This Financier Put the 'Modest' in Modesto

The city was supposed to be named after a powerful financier, but he declined.  (rocor/Flickr)

A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Modesto in Stanislaus County. Know an unusual place name in California? Tell us about it in the comments below, or send a note to calreport@kqed.org.

Wayne Mathes, a 40-year resident of Modesto, knows a lot about his city. "The town basically popped up overnight," he says.

Built in 1877, the Walter B. Wood House is one of Modesto's few remaining examples of Victorian architecture. The building is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Built in 1877, the Walter B. Wood House is one of Modesto's few remaining examples of Victorian architecture. The building is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. (Wikipedia Commons)

Mathes, who works as the cultural services program director for Modesto, says the city was supposed to be named after William Ralston, a powerful financier who started the Bank of California.

"He declined to have the town named after himself," Mathes says. A person involved in the layout of the town said the financier was modest. "The Spanish word for modest is 'modesto,' and that's how Modesto got its name," Mathes explains.

Modesto was founded in 1870 as a result of the railroad coming down through the Central Valley. Mathes says people living in the surrounding river towns "packed up all of their belongings including their houses and literally moved them to Modesto," because the railroad was a more dependable source of transportation compared to the rivers.

An illustration of the Modesto High School, built in 1918.
An illustration of the Modesto High School, built in 1918. (Wikipedia Commons)

Some buildings in surrounding towns were taken apart brick by brick and then rebuilt in Modesto. "It was a major operation," Mathes says. The Ross House Hotel, originally built in Paradise City, was "literally cut in half," Mathes says. The first half of the hotel was moved successfully and made it to Modesto in November 1870 but the second half didn't make it until January 1871. "The hotel had been put back together," Mathes says, "and they had a grand opening here in Modesto."

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