By Mark Gutglueck
Matthew Gage was instrumental in the expansion of the already established citrus industry in the Inland Empire, and is considered a major figure in the history of both San Bernardino and Riverside counties, though in one sense at least for converse reasons. Gage was at the forefront, in the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, in making adequate water available for the thirsty citrus industry. While his efforts began while what we know today as Riverside County was then primarily southern San Bernardino County, Gage’s efforts in enabling expansive citrus groves to spring up in Riverside and give that city financial independence from San Bernardino proved a deciding factor in the secession of Riverside County from San Bernardino County.
Matthew Gage was born on January 11, 1844, in Coloraine, Ireland. His mother was Margaret Jane Orr Gage. Available records do not provide his father’s name.
As a child, he came with his family to Canada. He was raised and educated in Kingston, Canada, where, in 1869, he married Miss Jane Gibson. By profession, he was a jeweler, but not particularly successful in that capacity. He pooled the money he had been able to save, using it to arrange the purchase 20 acres of orange and other deciduous fruit trees more than 2,600 miles away in Riverside, at the corner of California and Jackson streets. He then crossed the Canadian/American border and made his way southwest across the continent, arriving in Riverside, which was then yet a part of San Bernardino County, in March 1881. His effort to make a go of it as a farmer failed, at least in some measure because of the lack of reliable water availability in Riverside.
Understanding the need for irrigation and water if any large scale agricultural venture in the area around Riverside was to succeed, he redirected his energies to diverting enough water out of the alluvial field surrounding the Santa Ana River, the headwaters of which lay at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains in the area around what is now known as Highland.
To raise capital for what he was about to undertake, Gage entered into commitments with individuals living in the area, including George Cooley and his son, George M. Cooley, both of whom were at one time or another members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and who had a large ranch in the Colton area, as well as with the heirs of Jefferson Hunt. Through a variety of deeds, agreements and contractual arrangements, Gage bound himself, the water source he had acquired and the canal system he was intent on completing to guarantee the delivery of water in the future in exchange for grants to him of the necessary land, or for cash to purchase such land. Rights specified at that time as being in Gage’s possession were the East Riverside and the Hunt and Cooley rights.
In 1882, Gage filed for entry under the United States Desert Land Act of 1877 on Section 30, Township 2 South, Range 4 West, San Bernardino Base and Meridian, which lay adjacent to and immediately north of a large ravine known as the Tequesquite Arroyo. By that point, he also had title to a water well field located roughly twelve miles northerly in the valley of the Santa Ana River, on a tract of land southeast of San Bernardino which currently remains within San Bernardino County. He punched a series of artesian wells there and constructed a canal from that major water source to Section 30 during 1884 to 1886.
The enterprise under which Gage’s efforts were carried out, the Gage Canal Company, employed his brother, Robert Gage, as general superintendent, and his brother-in-law, William Irving, as chief engineer.
In 1888 and 1889 Gage constructed an extension of the canal from the north bank of the Tequesquite Arroyo, across the arroyo and thence in a southerly direction, a distance of about ten miles.
On December 13, 1889, Gage entered into an agreement with Wilson Crewdson of London, England, in which it was recited that Gage owned what was formerly known as the ‘Carit Tract’ but which was referred to as the ‘Victoria Tract’ containing 2,377 acres, with water rights, and a second tract of 4,794 acres known as ‘Arlington Heights,’ plus a recently constructed canal. The agreement laid out that a company named the Riverside Trust Company, Limited, which was to be formed to acquire and work the lands, canals and water rights owned by Gage, and to take over the rights and duties described in the agreement. A provision was that Gage was to sell to the trust company the described lands, canal, and water rights, along with plant machinery and furniture used therewith, and the benefit of all contracts relating thereto. The trust company in turn obligated itself under two contracts with Gage to engage in the sale of water, one supply coming from Gage’s ‘East Riverside’ right and the second being the ‘Hunt and Cooley’ right. The agreement stated that after January 1, 1890, Gage would be deemed to be carrying on business on behalf of the trust company. The agreement then permitted that an “American Company” be formed to take title to such property as the trust company considered desirable, with Gage to be managing director of the said “American Company.”
Gage’s efforts were crucial to allowing the expansion of Riverside – both agricultural and developmental – to proceed.
An Illustrated History of Southern California: Embracing the Counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Orange, and the Peninsula of Lower California, which was published in 1890 by the Lewis Publishing Company of Chicago, said of Gage, “Perhaps no part of the United States, or the world, abounds in men of larger mental grasp, more daring enterprise and greater executive ability than does Southern California; men who possess the genius to conceive and the courage to undertake and carry forward to completion gigantic schemes which advance the welfare of whole communities and are so far-reaching in their effects that their benefits cannot be computed. Among the first of this class of public benefactors ranks Matthew Gage, the founder and constructor of the great irrigating canal and water system which bears his name. Mr. Gage came to Riverside, San Bernardino County, in March, 1881, and during that year took up a section of land under the Desert-Land Act, on the plain above the canals of the Riverside colony and eastward from the settlement. All the visible water supply having been previously appropriated, he began to cast about to obtain a sufficiency of this liquid monarch to enable him to improve his arid land, which was considered valueless without it. He gave much thought and time to the subject of developing water from some unknown source, not only for his own tract, but for the thousands of fertile but barren acres lying about it. He first bought some old water-rights in the Santa Ana River; then, conceiving the idea of developing a sufficient flow of water for irrigating on a extensive scale by means of artesian wells, he purchased a large tract of bottom land along that stream, about two miles southeast of the city of San Bernardino, and began sinking wells. Although practically without moneyed capital, he also commenced in 1882 the construction of the great canal, the cost of which would eventually reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hence Mr. Gage was compelled, through his own personal efforts, to create the values which enabled him to carry forward his great work as it progressed step by step. The task was herculean. Obstacles numerous and varied were met and overcome which would have discouraged and crushed men of less persistent energy and fertility of resource. Not the least of the difficulties he had to contend with was the determined opposition of jealous, narrow-minded people, who were unable to comprehend the magnitude of the importance of his grand enterprise. The first section of twelve miles of the canal were completed in little more than a year. Despite all impediments the work of construction advanced to completion without the sale of a dollar of stock or an acre of land. The canal is twenty-two miles in length and includes sixteen tunnels, besides aqueducts and flumes, which are built with a capacity to carry 4,500 miner’s inches of water. The cost of the work up to date, April, 1890, is $1,400,000. The Gage water system covers 12,000 acres of choice citrus fruit lands, which prior to the inauguration of his enterprise was a drug at $1.25 per acre, but which is now selling, with water rights, for $300 to $500 an acre unimproved. Water rights have been sold for about 4,000 acres of this land, 3,000 acres of which have been planted to oranges and lemons. With a view to interest moneyed men and secure the investment of capital in still further carrying out his ideal, Mr. Gage twice visited Europe during the past two years, and succeeded in associating with himself a number of wealthy Englishmen in a company known as the Riverside Trust Company, of London, incorporated under the laws of Great Britain, for the purpose of the further development of the property connected with and belonging to the Gage canal and land system, which is now worth several millions of dollars. This company is composed of some of the most prominent people financially and socially in Great Britain. Mr. Gage is managing director of the company and has the entire active charge of its business, ably assisted by his brother, Robert Gage, as general superintendent, and his brother-in-law, William Irving, as chief engineer. The company, which has its working office in Riverside, and its financial office in London, is investing a large sum of money in enlarging the water supply and putting in a system of steel distributing pipes costing $75,000 to $100,000, which convey it to every ten-acre tract of their land, known as Arlington Heights, together with the construction of streets and avenues, and other extensive improvements of an ornamental and useful character. They are building one main avenue, which has been named in honor of England’s reigning sovereign, Victoria. This magnificent street is to connect with Magnolia Avenue, and will be about twelve miles in length, and when finished according to design will be one of the most elegant rural drives in the world. Mr. Gage has had opportunity to dispose of his property and retire with an ample fortune, but declined, preferring to place it in its present shape, and devote his talent and energies for years to come to the perfecting and expansion of his grand ideal. Besides his large interests in the company, of which he is the directing head, he owns thirty acres of bearing orange grove in Riverside, where he and his family reside. Though but just at the meridian of life, Mr. Gage has accomplished alone and unaided a work which for magnitude of achievement and beneficent results to society, is equaled by the life-work of but few men; and he deserves to live many years to contemplate with satisfaction his struggles and enjoy his triumph.”
One of the realities of life is that often, when one individual or a group of people advances, others are set back. While Riverside gained immensely from Gage’s efforts, in a very real way, San Bernardino and San Bernardino County lost as a consequence of what he did.
Landowners, farmers, speculators, investors and business owners, chaffing under the yoke of county governance in San Bernardino moved to secede from San Bernardino County. On August 14, 1893, Riverside County broke away from San Bernardino, taking with it the southernmost lying section of San Bernardino County and including in its formation a limited portion of northernmost San Diego County.
After the secession, Gage continued to own property and water rights on the San Bernardino County side of the newly formed boundary. In this way, Gage was largely responsible for the exportation of water from San Bernardino County elsewhere, a precedent that has since proven problematic in San Bernardino County as numerous entities for more than 120 years since have attempted, with varying degrees of success and failure, to make raids on San Bernardino County water, including that in the Santa Ana River watershed, from the Mojave River and from various aquifers beneath the Mojave Desert.
Matthew Gage’s immense success was in some respects tempered by challenges, indeed failures, in his effort to secure control of the empire he had built. While he had essentially built that empire from scratch, based upon his own innovative know-how, hard work, sacrifice, gumption and creative arrangements without working capital, there eventually came a time where he had to pay the piper. Between 1892 and 1909, the Riverside Trust Company sold parcels in Arlington Heights to individuals. With each parcel conveyance, the trust company also transferred shares in the Gage Canal Company on the basis of two shares for every acre in the parcel sold.
In 1892, Gage arranged to get a ‘Deed to Water’ from the Riverside Trust Company to the Gage Canal Company in the amount of 1,000 inches under a four-inch pressure. The trust company assured the canal company that 1,000 inches of water was flowing or ready to flow at the headgates of the canal. In exchange for the deed, the canal company issued 10,000 shares of its stock to the trust company. In 1903, the trust company in exchange for 1,968 shares in the canal company, conveyed to the canal company 196.82 inches of water, the deed describing them as ‘water and water rights in the Gage Canal.’
It was around that time, well after the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century, Gage resolved to free himself of the commitments he had made to Crewdson and the other owners and investors in the Riverside Trust Company. He drew together all of the unencumbered capital he had – $100,000 – along with $200,000 in loans he had raised from the Bank of California. He sojourned to London with the $300,000 in hard cash with which he intended to buy up the remaining stock of the Riverside Trust Company, extending to all of the real estate in Arlington Heights that had not yet been sold, and ensure that he had from that point going forward management of the company. Gage made his pitch to the London directors of the company, who in response sent Crewdson and another director with the last name of Newton across the Atlantic and then across the continent to Riverside to investigate the local management of their holdings.
“Upon their return they reported adversely,” the Los Angeles Herald reported in its June 1, 1904 edition, “and Gage’s plan failed. It Is announced that an entire change in the management of the concern will be made at once.”
Gage had pledged all of his stock in the Riverside Trust Company with G. Howard Thompson of the Bank of California as a mortgage for $200,000 he needed to carry off the deal he was trying to effectuate.
“The stock of Gage, which was hypothecated with G. Howard Thompson, Is now in the latter’s hands,” according to the Los Angeles Herald’s June 1, 1904 article. “It is stated that formal announcement of the future course of the company will be made in the near future.”
The Herald reported that some of Gage’s associates suffered as the result of his inability to wangle the Riverside Trust company takeover. “Several local firms are concerned in the failure of Gage’s deal, one of which is said to have lost $12,000,” the article stated.
For a time, Gage withdrew from the Riverside area and went to live in Berkeley.
Gage had indeed succeeded in becoming a Southern California water baron. Nevertheless, his dreams of becoming a land baron as well had been dashed.
Gage was able to maintain a working relationship with the Riverside Trust Company, which accrued to the mutual benefit of both parties. In 1909, a deed to “water and water rights in the Gage Canal, lying within the counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, in the State of California” consisting of twenty-eight inches of water measured under a four inch pressure was transferred by the trust company to the canal company in exchange for 280 shares of trust company stock Gage still owned.
In 1890, Gage and his wife had seven surviving children. The names of five of them were Margaret, Maude, Anna, Horace, and Frances. In early 1916, Gage, who was again living in Riverside, contracted pneumonia and died on January 22 of that year, 11 days after his 72nd birthday. His obituary, which ran in the Riverside Daily Press stated that he was survived by his widow; his three daughters; two brothers, W. John Gage, of Riverside, and Robert Gage of Utica, N. Y.; two sisters, Mrs, William Irving, of Riverside, and Mrs. William Spooner, of Kingston, Canada; and a grandson, Gage Henderson. It made no mention of surviving sons.
By Mark Gutglueck