Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver
“It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help plow up this valley in the cause of progress.”
So stated President John F. Kennedy on August 18, 1962, as he stood atop a simple wooden stage 10 miles west of Los Banos, California. And plow up the valley he would – by helping depress the dynamite plunger located on the dais, Kennedy would formally set in motion the eventual inundation of nearly 20 square miles of land and bring about the destruction of the oldest adobe building in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
President Kennedy arriving and speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the San Luis dam, August 18, 1962 (above).
However, our story neither starts nor ends on that particular day, so let us first go back to 1819 when Francisco Perez Pacheco ventured into present day California. Francisco had a son, Juan, in 1824, and 19 years later Juan was awarded a land grant from the Mexican government, the Rancho de San Luis Gonzaga, that bordered several ranches his father had acquired. A simple 46’ by 21’ adobe ranch house, even featuring gun ports in the wall, was built shortly thereafter and is where our story begins.
With the U.S. victory in the Mexican American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 handing over large swaths of land to the United States. This included present day California and the Pacheco ranch. The treaty recognized and preserved land grants issued by Spain and Mexico so the massive property stayed in the family over the ensuing century. Paula Fatjo, Francisco’s great-great granddaughter, inherited the spread following WWII and moved from San Francisco into the adobe home, restoring it and settling into a ranching lifestyle breeding Arabian horses. Fatjo’s livelihood would soon come in direct collision, however, with California’s growing thirst for municipal and irrigation water.
In 1962, Fatjo lost much of her land to eminent domain. California, working with the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation, continued to embark on an ambitious and far-reaching partnership to manage the rivers of the state’s Central Valley. The ranch house was located where the San Luis Reservoir was slated to soon be, an adobe Atlantis of sorts unless it was moved. So Fatjo made plans to relocate and set about stabilizing the home for the move.
On December 6, 1962 – only months after the Kennedy speech – the adobe house was loaded up on a trailer to be moved to a site where Fatjo had built a new foundation for the old home. That evening while chugging up a hill, the months of preparation came to naught when the walls of the old home gave in; the move had failed.
It was later thought that unseen termite damage had weakened the walls. The ruins were still set down and preserved as best they could while the original site was slowly flooded after the dam construction.
When Paula Fatjo passed away in 1992, she left the remaining 6,890 acres of her ranch to the California Parks System, creating the Pacheco State Park where today one can visit the remains of Juan Perez Pacheco’s adobe ranch house.
The National Archives at Denver holds hundreds of thousands of original photographs and negatives created by the Bureau of Reclamation (Record Group 115) chronicling the massive water projects in the West. A recent project digitizing nearly 40,000 pages of caption lists has opened up vast sections of these photographic holdings to better discovery and it was through these efforts that the photos used in this essay were discovered. All photographs and information come from “Photographs, Central Valley Project, San Luis Unit, 1963-1971” NAID 1143095 and “Project Histories, 1911-1979″ NAID 562811. Additional information for context was found at: