Incorporated in January 8, 1872, Chico has become the largest community in Butte County and is located within the Sacramento Valley region of Northern California. Named “Little” in Spanish, the City of Chico is surrounded by agriculture lands and is close to the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. With a focus on education, healthcare, technology, services, and agriculture, Chico is considered the economic and cultural center for the Northern Sacramento Valley.
Chico is a vibrant community with beautiful natural surroundings, and a lively downtown area. The city is a college town home to California State University, Chico. The college is a significant aspect of the city and brings youthful energy to the community and contributes to a diverse and dynamic culture.
Chico’s central location makes it an attractive destination for outdoor enthusiast and nature lovers. One of the defining features of the city is Bidwell Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. Over four times the size of Central Park in New York City, Bidwell Park spans over 3,670 acres and offers a variety of recreational activities. Hiking, biking, picnicking, swimming, golfing, and disc golf are just some of the activities. One Mile Recreation Area, where Sycamore Pool is located close to downtown and is just one of the park’s attractions. Many locals and visitors escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy the beauty of this area throughout the year. Chico offers a variety of social activities such as the multiple farmers markets, arts and various culture events, festivals, celebrations, and plenty of nightlife and great eateries. Chico is a very giving community and offers numerous volunteering opportunities through many nonprofit organizations and community projects.
A BIT OF CHICO HISTORY
The first know inhabitants of this area were Mechoopda Maidu Native Americans. The Tribe was located about 3 miles South of what is now Downtown Chico. In 1967, the Tribe terminated and lost its Chico Rancheria. Half of the 26-acre reservation is now owned by Chico State and used by agriculture and anthropology students. In 1992, The Mechoopda regained federal recognition.
John Bidwell is known as the founder of Chico and was an American farmer, politician, soldier, and early California pioneer.
In 1843, at age 22 General John Bidwell emigrated to Alta California. A territory of Mexico that included all the U.S. States of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. John was one of the earliest emigrants on the California Trail and was the first known European settler to establish a homestead in Alta California. John became a Mexican citizen and a prominent landowner receiving multiple rancho grants. In 1846, the U.S. Army invaded Mexico. The signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847 ended the Conquest of California, an important military campaign of the Mexican American War. About a year later, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and officially ended the Mexican American War. Mexico formally ceded Alta California and other territories to the United States. John later went on to serve in the California Senate and then in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chico was founded in 1860. John constructed a 26-room mansion on his 26,000-acre Rancho Del Arroyo Chico property. The mansion completed in 1868 was the same year he married Annie Ellicott Kennedy. Located near what is now downtown Chico, Bidwell’s adobe house, known as the Bidwell Mansion, still stands today and now is a historical landmark. John Bidwell became one of the most influential figures in the region’s history.
In 1870, the California and Oregon Railroad made its way from Portland to San Francisco via Chico. This connection boosted the local economy, allowing for easier transportation of goods and people. Prior to the railroad many miners and traders opted to travel the Sacramento River via steamboats, regularly making their way from Sacramento to Red Bluff. On May 8, 1850, the 42-ton steamboat “Jack Hayes” successfully made it to Redding, the head of the navigational part of the Sacramento River. The Jack Hays then began regular service to Redding with Chico Landing just one of the stops was one stop along the river. Here steamers could be moored while passengers and goods egressed. Chico Landing was roughly located where Hwy 32 now crosses the river at Gianella Bridge.
In 1887, John Bidwell donated 8 acres of land from his cherry orchard to help create California State Normal School, a Northern Branch of the California teaching college system. In 1921, legislation was enacted to change the school’s name to Chico State Teacher’s College. As the curriculum diversified the school was again renamed in 1935 to Chico State College. In 1972, the school again was renamed California State University, Chico. Many folks now simply call it Chico State. Over the years the Bidwell’s continued to donate land to the school and the city. A few years after Annie Bidwell’s death in 1918, the mansion was utilized as a women’s dormitory for several years.
Another significate moment for Chico began a few years after the Barber Match Company of Ohio and twelve other match companies merged in 1880 and were renamed as the Diamond Match Company of Connecticut. By the end of the 19th century this new company would become the largest match company in the United States. Legend has it the company along with Bryant and May, a British match manufacturer were searching for new sources of lumber for match production. In 1902, some 70,000 acres of land were purchased in California and the company began to build a wood processing mill. This area was called Sterling City. Named after the arrival of the boilers for the mill built by the Stirling Boiler Company. The match company hired Southern Pacific railroad to build a 42-mile standard gauge rail-line from Stirling City to the Diamond Match Companies new manufacturing plant South of Chico. Within this newly purchased 250 acres the company would create a town named “Barber.” A place some have referred to as a utopian town. The town consisted of a social hall, swimming pool, stores, and nice bungalow houses for employee housing. A textbook company town. Many of these homes still stand today and are called Diamond Match houses. The area is now commonly known as Barber Yard, and the Barber neighborhood. The company had a substantial impact creating a socially and economic boom in the area. The arrival of the company played a major role in the Chico’s population growth; almost doubling the size of the city within 10 years. After 1957 the Diamond match Company went through a few ownerships and name changes. In 1984, the Barber Yard site was purchased by Louisiana Pacific and in 1989 the plant was closed for good. The remain 137 barren acres of Barber Yard is currently slatted to be developed as a master planned community.
Anticipating population growth along with providing transportation for its employees, the Diamond Match Company proposed and created the Chico Electric Railway. Diamond Match Company coordinating with the railroad and Diamond Match crews even helped build the electric lines, but they did not run the line. A newly incorporated company with many of the same Diamond Match officers began California Gas & Electric Company (later Pacific Gas & Eclectic Company) to operate the electric railway. Regular service began on January 2, 1905, offering 5.5 miles of streetcar service. It served Downtown, Mulberry, Chapmantown, and Barber neighborhoods as well as the Diamond Match Company. Many years later, service was expanded to north on Esplanade to support the newly created Army Air Corps training base at Chico Municipal airport during WWII. Over the years Chico’s electric streetcar service saw many changes made to its local and interurban routes and was operated by a few different rail companies. During most of the 46 years of service the streetcars ran under the Sacramento Northern Railroad name. One route with a trolley named “Bidwell” went all the to San Francisco. With the modernization of transportation services and less demand, Chico’s streetcar service reached the end of the serviceable life on December 15, 1947, with the final five cent streetcar fare in California. It was also the end of scheduled passenger service on the entire Sacramento Northern Railroad system. The streetcar Birney #62 which gave that final ride in 1947 somehow managed to avoid a scrapyard and can be seen at the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City, CA.
Another seminal event for Chico was in 1941 when the City of Chico signed a lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the use of 1,045 acres of land. The airport was expanded to help serve the training needs of the United States Military. The new Chico Army Airfield brought many modern improvements to the airport and local area. The Army flying school was in operation from April 15, 1942, to December 31, 1945, at which time the airfield was deactivated. By 1949, the lease had been terminated and a deed signed by the Federal government transferring remaining land to the city. During those 3.5 years the school had trained 5,500 cadets and thousands of ground personnel. Chico Army Airfield included a unit from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. (WAAC) and was also home to a small group of a largely unknown cadre of Black WAC’s (Women’s Army Corps). The WASPS (Women’s Army Service Pilots) frequently delivered aircraft to the airfield. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion called Chico home as well. In 1944 the mission of the field changed from basic flight training to a fighter and bomber school. The field was transferred from the Western Flying Training Command to the IV Fighter Command fighter school for the remain years of operation.
However, this was not the end of military operations in Chico. In 1962, Chico became home to three SM-68 Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). It was one of three missile sites making up a squadron known as the 851st Strategic Missile Squadron, stationed out of Beale Air Force Base. In September 1962, the 851st became the last Titan I Squadron to achieve alert status and remained so until January 4, 1965. The Air Force deactivated the squadron in March 25 1965. The silos were located on adjacent land north of the airport. For years after the cold war the silo doors remained opened showing that the missiles had been removed. The land is now privately owned, and the silos have now been sealed off.
Chico has had many other notable events. Beginning in the lathe 19th century Chico began celebrating “May Day Parades” on the first Saturday of May. In 1915, the first parade gained a new name, the Pioneer Day Parade, a celebration of Chico Normal School’s Senior Day. On the 25th of April 1987 riots broke out during the Pioneer Days celebration. That same year Playboy Magazine named Chico State the “Number One Party School” in the nation. With the goal of reforming the reputation of the college and community Chico ended the 70-year-old tradition. Two years later this tradition was somewhat revived under the name Rancho Chico Days, and again in 1996 as a Celebration of People. These later parades were much more family friendly and non-alcohol related. However, with the squashing of Pioneer Days festivities, the Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations compensated and grew into much larger events. Since the early 2000’s both holiday celebrations have been reined in by restricting alcohol use. César Chávez Day has been added to the growing list of events.
OTHER FUN FACTS
During his 1952 vice presidential campaign, Richard Nixon was talking on the pay phone at the Chico train station when he got the news from the campaign headquarters that he would have to respond to the Checkers issue with the ‘Checkers speech’.
On July 31, 1961, the first-ever aircraft hijacking on United States soil occurred at the Chico Municipal Airport. Two men were critically wounded, and the hijacker was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.
In 1996, the Olympic Torch arrived in Chico at the Amtrak station. The torch was carried through the closed streets with thousands of Chicoans celebrating along the path. That same year Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole fell from a stage during a campaign event at the local Elks Lodge #423. Afterword’s Dole said, “You can always say I’ve fallen for Chico.”
Chico has been called home by several notable residents, including Jackson Pollack, abstract painter; Annie Bidwell, leader in women’s suffrage and the temperance movement; Carolyn S. Shoemaker, astronomer and co-discoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.
Chico has been home to many professional athletes as well. A few are Doug Rodger (American football defensive lineman), Jeff Stover (American football defensive lineman), Kurt Kitayama (professional golfer), and Aaron Rogers (American football quarterback).
A few music groups were born here as well; like The Mother Hips, Scapegoat Wax and Mat Kearney who started his music career while attending Chico State.
During the past 100 years, there have been at least 20 movies filmed in and around Chico. A few classic notable ones are, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Thin Man (1939), and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944). In the 1947 film Magic Town with Jimmy Stewart, our historic train station became famous when he stepped off the train at the Chico depot. Other movies include, Stolen Innocence (1995), Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy (1996), Under wraps (1997), and George B (1997). In July of 2019, Top Gun Maverick’s final flying scenes were filmed in the foothills of Chico. Our airport was the staging area for some great aerial filming.
Chico has been the birthplace for many successful businesses, some popular around the world. Companies like Lulu’s, AMain Hobbies, Build.com, College scheduler, VideoMaker Magazine, Auctiva, and Cloudcoin. Tri Counties Bank, AVL Looms, Digital Path, Orient and Flume Art Glass, Satava Art Glass, Transfer Flow, Fifth Sun, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company are just a few other successful businesses that call Chico home.
EVEN MORE FUN FACTS
After the filming of the movie Robin Hood the city changed the North end of Ivy St. to Warner St. in honor of Warner Brothers Studios.
The streets South of the college spell out CHICO. They are Chestnut, Hazel, Ivy, Cherry, Orange.
Chico is divided East and West by the Esplanade and Streets are located south of campus, and avenues are north of campus.
Chico population grew rapidly after nearby Paradise’s Camp Fire in 2018. This quickly squeezed the already low housing inventory and put pressure on city services. Both can still be felt today.
But still, Chico retains its historical charm while embracing a mix of cultural influences, making it a unique and lively city in Northern California. Its rich history, natural beauty, and strong community spirit continues to attract new residents and visitors alike.