It was Oct. 3, 1912, when the newly formed Naglee Burk Irrigation Association started delivering water pumped from Old River to farms northwest of town.
Naglee Burk, which became a district in 1921, is alive and well nearly a century later, still providing Old River water to farms and houses scattered among more than 4,000 acres north of Grant Line Road and south of the river, spreading westward from near Tracy Boulevard.
“We have been careful with our finances and operations, so our district is in good condition to provide water and drainage to our customers,” said Leonard Alegre, longtime president of the Naglee Burk board of directors.
The growth of urban uses, including the West Valley Mall and Tracy Auto Plaza, has taken land from the original 4,300 acres, but the annexation in 2009 of two adjacent water districts — the Fremont Irrigation Association and the Mutual Water Co. — brought the district’s size back to 4,611 acres, reported lawyer Bob Mehlhaff, who serves as district secretary.
“An important historical fact is that all of this land gained water rights before 1914, the last year water rights were given highest standing under state law, guaranteeing a continuing source of water,” Mehlhaff pointed out.
After the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association ushered in the age of irrigation in the Tracy area, irrigation continued to develop in what originally been dry land farming areas. The West Side Irrigation District was formed in 1915 and started delivering water in 1918, and the Banta Carbona Irrigation District was organized in 1921, beginning irrigation in 1926.
But back to the beginning. What became known as the Naglee Burk Tract was the western half of the original Mexican land grant, Rancho El Pescadero, secured in 1843 by Antonio Pico from Mexico’s California governor.
Its expanse extended from what is now Grant Line Road on the south to the northern marsh lands that, with the construction of levees, became Old River.
After California became part of the U.S. with the treaty of Hildalgo in 1848 following the Mexican-American War, Pico had a difficult time securing his rights to the land.
He was assisted by Henry M. Naglee — a West Point graduate, civil engineer and banker in San Jose and San Francisco — to clear the title.
In the process, Naglee became owner of the western half of the Mexican land grant in 1852. Using his engineering acumen, he began building levees with Chinese workers doing the work to turn marsh land into farmland.
After serving in the Civil War as a Union brigadier general, Naglee continued to develop his property with the help of his son-in-law James Burk, hence the name Naglee Burk. The onetime general died in 1886.
In 1910, Naglee’s two daughters, who were living in San Jose, sold a portion of their property in the Naglee Burk Tract to the Land and Guaranty Co., which subdivided the tract into smaller parcels, ranging from 20 to 40 acres and including combinations of those basic parcels.
The land company, created by a San Jose real estate firm, agreed to form an irrigation association, awarding purchasers of property with one share of capital stock in the association with each acre purchased.
“The people in the land company were very resourceful,” Mehlhaff said. “They secured sufficient water rights from the river to cover all the acreage without any problems.”
The small size of the land parcels attracted dairymen, who required a limited number of acres to start a small dairy with 25 or 30 hand-milked cows. As the years progressed, many of those dairymen were Portuguese immigrants from the Azores.
Alegre’s family was among those Portuguese dairy families establishing their Tracy roots in the Naglee Burk Tract.
His grandfather Francisco Alegre was working at a dairy in San Mateo County when the San Francisco earthquake hit in 1906. The family then moved to Traver near Hanford, and first Leonard Alegre’s father, Frank Alegre, and then his uncle, Joe Alegre, came from the Azores.
They arrived in the Naglee Burk Tract in the late 1920s and rented dairy land until purchasing property in the early 1940s.
“My dad paid $11,000 for 60 acres on Lammers Road and was determined to pay off the mortgage — and he did,” Leonard recalled.
Joe Alegre Sr. and his family settled just down the road.
Leonard and his father were partners in the dairy for many years before Leonard took over. The original herd of 35 cows had been expanded to 500 before he sold the herd in 1986 as part of the whole-herd buyout program aimed at reducing milk surpluses.
Now 79 and soon to be 80, Leonard works as a real estate agent while maintaining his home on Lammers Road. Each Saturday, he makes a trip around the district to see how the water is flowing.
Day-to-day water operations of the Naglee Burk Irrigation District are handled by a family team of leadman Jose Mota, with the district 32 years, his brother Trino Mota, and nephew Edgar Mota.
In contrast to other irrigation districts that have one main lift canal, Naglee Burk has 15 pumping stations, including nine that pull water out of Old River.
“Our canals are like veins that meander through the district,” Alegre said. “We provide water when growers need it; in some drought years, that means operating 11 months a year.
Although the district now has only a handful of dairies, a variety of other row crops are grown. Land owners in the district pay $45 per acre for irrigation water.
At the Mehlhaff law office in south Tracy, secretary Robert Mehlhaff works with Theresa Dixon, who handles the accounts of the district.
Besides Leonard Alegre, other district directors are John Vierra, Sue Ohlendorf, Henry Tosta and Ann Silva.
What was Tracy area’s first irrigation operation expects to be delivering water to farmers in the foreseeable future.
Next week: The storied — and sometimes ribald — life of Gen. Henry M. Naglee, the pioneer who created the Naglee Burk Tract northwest of Tracy.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at email@example.com.