Landowner Mitchell was Turlock founder

John William Mitchell died in 1893, but he has not been forgotten. Every day up to 50,000 cars travel on the thoroughfare that bears his name: Mitchell Road. Recently, his name surfaced again, with the development of a shopping center called Mitchell Ranch on Mitchell Road.

So who was John Mitchell and what did he do to be so remembered for more than a century? Probably his most recognized achievement was his founding of Turlock.

Born and raised in Woodbury, Conn., at age 21 he voyaged around Cape Horn, arriving in San Francisco in 1851. He became a carpenter -- earning Gold Rush wages of $12 a day -- saved his money and bought a wagon from which he sold goods to the miners.

Later he began to buy land. Eventually he owned more than 100,000 acres, becoming the largest landowner in Stanislaus County.

Mitchell raised thousands of head of sheep to help clear his land and then planted wheat. In 1867, he established a little village called Paradise City on the Tuolumne River about four miles from today's Modesto. His purpose was to provide a riverboat landing for the distribution of the area's enormous loads of grain.

His little village was successful, and when the Central Pacific railroad was being constructed from Lathrop to Goshen, officials asked permission to put the rails through his town. Mitchell refused -- a big mistake.

The railroad directors then chose an alternate location for the rail crossing, and Paradise City soon became a ghost town as its residents, and most of their buildings, moved to the new village of Modesto.

Realizing his error, Mitchell donated some of his land and money to the railroad for construction of the rails and depot for a new town, which became Turlock, established in 1871.

Early historians explained Turlock's naming. After Mitchell declined the honor of having the town named for him, H.W. Lander suggested the Irish name of Turlough, which he had seen in Harper's magazine.

Translated from the Gaelic, it became "Turlock," meaning "a lake that dries up in summer." Though there was no lake, Lander's postmaster brother, Clark, sent the name to Washington officials, where it was accepted.

In fact, there is a town in Ireland named Turlough, which has a lake that dries up in summer.

In April 1872, the Stanislaus County News wrote: "A trip to the new city of Turlock cannot fail to convince the stranger that it is destined to become a trading center of considerable importance ... and the principal shipping point for all the country."

That prophecy was being realized until two events interfered: Turlock was bypassed by new railroad lines and, in 1893, a disastrous fire destroyed the business district. The town began to decline, and its population dropped to 150 in 1902.

Its recovery began with the coming of irrigation, a revival described as "nothing short of a miracle."

The city finally was incorporated in 1908, and by 1912 its population was above 3,500.

When Mitchell died, he left much of his estate to three nieces: Mrs. Mary Geer, Mrs. S.H. Crane and Mrs. George Bloss.

Known for his generosity, he also left legacies of $5,000 each to the towns of Modesto, Turlock, Merced and Atwater to be used for public libraries.

Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at