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Water gave life to this Central Valley boomtown in the 1880s – then took it away

When the small Tulare County town of Traver comes to mind, most probably think of the bustling, Old West-themed Bravo Farms on Highway 99 south of Kingsburg. But 135 years ago, another Traver existed – one that became a ghost town, fading into oblivion nearly as fast as it came to be.

It was a boom town born not because of some precious metal, but on another valuable commodity: water. And the water that gave it life helped take it away within a few short years.

The history of Traver, preserved in many books and archives, is a study in land development, agriculture and irrigation. It started when a civil engineer named Peter Y. Baker conceived a plan to convert thousands acres of rangeland in northern Tulare and southern Fresno counties into fields of wheat by diverting water by canal from the Kings River.

In 1882, a group of capitalists financed Baker’s project which became the 76 Land and Water Company. They optioned 130,000 acres of rangeland. Key was the construction of the 76 Canal. A townsite, named for a director of the company, Charles Traver, and surrounding land was surveyed and plotted out.

Construction on the canal, which began late in 1882, was difficult, but within two years water flowed through the 76 Canal and adjacent canals and ditches.

Next came the town on the Southern Pacific rail line. The marketing of Traver was intense. There were advertisements in newspapers throughout the West along with thousands of handbills. One of those handbills, preserved in the Fresno County Library collection, extolls in large print, “A Golden Opportunity For the Homeseeker and Speculator…In The Prosperous Town of Traver! LOTS ALMOST GIVEN AWAY… A Town with a Brilliant Future!”

From another handbill: “This will soon become the garden spot of the world. Under the cloudless sky of this valley the fruit is of matchless size, color and flavor.” Excursion trains brought in prospective buyers.

The first contingent of buyers arrived on April 8, 1884 when town lots and land were sold at auction. The half-finished depot was the only building standing that day, but saloon keeper Harry Burke set up two barrels of “rot-gut” whiskey with a plank thrown across, officially becoming the first merchant of the infant town. (Ironically, he would be the last pioneer of Traver to leave.) Burke’s sales were brisk and no doubt helped the land sales, as well – $65,000 worth of property bought in two days.

Carpenters and workmen flocked to the site. Within two months Traver had two general stores, a drugstore, a hardware store, two lumberyards, two hotels, two barbershops, an implement store, two livery stables, three saloons (which later grew to 14!), a post office, an express office and a large Chinatown with a lively red light district. In short time, the town had three newspapers, Traver Tidings, Traver Advocate and Traver Tribune. Within two years, a jail was built to replace a boxcar used to hold desperados, as well as an $8,000 school house, a machine shop, a flour mill on the canal and four churches.

Modest homes were built, with orchards, vineyards and alfalfa fields planted. In the end of its first year Traver’s population topped 400.

Wheat boom

California was in the midst of a wheat boom and Traver was soon to be its capital, in the West and beyond. An article by Joe Smith in the Jan. 29, 1956 edition of The Bee described what early life in Traver was like.

Blessed with two good years of seasonal rain and the imported irrigation water, the wheat growers set to work. The timing was perfect for what was to come. This was the era of the first mechanized operations in wheat farming. Blacksmiths and farmers invented state-of-the-art seed spreaders, cultivators, gang plows, steam-powered track-laying tractors and, of course, the the giant wheat harvesting combines.

Soon, 30,000 acres were under cultivation by small family farms. Three grain warehouses, each around 500 feet long, were built along the railroad.

In a personal note, my mother’s side of our family, the Spaffords, took the handbill-bait promise of a new life in the land of milk and honey. In 1886, a large group of the family, and a few “hanger-ons,” numbering around 25, loaded up on a train at Eudell, Nebraska, to head west to 76 country, after selling off the homestead at auction. They came prepared, according to my grandfather, Ray Spafford, loading up boxcars with two wagons, farm implements, along with two teams of horses and two yoke of oxen. Ray’s father, Vic Spafford, was later listed as a supplier of wheat to the 76 Co.

During harvest season, grain was sacked in the field, freighted in on wagons with mule teams pulling up to three wagons tongued together. Scores of these grain wagons would form lines, three for each warehouse, sometimes reaching a mile or longer. It was not unusual for these wagon trains to take two to three days to reach the head of the line for off-loading at the warehouses.

According to the official report in 1886 by the Traver railroad station agent, over 32 million pounds of wheat was shipped out that year. Nearly the same amount was exported in 1887. More than 3,000 boxcars were needed in order to move the 1886 crop alone. It was reportedly the highest recorded wheat-producing point in the the history of agriculture.

Wild, wild West

With Traver’s prosperity came crime. As a boom town, it was wild and rough. On its crowded streets and in its roaring saloons, it thrived on excitement. With money flowing like water, teamsters, canal workers, ranch hands, mule skinners, professional and tinhorn (fake) gamblers and outlaws were always looking for ways to lay down hard cash, quench thirsts and run the table. Chinatown, spread over two blocks, was another draw with its crowded, smoky card rooms and opium dens.

John McCubbin, a pioneer resident of Traver who set up shop as a sign painter, wrote in his 1923 history of Traver, “The mining town of Bodie, in a neighboring county, which gave to the world the well earned sobriquet of ‘The bad man from Bodie,’ was at that time so near dead that it no longer held much attraction for the toughs, and many of them wandered over into Traver for a little excitement.”

McCubbin described a typical Saturday night: “Scores of drunken men would stagger up and down the streets trying to keep track of all the gambling games that were running. The drunkenness would increase as the day advanced. Crowds would assemble, filling buildings and spilling into the street.”

He wrote that during the harvest season of 1886, things really peaked. Over September and October, gambling games were running day and night for two straight weeks. Over 200 decks of cards were used in a single game. When one gambler would “go broke” the next in line would take his place. In one dice game the stake was $200 a throw.

Traver had its share of shootouts, as well as murders. McCubbin said a commonly used slang phrase for an overnight slaying was that they had “another man for breakfast.”

One victim was associate editor Carrol S. Hayes of the Traver Tidings who was shot to death by a cousin of a young lady he was visiting after church.

Famed outlaws such as the Dalton brothers – Grat, Bob and Emmett – along with Chris Evans and the Sontag brothers rode Traver’s dusty streets, finding its friendly saloons a convenient place to lay low between holdups and robberies.

Beginning of the end

Traver’s prosperity was short-lived. In 1887 a fire broke out at the Semoriles Hotel, which destroyed a third of the town. It was the first of a series of devastating fires to hit the town.

Then the irrigation which had been necessary to coax lush crops from the barren valley floor began to draw alkali from the soil. Soon, vast patches of the dreaded, white, salty alkali were seen surfacing in the fading green fields. And in town the shrubs and trees began to die. Even buildings did not escape the percolating salts, as brick foundations began to erode. McCubbin wrote, “Whole blocks that at one time exhibited solid business fronts are a barren waste white with alkali.”

By the mid-1890s, the town faded and people left as quickly as they arrived, to the newer towns of Reedley and Dinuba. Buildings were jacked up and moved. The depot was closed, and the irrigation office moved to Dinuba. The town lingered on, hoping for a comeback that never materialized.

When McCubbin wrote his “Rise and Fall of Traver” in 1923, he noted that only five buildings remained. One of those, the landmark Hotel Del Zante built in 1888, which had fallen into disrepair, was gutted by a fire in 1929. Traver had virtually become a ghost town.

But slowly it came back, starting after World War II. With advances in irrigation techniques, farming viability returned and so did the people. Today, Traver is still ag-based, but a quiet version of its rough and tumble days of the 1880s, with a population of a little over 700.

Very little is left of the old Traver: an overgrown pioneer cemetery, a handful of street names that carried over from its glory days and the old 76 Canal, still carrying water to thirsty crops, are about all that remain.

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