February 26, 2010

Then: A view down Visalia\'s dusty Main Street in 1863. This is believed to be one of the earliest known photos of the Tulare County seat. The crossstreet in foreground is Court Street, with the townÂ’s water pump seen at center right.

The distinction of the oldest Valley city between Los Angeles and the small Mother Lode town of French Camp, near Stockton, belongs to Visalia.

In 1852, a hardy group of settlers led by Nathaniel Vise established a community where Visalia is today.

One of the first things they did was build a stockade for protection against Indian attacks Two years earlier, a 49er trader named John Wood arrived with about 14 settlers in an area known as Four Creeks, about seven miles east of present-day Visalia. After being warned by local Indians to leave the area, Wood and 11 men were ambushed and slain.

However, no threat to Vise and his party materialized. During the winter, a church and school were organized. Soon, a store, a mill, a two-story jail and a school were built.

Vise was an eccentric man who was at various times a preacher, horse trader, fur agent, and San Francisco restaurateur who served bear meat. In the Visalia area, he was a land promoter. He surveyed the new settlement, which was named Visalia in honor of his ancestral hometown of Visalia, Ky.

Visalia became the Tulare County seat in 1853. The town continued to grow, partly because of the Gold Rush. The town was an important supply point for miners traveling to sites in Kern, Inyo and Mono counties.

An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 miners passed through Visalia en route to the gold fields between 1856 and 1860. Many of them, after striking out in the mines, returned to the bustling town to farm or set up businesses.

A boon to the community was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage line, which established a timetable stop in town in 1858 (a plaque commemorating the location is at 116 East Main St.). The historic stage line provided mail and passenger service from St. Louis to San Francisco. During this time, hotels, saloons, gambling and dance halls thrived.

The telegraph was an important technological innovation for Visalia. Prior to the telegraph, the Butterfield stages delivered much of the news via exchange newspapers. The telegraph brought news of serious civil unrest back East: an impending war that threatened to destroy, or at least divide, the United States.

But trouble was already brewing in Visalia. Talk of secession was rampant as early as the 1850’s, when the local populace threatened to break off from the Union when they were not granted their own railroad line. Then came the In the election of 1860. In 1860, Tulare County rejected Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and voted heavily for Southern Democrat John C.Breckenridge.

The federal government became so concerned about local insurgency and dissent that it established a military garrison to maintain law and order. Camp Babbitt, set up in 1862, was a mile north of Main Street (presently the intersection of Race and Santa Fe streets).

After publishing scathing editorials against Lincoln and the Union, a newspaper called the Equal Rights Expositor was banned from postal delivery. It was hand-delivered by Southern sympathizers, many of them women.

After the turbulent war years, Camp Babbitt was disbanded and the intense differences between the two sides faded. Today the former creekside settlement on the Valley frontier is a thriving city of more than 120,000.

As for Visalia pioneer Nathaniel Vise, the adventure-seeking entrepreneur didnÂ’t stay in Visalia long. He traveled to southern California, where he found work with a fur company. In 1882, he was killed by a tornado in Texarkana, Texas.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: The intersection of Main and Court Streets in Visalia today is still at the heart of the city’s downtown.