A Look Back:
History of Atwater, California
Atwater is located in Merced County, California, in the
large valley known as the San Joaquin. The topography, when
American settlers arrived, was that of rolling plains with
large rivers cutting through. This feature is what made
it possible to turn the land into an agricultural paradise.
Originally occupied by many clans of the Indians known as
Yokuts and then by the Spanish who had large land grants,
the face of the area began dramatic change after the Treaty
of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February of 1848. This treaty ended
the Mexican-American War and California became a part of
the United States. The discovery of gold in 1849 brought
people flooding into California looking for quick riches,
however it also brought men of great moral character and
such man was John W. Mitchell who arrived in San Francisco,
following his brother Asal, on February 22,1851. After working
in this city long enough to buy equipment, John and his
brother went into business cutting hay and cordwood around
the Stockton area. They sold these items to the teamsters
working the mines. They soon had their own wagon and tent,
and plied the mines selling goods to those working in the
gold fields. They set up the tent and rented out one half
for $50.00 a month. Being an entrepreneur of the first order,
any money John saved was used to buy land from the United
States Government at the rate of $1.25 in greenbacks (paper
money), or 75 cents in gold, per acre.
a half million acres in his name even before the official
survey was completed by the United States Government. Having
been reared on a farm in the Woodbury area of Litchfield
County, Connecticut, the land had always been his calling.
He convinced other people from his home state, including
the families of his three nieces, to come west and try their
hand at dry land farming. He would provide those who rented
from him with seed to get started, along with farm equipment,
and would also build houses for them. Mr. Mitchell, who
bought and sold thousands of acres in the San Joaquin Valley,
was the man who influenced the growth and settling of the
land in the Atwater vicinity. John Mitchell died on November
26, 1893 at the age of 65. Though Mitchell had married,
his wife Jane predeceased him and they had no children.
The bulk of his estate was inherited by three nieces; Mrs.
Henry Geer (Mary), Mrs. Stephen Crane (Emma), and Mrs. George
Bloss (Ella). The three women were sisters and the children
of Mitchell’s sister Mrs. Stone.
David Atwater came to California from Bethany, Connecticut
as early as 1855. He spent several years working in the
Mokelumne Hills area before coming to this vicinity in
was prompted to make the move by John Mitchell. As one
of the first settlers, he began to farm wheat on acreage
that he rented from Mitchell. Mr. Atwater also purchased
6,000 acres of his own north of Atwater “The Winn
became one of the largest grain growers in the area. In
1872, when the Central Pacific Railroad pushed through
the Valley to Merced, Mr. Atwater and Mr. Mitchell induced
the railroad to put in a spur at the warehouse where Atwater
stored his grain. This became known as “Atwater
Switch” and made it easier for Mr. Atwater to ship
his large amounts of grain. About this time he also purchased
a ranch of some 4,480 acres, which was located northwest
of nearby Merced. By 1876, Mr. Atwater, his wife Laura
and their daughter Eliza moved to their new home on this
became a diversified farmer growing different grains,
citrus fruit, and livestock. Mr. Atwater also invented
a huge grain harvester pulled by twenty-four mules. He
operated this farm for over thirty years, passing away
at the age of eighty in February of 1905.
Bloss, Sr., who settled in Atwater in 1884, administered
the Mitchell Estate, his wife was one of the nieces that
inherited from Mr. Mitchell.
1887 Bloss and Henry F. Geer subdivided 480 acres into
20-acre parcels and called the area Atwater Colony. In
1888, the Merced Land & Fruit Company laid out the
town and sold lots at auction. George S. Bloss and his
wife, Ella Stone Bloss, approved this plan. The town was
given the name of the colony.
was not going to be a fast developer, by the turn of the
century only one hundred people lived in the area and
its weekly newspaper was started in 1911. Atwater was,
however, lucky to have George Bloss, Sr. as a benefactor
for the town. He had been president of Fin de Siecle Investment
Company, which had been created by all three of the niece’s
families to handle the Mitchell holdings.
this company was liquidated it was divided into thirds
– one for the Bloss Land and Cattle Company, one
to the Crane Brothers Company, and one to the Geer-Dallas
Investment Company. Bloss’s third was used to benefit
the town with a library, built in memory of his grandson,
and a hospital in memory of his wife, Ella. George Bloss,
Jr. and his wife Christine later continued these philanthropic
book pictures the progress of one town in the valley from
its inception as a grain warehouse to a thriving community.
Despite its slow start, the town did indeed develop. Situated
in the population belt of the valley, over half of the
county’s population is now centered in the Merced-Atwater
area. The Santa Fe Railroad was laid north of town and,
along with Highway 99 passing through town, brought excellent
The Atwater Canal brought irrigation to the area, while
the advent of the Merced Army Flying Field (later Castle
Air Force Base) brought people and increased commerce.
From the days of the Atwater Colony, Atwater is now a
fully developed community.
Atwater Historical Society wishes to pay tribute to the
people whose vision was so important to the settling of
this part of the San Joaquin. Without a past there
would be no future.
Historical Society, Inc. • P.O. Box 111 Atwater, CA 95301