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Chico hits 150 year milestone – Chico Enterprise-Record


CHICO — The city of Chico was incorporated on Jan. 8, 1872; exactly 150 years ago today. The story starts familiar — beginning with a destructive wildfire in the 1860s.

“Most of a whole block burned up because there was no way to really fight the fire,” said Chico Historian David Nopel. “Some of the reports say that the only thing they could do was form bucket brigades from Chico creek, and pass water downtown to fight the fire.”

After two devastating fires in the 1860s, Nopel said Chico residents began to recognize the need for a local fire department.

But residents faced a problem: they needed to incorporate in order to get any state funding for a fire department or a police department.

“People really wanted to take that next step, and it came in 1872,” Nopel said. “That allowed the city to immediately put a fire department and police into place.”

Now, 150 years later, Chico is hitting its anniversary of that incorporation, but during a time of polarization, according to Chico State History Professor Michael Magliari.

“It’s our sesquicentennial that we’re celebrating in a particularly challenging period, and we’re seeing real polarized politics,” Magliari said “It’s facing a lot of challenges with the homeless situation, still recovering from the Camp Fire, and dealing locally with COVID.”

Magliari said he sees polarized politics including gerrymandering of supervisorial districts and local recalls being proposed.

“The city right now is extremely polarized in its politics and it’s really reflecting the larger trends of the Trump era,” Magliari said. “It’s a rough time that we’re celebrating this sesquicentennial. It would be much nicer if we could celebrate this under happier circumstances.”

The story of Chico’s history is usually told beginning with the arrival of John Bidwell in 1850, who spearheaded western development in northern California. But the history of Chico dates further back with the original inhabitants of the area, the Mechoopda Maidu.

Nonetheless, Chico’s history is inseparable from John Bidwell’s contribution to economic development in California state.

W.H. Hutchinson, a former Chico State history professor, argues in a 1982 report “When Chico Stole the College,” that five major events have “shaped Chico’s evolution from primeval wilderness into what it is today.”

The first event was the arrival of John Bidwell in 1850, who Hutchinson credits for giving direction to new settlers in transforming raw land into productive real estate.

Then, the arrival of the railroad in 1870 which gave Chico a dependable economic linkage with cities like Sacramento and San Francisco.

This also led to the third event; the arrival of the lumber industry which gave Chico a “solid industrial payroll” through companies like the Diamond Match Company.

Hutchinson’s fourth event attributes the Chico Municipal Airport as a major factor in Chico’s development, which established a flight training school during WWII and gave Chico an economic jolt after soldiers arrived and wished to “make Chico their peacetime home.”

Finally, Hutchinson writes, the acquisition of the Northern Branch, State Normal School by Chico has had the most profound effect on Chico’s growth.

According to Hutchinson, contention grew between Red Bluff and Chico insofar that the Chico Enterprise in 1880 “forcefully reminded the citizenry of the monetary advantages that would result from securing the Northern Branch.”

While Hutchinson’s report was written in 1982, several events have since shaped Chico to what it is today.

Nopel attributes Chico’s largest influence in recent decades hasn’t been a single event, but the consistent growth of Chico State. When the baby boomers enrolled around 1964, Chico State began to grow quickly. According to Nopel, from 1962 to 1972, Chico State enrollment went from 3,000 students up to 12,000.

“On the positive side, it’s brought an influence of culture and an atmosphere of all cultures and this building world of science and our science perspective on our past and present.”

But Nopel also said the school changed Chico as it grew, and in the 1980s was named No. 1 party school in the nation by Playboy Magazine.

“It just changed this neighborhood from a family neighborhood; where people lived here full time, they had their kids here,” Nopel said. “And it just turned into a rental neighborhood, where there were real problems that came with that. That’s been part of the down side.”

A more recent event that has changed the course of Chico was the Camp Fire in 2018.

“The Camp Fire is the most, I think, significant in shaping the town since 1990,” Magliari said.

It destroyed neighboring population areas including Paradise and other ridge communities and increased the population of Chico by 21%, according to City Manager Mark Orme.

“In light of a changing climate, it is a metaphor possibly for the result of living here since the day of Bidwell,” Nopel said.

Chico, as it stands today 150 years later after its incorporation, is a city with a population of more than 120,000 people.



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