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Sunday, February 27, 2000

Solano’s past heavily influenced by water, its uses

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Nearly half of Solano County is bordered by water and it is not surprising that water travel played an important part in the early years of the settlement.

Marshland reached further inland than today, so that the first land trails ran along the hillsides through Green Valley and Rancho Solano before descending into Lagoon Valley.

Willis Linn Jepson remembers in his diary, “The old stage-line came across the plains from Sacramento thru Silveyville to the foot of Bennett’s Hill, where Bennett’s was a Stage Station. Thence over the hill to Vacaville, fording the Ulatis, then across the valley, fording Alamo Creek, thru Laguna Pass into Lagoon Valley, then probably thru the low pass towards Suisun, the Embarcadero, thence by boat to San Francisco, or to Vallejo and by boat. Farmers regularly drove to Vallejo, left their teams and took boat to San Francisco.”

While personal travel by horse, wagon or stagecoach was common, farmers needed larger vessels to transport crops such as hay and wheat. Inland ports along the sloughs and narrow channels such as Maine Prairie, Nurse’s Landing (Denverton), Birds Landing, Cordelia and Suisun City were founded to make transportation both cheap and accessible.

In 1851 Capt. Josiah Wing discovered an island in the marsh off a slough that emptied into Suisun Bay and founded Suisun City on it. The location of the new port was about five miles closer to the farms of the Lagoon and Vaca valleys and quickly overshadowed the other port, Cordelia. In 1852, warehouses and a wharf were built, and by 1854, the streets of Suisun City had been laid out. For the next 15 years, until the advent of the railroad, Suisun City played a major role in the county’s economy.

Willis Linn Jepson recalled childhood trips from his home on the Little Oak Ranch. “It was a great event when we went to Suisun. The place had a metropolitan air and we children liked it. It took 2 1/2 or three hours to go and as many to return - unless for some reason we “hurried.” We knew all the ranches as far as the crossing of the railroad (later Vanden) - but beyond that were mostly small shacks set in the dreary dusty plain without trees, vineyard or orchard - hopelessly bare and lonely - we cared not who lived in such forlorn spots.”

These trips remained a special event, not to be undertaken lightly. “We always went on a journey on holidays - to Dixon, Winters or Suisun - for Fourth-of-July, for May Day. It was a great day. We made preparations for days beforehand. On the day we were a-bustle early. The chores were hurried through and we had a good breakfast. The horses were put in the carriage and we started. It was a really slow journey but I never tired of it. Toward Dixon in particular there was the great plain to look at. I never tired wondering at its immensity.”

Jepson was a keen observer even as a child, noting trees, plants, changes in the geography and anything else that struck his fancy on those journeys. One of the ever-present objects he became fascinated with was the so-called slap-jack.

“The slap-jack was the only mill for lifting water in early days. They were cheaply and easily made and very effective. ... That country out toward Main(e) Prairie was full of slap-jacks. ... The present day sheep-fortunes owed their beginning to the slap-jack. ... The wind blew, the slap-jack creaked; the thirsty sheep were watered in the long narrow troughs which were laid end to end. When the wind was steady, the troughs soon overflowed and the water ran over the field, forming shallow shingles of water on the dusty level. There was no more characteristic sight than this. ...

“If it were still weather, the slap-jack pumped no water. Moreover, it took considerable wind to turn a slap-jack, unlike the modern steel mill which makes more than one revolution of the fan to one stroke of the pump. During these quiet weeks we had to pump water for the stock by hand; my little sisters did it until their arms ached, before I grew old enough to move a pump handle. So each day we eagerly watched the slap-jacks out towards Canon station to see if there was wind there. If so it were sure to reach us by the afternoon.”

Years later, he wrote from Berkeley to a good friend, Julia Harbison, “Six months ago I had never thought especially of the slap-jack. Talking about it with my neighbors has in the interval endowed it with much local interest. It was the nerve-center of the ranches in its day. It supplied the all-essential water and without it many ranches would not have been. As a child of 5 or 6, looking eastward over the great plain one saw slap-jacks scattered here and there with little else to break the monotony of the spreading level. ... Please give my happiest remembrances to all my family. And forget not, please, the slap-jack!”