As the California High Speed Rail Authority prepares to lay its line through the Valley, passionate voices opposing the project are echoes of similar debates 135 years ago over the fertile farmland of today’s Kings County. Although the parallels are broad, the grassroots fighting spirit lives on. A seminal event in state history took place northwest of Hanford in May 1880. It had a deadly ending in a railroad-settler dispute known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy. That name has been invoked more than once during community meetings with High Speed Rail officials.
The historic event ended in one of the Old West’s deadliest shootouts, leaving seven dead.
The conflict was a byproduct of one of the most momentous achievements of the young nation: the opening of the West with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The nearly 2,000-mile “Pacific Railroad,” built by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, was completed in May 1869, touching off a national celebration. Passenger travel coast-to-coast would now take eight days, instead of six to 10 months by sea or by wagon train. Within California, railroad promised to be an easy way to transport freight and people, instead of relying upon stages, freight wagons and steamboats, the latter only able to operate in those times when the water was high enough.
The Central Pacific, shortly after the transcontinental railroad’s golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, began construction of a new line down the San Joaquin Valley. Construction started in 1869 from Lathrop, near Stockton, with objectives of reaching Southern California. This pioneer Valley line was completed through Fresno County in 1872.
At Goshen, west of Visalia, a major change took place. There, the Central Pacific’s corporate ownership ended and construction continued, to the south and directly west, under auspices of the Southern Pacific. That road had become linked corporately to the Central Pacific. In the Valley, the Southern Pacific had what the Central Pacific lacked — a federal land grant.
The Southern Pacific had such a grant, for an anticipated transcontinental railroad that was to run from San Francisco to New Orleans. Thus, the SP’s plan was to connect this line to the CP-built rails ending at Goshen.
From the Bay Area, the SP line was completed as far as Tres Pinos, a few miles southeast of present-day Hollister. From Goshen starting in 1876, the SP eventually built as far as a place called Alcade, five miles into the Coast Range hills southwest of Coalinga in Fresno County.
No federal cash subsidies were offered for construction; instead, government land grants were issued to the railroad in a checkerboard pattern down the line, a 20-mile swath on each side. The railroad then would sell every odd numbered section to settlers — with prices quoted in promotional pamphlets at $2.50 to $5 an acre. The government opened its remaining sections to homesteaders at $2.50 per acre.
The stage that was set for the conflict begins here, in what was a small southern corner of Fresno County, later part of Kings County, the Mussel Slough district. It was named for a seasonal, natural waterway (which for a number of years functioned as a canal) fed by the Kings River.
The land had been settled as early as the 1860s by migrants from the Gold Rush, Civil War veterans and eastern farmers, taking advantage of homestead acts. The first of those were signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. They gave settlers ownership of land, with the grants up to 160 acres, as long as improvements were made and residency was established.
Farmers who homesteaded land before 1870 (the year Congress ordered the restoration of 7.5 million acres into the public domain), found themselves having to buy the land that they had worked so hard to improve. Those improvements included building irrigation canals and wrestling the soil into farmland. An estimated $400,000 was spent in making improvements.
The lucky settlers occupied sections now owned by the government. Not so fortunate were the ones on Southern Pacific land, now facing an inflated price of $10 to $45 per acre. Throughout the state, farmers were infuriated by the pricing news, especially when a federal court upheld the railroad’s right to charge the inflated prices.
About 600 Mussel Slough farmers formed the Settlers League in 1878 to organize a formal protest against SP. Elected as league president was former Civil War Confederate Maj. Thomas Jefferson McQuiddy, a native of Kentucky. He also served as the league’s paramilitary militia unit drillmaster.
President Rutherford B. Hayes during a visit to San Francisco in the early 1880 was even presented with a petition from the Settlers League. It was ignored. A court ruling sealed the deal: While the federal government controlled railroad land grants, the state could not control the acts of corporations. Legally, the railroad had the upper hand. That was not true in the court of public opinion, which sided with the settlers.
And they quickly took action. In the spring of 1880, suits of eviction began against members of the Settlers League. A cat-and-mouse game ensued: Typically, SP agents would arrive to serve eviction notices and, finding no one at home, would empty the house of furniture and possessions, setting the personal property in the road. Afterward, the family with help from league members would put it all back. League members handed out their own method of justice with those who sided with SP. In one case, a settler who aligned himself with the railroad had his place burned down. Reports circulated of masked vigilante horsemen — league members — riding through the district at night, intimidating those who sided with the railroad.
Tensions grew. They climaxed in bloodshed on the morning of May 11, 1880. A large crowd, estimated at 3,000, of Settlers’ League members and sympathizers gathered at Hanford’s city park for a rally to hear a speech by pro-settler former California Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry (who unable to attend).
The festive mood of the warm spring day turned to anger quickly after farmer Archibald MacGregor, arriving late to the picnic, announced that W.B. Braden had been evicted from his land north of Hanford, his furniture and possessions stacked in the road. A grim reminder was left on the doorsill of the house: a row of standing shotgun shells — two loaded with 12 nickel-plated balls apiece — the same ammunition to be used on some of the victims later.
Someone else said that four “railroad men” had been spotted traveling through the dusty road out of Hanford heading north, in a buggy and light wagon. The four men were: Deputy U. S. Marshal Alonzo Poole, who had just detrained at Kingsburg; Walter Crow, who had bought land and was purchasing the land where the shootout would follow; Mills Hartt, former SP station agent at Goshen, who took possession of the Braden place that morning; and William Clark, a San Francisco railroad land appraiser. Word was that they were headed to the homestead of William Brewer, about 5 1/2 miles northwest of Hanford, at Mussel Slough, the land Crow sought.
The marshal and his party arrived at the Brewer place around 10:30 a.m., where they found William Brewer plowing a field. Shortly thereafter, about 15 mounted Settler’s League men arrived on the scene.
Poole walked towards the settlers group. Greetings were polite, but Poole firmly stated that he had legal authority to dispossess the farmer. He read to them the authorization from President Rutherford B. Hayes. The settlers argued that since they had appeals filed but not yet heard before the Supreme Court, there was no right to evict. Calls were made to the marshal to surrender his sidearm. He refused, saying he had no intention of using it. Poole later testified that the men who made this demand had their guns drawn.
Some of the riders moved closer to the marshal’s group, all of whom, except Poole, were in the vehicles. A bitter argument ensued between the settlers and Crow and Hartt, seated in the light wagon. Poole, surrounded by riders, was accidentally knocked down by a skittish horse.
A shot rang out. It is not known for certain who fired first. Confusion reigned as the fight began. Frightened horses stampeded, kicking up dust. Black powder smoke filled the air. Historian J.L. Brown puts the order of the men who fired first as Hartt, Harris and Crow. As far as shootouts go, this one was pretty one-sided. Crow, one of the state’s best marksmen, did most of the shooting. In all, four died on the scene, and three later died of mortal wounds.
It was all over in the matter of 45 seconds. Poole estimated 20-30 shots had been fired; some said even less. Only two of the settlers fired their guns, it was said.
Six dead or mortally wounded victims were carried under a stately oak tree, to the porch of the Brewer cabin, where the midday shade of the old tree gave some degree of comfort. One of the settlers remarked at seeing the mortally wounded Hartt lying on the porch, “there lays the man who started it all,” indicating that it was Hartt who started the fray.
But the killing wasn’t quite over. Walter Crow fled in the confusion, carrying perhaps a shotgun and pistol, knowing the hatred harbored by the settlers toward him. He crept down a fence line, reaching a field of tall wheat, and crossed a ditch. An unknown assailant, but hero to the settlers (several would claim the dubious honor) dropped Crow with a rifle bullet in the back of his head.
Four widows and 13 children were bereft by the tragedy. In the end, 17 members of the Settlers League were indicted by a federal grand jury, with five members convicted of resisting a federal officer and sentenced to jail terms in the Santa Clara County Jail at San Jose. They were J.J. Doyle, J.N. Patterson, J.D. Purcell, W.L. Pryor and W.B. Braden. All became local celebrities. Sympathetic to their cause, the jailer allowed the prisoners extraordinary privileges. Their families were allowed to stay with them. The five were able to attend lodge meetings and church outside jail. Due to the volume of mail they received, the jailer gave them a key to the jail so they could come and go from the post office.
Sympathy was so great that 47,000 names were gathered on a petition to President Hayes for their release. Shortly afterward, the five were pardoned after serving six of their eight-month terms, returning to Hanford to a hero’s welcome from a crowd of 3,000.
The killings created outrage. It was a David and Goliath story, one that swept not only the state but shocked the nation. In the aftermath, the only concession made by the railroad was to lower slightly its land prices. The battle was over. Southern Pacific had won. The settlers realized that the price of bloodshed over the matter was not worth fighting for. Most stayed where they were and paid the SP prices.
For many years, on the anniversary of the tragic story, a memorial service was held at the pioneer Grangeville Cemetery where some of the fallen were buried. These rites were conducted in honor of the settlers killed in the fight. They were viewed as martyrs who had given their lives for a just cause.
The Brewer house was torn down many years ago, but one reminder, the old oak tree, known from then on as the “Tragedy Oak,” stood as a solemn reminder until it toppled in a storm about 25 years ago. A historical marker stands at the site on 14th Avenue, three miles north of Grangeville in Kings County.