would grow and laid out the streets with wide proportions, which accounts for the spacious thoroughfares that have endured from that day. However, the city’s planner was too cognizant of the value of land and unimpressed by the prestige of the Southern Pacific Railroad to accede to the railroad’s demand that a strip of land two blocks wide on both sides of its right-of-way be donated as a price to have the city become host to the railroad.
He led the city’s opponents to such a gift, and the controversy continued for seven years. The Southern Pacific at last did bypass the city and built its station at Sumner, which later became east Bakersfield. Baker did not live to see the railroad arrive.
ONE FAILURE, OTHER SUCCESSES
But he did witness the great flood of 1867, and as an enterprising man, sought to turn the derelict trees that lay bountifully near, brought down by the flood waters. However, the rocks embedded in the logs ruined his saws and the venture failed.
Two other projects of his, however, flourished. He had received as a gift from Gen. E.F. Beale of Tejon Ranch a set of mill burrs that had been used on the ranch. Baker established a grist mill for his grinding of wheat and corn, but was so generous he didn’t charge local farmers for the grinding of their grain.
Baker’s other successful project was the construction and operation of a toll road between Bakersfield and Havilah, known as “Baker Grade.” The road led eastward from Bakersfield to the mouth of Caliente Creek, then climbed to Walker’s Basin and to Havilah.
This is said to be the only enterprise of Baker’s here that was in any way directly profitable for him, but there is evidence that he realized a fair income from the real estate business he established in Bakersfield in April 1869.
Baker re-entered politics in that year as an independent state senate candidate for the district that included Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties. He did not win; his defeat may be attributed to the apathy of Kern County voters, who failed to turn out to the polls in as large a force as they had in previous elections.
He then turned his attention to the affairs of the city that bore his name and remained a strong force in its progress until his death in 1872 in an epidemic of typhoid fever that swept the county.
A summary of his career that aptly stresses his great contributions to the county and city he helped to found is contained in a biography of Baker written by Naomi Bain:
“In less than 10 years, he had risen from a poor man with only foresight, ambition and energy as his capital. He had accomplished the impossible: reclaiming a swamp wasteland and making of it a fertile valley.
“He had for this been rewarded by the state with a grant of 87,120 acres of land, which had sold and given to many new settlers in need of homes and farmland. Much of his own profit from this he had spent to feed the hungry and house the homeless and weary.
“He had worked and fought tirelessly to make his land a city, and he had won his objective in less than 10 years... In 10 years a single man had discovered the possibilities of a vast wasteland; he had made it into a prosperous farming country and aided settlers to establish themselves, and had planned a city with modern proportions.
“It is significant to note Baker’s foresight and ingenuity, his kind-heartedness and honesty, which were the important factors in the personality of the man. It must be remembered that Baker’s original plans for the city were much as the existing order of things.”