Any local historian will tell you Davis history begins with the railroad.
Every street and every parcel in today’s downtown was originally drawn up by the railroad magnates who conceived of the town of Davisville as a real estate proposition, where the main line to Sacramento met a northbound line to Woodland.
Yet Davis almost didn’t happen. The railroad nearly bypassed this part of Yolo County.
In 1857, 11 years before the California Pacific Railroad reached the north banks of Putah Creek, on land once farmed by Jerome C. Davis, it was thought the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad would be in Marysville, not Sacramento.
Anticipating that, the San Francisco and Marysville Railroad Co. formed, and from 1858 to 1860 graded a road that started in Yuba County, passed through Woodland and crossed Putah Creek four miles west of today’s Highway 113. That route was graded to Suisun Bay.
However, its tracks were never laid. The Civil War killed its financing and supplies.
Five years later, a new enterprise, the California Pacific Rail Road Co., formed. The “Cal-P” planned a rail line from Vallejo to Sacramento that passed through Davisville, the flat and dry side of Putah Creek.
It was far from certain that would happen. Putting up political and financial roadblocks were the California Steam Navigation Co., which shipped grains on the Sacramento River, and the Central Pacific Railroad Co., which planned to construct a line from Sacramento to Oakland by way of the Altamont Pass.
Despite all odds, the California-Pacific line was built. Its first tracks were laid in Vallejo on April 10, 1868, and the Cal-P reached Davisville on Aug. 24 of that year, according to most accounts.
In July 1868, the original Victorian depot in Davis was constructed. Although it was relocated in 1901, the 1868 building was in use until the current Mission-style depot opened in 1914.
Because of the swamp between Davis and the Sacramento River — it was passable only by wagon a short time each year — it took almost four more months for the Cal-P to reach what is now the Broderick section of West Sacramento. The rail bridge to Sacramento opened 14 months after that.
The impetus to have a track run through Yolo County in the 1860s was not passenger service; it was wheat. Most area farmers grew grain crops.
Before the railroad opened, it was difficult to get the product to market. The only option was to load bags of wheat on horse-drawn wagons and slowly haul them, either north to Knights Landing, where barges could move the product down the Sacramento River, or south to Suisun, where boats could transport the grains to San Francisco.
Yolo County farmers were not satisfied just to have the California-Pacific line run through Davis. Farmers near the county seat also wanted a branch line to Woodland and Knights Landing.
To make that happen, Yolo County pledged $100,000 for a spur from Davis north to the Sacramento River. That part of the Cal-P reached Knights Landing on Sept. 23, 1869, and in late February 1870, it reached Marysville.
A decade before the first train arrived in Davisville, Jerome C. Davis was a successful and prosperous farmer. With some help from his father, Isaac, and his father-in-law, Joseph B. Chiles, he owned 12,000 acres of well-irrigated crop land along Putah Creek.
Davis owned thousands of animals. He had built 21 miles of fencing on his property and he had erected a small village worth of buildings. A report authored by the State Agricultural Society described the structures on the Davis farm:
“Dwelling-house 50×30 feet with wing 24×80, all two stories high, well built and thoroughly finished; horse barn 60×90 feet, with 18-foot posts; cow barn 40×100 feet, sheds 15×150 feet; two dairy-houses, respectively 12×12 and 16×60; steam mill and manufacturing shops 20×120 feet; engine house for steam pump about 10×12.”
Yet a combination of drought, crop disease, taxes and painfully high interest rates bankrupted Davis over a few years beginning in 1863. The holders of his mortgage, including his father, sold what was left in 1868 to the California Pacific Rail Road Co. for $80,000.
Jerome Davis left Yolo County and moved to Sacramento, where he died in 1881.
Knowing the Davis property was vacant in 1868, William Dresbach moved in, renting the house from the railroad company. A German immigrant who spoke little English, Dresbach was the Solano County postmaster in the village of Tremont, some four miles south of Putah Creek. He made side money buying and selling grains.
Dresbach learned from Isaac Friedlander, a fellow German immigrant, that a new railroad would go through Davisville. Friedlander, the “Grain King” of San Francisco, told Dresbach he could be his agent in Yolo County, if he would set up shop in Davisville.
The problem was Dresbach had a contract with the U.S. government to run the post office in Solano County.
But that didn’t stop the enterprising Prussian. Dresbach illegally moved his postal supplies to Jerome Davis’ former house — about a block west of where First and A streets meet today — and for a while tried to operate his Solano County mail business from his rented Yolo County residence.
Before too long, Dresbach was fired by the U.S. government for doing that. But that didn’t hurt his finances, once train service reached Davisville.
Dresbach became the wealthiest businessman in Davisville’s first decade. He took his grain profits and invested in land. In town, he operated a large general store near the depot and a livery stable and a hotel and saloon. He also owned a warehouse for grain storage.
He is best remembered in Davis today for his large home, the Dresbach-Hunt-Boyer Mansion, at the corner of Second and E streets. It was built between 1871 and 1875.
In 1877, Dresbach left Davis for San Francisco, where he became a wheeler-dealer on the Produce Exchange.
From 1868 to 1908, Davisville was a quintessential railroad town. It never would have been built had the Cal-P not come through.
But after 1908, when the University Farm opened for business, and “ville” was removed from its name, Davis became a college town, one that grew rapidly after the World War II.
Yet Davis the college town would not exist without the railroad.
In 1905, when the state decided to build a university farm, Davisville was the choice in part because it was on the main east-west rail line. Train service from the UC campus in Berkeley made it convenient for students and professors to get back and forth at a time when driving a car would have been next to impossible.
Today, students and professors and other residents travel to and from Davis by train, every day of the week, along the same route that arrived here in 1868.