Every historian writing of the founding of Madera includes an account of how the town was almost never built.
As the story goes, when the California Lumber Company began building its flume from the mountains to the Southern Pacific tracks in the Valley, it had its sights on the little town of Borden for the terminus of its giant water slide.
The railroad had just completed laying its tracks through the Valley in 1872, and in its wake, several townsites were laid out by the Southern Pacific — Modesto, Merced, Minturn, Berenda, Borden, and Fresno. That’s when the lumber company came up with its idea to build a mill in the mountain forests and bring lumber to one of the railroad towns in the Valley.
The lumbermen, led by William H. Thurman, decided to construct a second mill near the railroad and connect it with the mountain mill by means of a lumber flume. They began their venture in 1874 and began to look for a place to end their flume.
The local histories lend some credence to the story that the lumbermen really wanted to end their flume at Borden and build their planing mill there. As the tale went, landowners in Borden drove such a hard bargain that the lumbermen decided to build their mill on land four miles to the north, end their flume there, and call the place Madera.
That’s why we have Madera today and Borden is no more, so the story goes.
I have always considered this to be an intriguing tale, especially since it is lacking so many details. Then, while researching old newspaper files for another story, I accidentally came across a lodestone of Madera’s history.
In a 1928 issue of the Madera Tribune, I found the whole Borden vs Madera story, details and all. The Fresno Republican had published an article, “Why Madera was Founded, and it was quoted in our local paper.
The Republican confirmed that the California Lumber Company was looking for a place to end its flume in 1876, and since there was a railroad station and the beginnings of a town at Borden, lumber chief Thurman aimed at making a deal. He went to Lankership & Scholle, owners of the desired land, and made an offer, which was turned down.
The lumbermen huddled up to consider their next offer. While they were in conference, one Isaac Friedlander, better known as the California Wheat King, heard that Lankershim & Scholle had turned down the offer for their land.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so they say, and Friedlander jumped in to fill it. Owning thousands of acres just a short distance north of Borden, and knowing that the terminus of the flume and the planing mill would increase the value of his land, he gave the California Lumber Company a deed to 40 acres upon which they could build their mill site and yards. In addition, he gave the lumber company half interest in an adjoining 1,560 acres for a townsite.
When the deal was completed, Thurman decided to name the new town “Madera,” the Spanish word for lumber.
By October 1876, the flume had reached the town site, and the planning mill had been built. Within days, rough-cut lumber was coursing its way down the flume to Madera, and some of it was used to build Madera’s first buildings.
With the flume and mill in operation, the lumber company turned to build a town on its property. The first thing it did was to lay out a broad main street, which was called the mill reservation but was later changed to Yosemite Avenue.
Then it opened up the adjoining lots for sale.
Captain Russel Perry Mace purchased the first lot and built the town’s first building — The Yosemite Hotel.
In the meantime, the working folks in Borden began to see the handwriting on the wall. The Anglos were the first to move to Madera, followed by the Hispanics. By 1880, the U. S. Census showed only Chinese living in the once proud Borden, which in the 1874 election for the county seat of Fresno County had received its share of votes.
In 1885, Madera’s population reached 500 and by 1900 it could boast 1,000 residents. Borden, on the other hand, had died.
From 1872, everything came up roses for Borden, and then four years later the lumber flume went to Madera, spelling doom for Borden.
Just imagine what things would be like if Lankershim & Scholle and had been more cooperative. Certainly, their legacy would be different.
As it is, their largest claim to fame in this area is the fact that they are the reason Madera was founded.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune