History honcho

Verda Mackay offers essential vignettes from Chico’s past

Verda Mackay

Verda Mackay

Photo By Andrew Boost

Although she’s lived in Chico for only seven years, Verda Mackay is an expert on local history. As one native Chicoan told her, “You know more history about this town than I ever will, and I’ve lived here all my life.”

The former hospital public-relations director is a busy volunteer at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, belongs to numerous civic organizations, is an oft-published freelance theater critic, and researches, writes and narrates A Chico History Minute, a regular feature on the local public-radio station, KHCO-FM 91.7.

We asked her to cull through some of those “minutes” and give us those she thought newcomers to Chico would find most valuable about the town’s fascinating and rich history. Here’s what she wrote:

Mechoopda Maidu Indians
Long before Spanish and European settlers came to California, the Mechoopda, of the northwestern Maidu Indian Tribe, lived in favorable conditions. They dwelled peacefully along the rivers and streams in the Sacramento Valley, living off the abundance of wildlife and native plants.

When the first explorers, settlers and trappers arrived in California, they brought diseases such as smallpox with them. The discovery of gold in 1848 brought more problems to the Mechoopda. Gold miners drove away game and destroyed fish habitat. The Mechoopda way of life was gone forever.

Mechoopda laborers on John Bidwell’s Rancho Chico were the largest group of non-reservation Indians living in Northern California. Many of their descendants continue to live in Chico, where they are a small but important part of the town’s mosaic.

General John Bidwell
The life story of Chico’s founder is legendary. Born in 1819 in upstate New York to a farming family, he wished more than anything to become a successful farmer. He left home while still in his teens to obtain further education and became a teacher.

In 1841, he joined the first wagon train to travel from the Midwest over the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Six months after starting the journey, the group arrived in the Central Valley north of Sacramento.

California was the land of opportunity for Bidwell, but he had no money and no job. Fortunately, he met and was hired by pioneer settler John Sutter, for whom he worked for six years. During that time gold was discovered on Sutter’s property, and Bidwell set out to seek his fortune on the Feather River.

On July 4, 1848, he made one of the richest strikes of the California Gold Rush. With his fortune he bought almost 22,000 acres from two men who owned the property through Mexican land grants, one on either side of Big Chico Creek. Over the years Bidwell became a prominent leader in agriculture and one of California’s most honored pioneers.

Bidwell Mansion
Many people think John Bidwell built his famous mansion for his future bride, Annie Ellicott Kennedy, but that’s not the case. He actually began construction in 1865, before he met her. The house was completed in 1868 at a cost of approximately $56,000 in gold. He married Annie on April 16, 1868, in Washington, D.C. After a month-long honeymoon, they arrived at a magnificent home in Chico.

San Francisco architect Henry Cleaveland designed the Italianate mansion with the most modern conveniences. It included four inside bathrooms, running-water sinks in second-floor bedrooms, carbide gas lights, eight fireplaces, a ballroom and an impressive tower.

Today we know their home as Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. Guided tours of the mansion are offered through the Visitors Center. For information, call 895-6144.

Bidwell Mansion

CN&R file photo

Naming of Chico
By 1860, John Bidwell had developed his ranch into a significant farming operation that was attracting more and more people to the area. That year he authorized a town site to be designed on part of his ranch. A grid of 50 blocks totaling 2,000 acres was laid out between what are now Big and Little Chico creeks. The plot was filed on December 5, 1860.

Buildings quickly popped up, and Bidwell called the new town Chico. Within four years, Chico had grown to 500 citizens. It boasted five churches, schools, three physicians, a dentist, an attorney, stores, a newspaper and a brewery. Main Street became the first street because it had been a stage and wagon road. Bidwell helped the rapid growth of the new town by offering to give lots to anyone who would build. Homes sprang up almost overnight. In 1872, Chico was incorporated as a city.

Street names
When John Bidwell was planning Chico in 1860, many of the streets were given the names by which we know them today. Salem and Sycamore streets formed the western boundary, Main and Broadway constituted the center of town, and Wall Street was the eastern boundary.

Later, Chestnut, Hazel, Ivy, Cherry and Orange streets were added to the west side. That the first letters of these streets named after popular trees spell “Chico” is probably not coincidental.

Downtown, the What Cheer House saloon was at Third and Main, and the Chico Hotel was at Broadway and Second. Bidwell owned a two-story building at First and Broadway. Today only one wall of that building remains; it’s part of the Tres Hombres restaurant.

Madison Bear Garden
Attorney Franklin C. Lusk was a close friend of Bidwell’s and served as his attorney. Lusk was also a banker, and he served as president of the Board of Trustees for the Chico Normal School, now known as California State University, Chico. His law office and residence were located at Second and Salem streets; the building was constructed in 1885. It later served as the meeting hall for the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

The building still stands and is now home to a favorite gathering place for college students, the Madison Bear Garden saloon and restaurant.

Hotel Diamond
There is a beautiful and interesting landmark in downtown Chico that dates back to 1904. At that time the Hotel Diamond opened for business and was a grand and luxurious facility. It was located on Fourth Street across from the lushly green City Plaza Park.

The hotel burned in 1916. It reopened years later as the Travelers Hotel and operated into the 1950s. In the 1960s it became a girls dormitory for Chico State College students before it was vacated. Until the late 1980s a restaurant was located on the ground floor. When it ceased operations, the building became empty except for thousands of pigeons that roosted there.

Chico developer Wayne Cook saved the hotel from total destruction. After months of renovation and careful efforts to maintain the historical value of the building, he reopened it on May 12, 2005, as the proud and elegant Hotel Diamond.

How Chico got the college
In the late 1880s, when it became known that the state planned to locate a teachers college in the North State, Chico and other towns in the Sacramento Valley energetically—and sometimes bitterly—vied to be selected. John Bidwell famously offered any site on Rancho Chico “except my own dooryard,” and that won the day. On July 4, 1888, with impressive ceremonies, the cornerstone was laid on his eight-acre cherry orchard.

Bidwell was involved with the excavation and preparation of the school’s foundation, and ordered 300,000 bricks for construction.

From that beginning of the Northern Branch State Normal School of California (only the second one of its kind, after San Jose) rose California State University, Chico. It grew from 90 students in 1887 to more than 16,000 today. It is widely recognized for its excellence in programs ranging from business to agriculture.