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Tracy Tracy Territory

Advent of irrigation a big step for Tracy 100-plus years ago

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An important milestone was reached Nov. 22 in the history of irrigation in the Tracy area.

Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee

Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee

That was the 100th anniversary of the establishment in 1920 of the Naglee-Burk Irrigation District, which is still operating today northwest of Tracy.

The significance of the anniversary is amplified by the fact that it had been commonly believed that the Naglee Burk Irrigation District was founded eight years earlier, in 1912.

That was indeed the year that irrigation water began flowing through the canals, many of which are still in use in distributing water pumped from the Old River. But in 1912 the organization providing irrigation water was the not a district, but a non-profit organization, the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association.

The establishment of the association in 1912 still marks the beginning of Tracy-area irrigation, which transformed farming in the Tracy to this day. No longer would farmers have to depend on sufficient rainfall to provide moisture to barley and wheat fields that surrounded Tracy beginning in the mid-19th century.

Apparently, farmers in the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association liked the way it was being operated. The election to form the district on Nov. 22, 1920, produced a unanimous vote of approval to have the irrigation system operate as a public agency under California irrigation laws.

No accusations of a rigged election in those days, but the name of the newly formed irrigation district did carry a touch of scandal with it.

The principal developer of what became of the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association, and later the district, was Henry M. Naglee, a one-time Union Army brigadier general in the Civil War.

Before re-entering the Army in 1862, the West Point graduate had purchased 130 acres of property in central San Jose and also had acquired the western half of the 35,000-acre Rancho El Pescadero on what would become Tracy’s northwest side.

On returning to California after his service in the Civil War ended, though, Naglee didn’t have smooth sailing. He ran into problems resulting from his high-flying life style.

Before the war, he had a long-term relationship with a San Francisco actress, Mary Schell. On returning from the war, Naglee apparently learned of Mary’s romantic escapades while he was away.

He curtly informed her in a note and that their relationship had ended. She sued him for breach of promise, asking for $100,000. The suit failed, as did her efforts to blackmail Naglee.

Not giving up, Mary promptly wrote a self-published book entitled “The Love Life of Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee.” The book contained intimate love letters along with Naglee’s unflattering comments about his superior generals and President Abraham Lincoln. The book was a best-seller.

The 50-year-old Naglee soon married 18-year-old Marie Antoinette Ringgold, daughter of a fellow West Point graduate. They had two daughters, one of whom married Naglee’s nephew, James Burk. Naglee and Burk worked together to develop the Naglee Burk Tract as part of El Rancho El Pescadero.

On March 2, 1886, after a day riding horseback while checking levees built by Chinese laborers, Naglee suffered a heart attack. He died three days later.

The flamboyant Civil War general never lived long enough to see his dream of creating an irrigated oasis on the edge of Delta marshland realized, but the 100-year-old Naglee Burk Irrigation District lives on.

And, too, we can’t forget that the Naglee name survives in another way: The address of the West Valley Mall is 3200 N. Naglee Road.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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