Downtown Stockton California (CA)

History of Downtown

Historically, Downtown Stockton began with a mix of thriving commercial ventures and colorful characters. Industrious citizens altered the natural waterways running through the city to alleviate flooding, coordinated interstate water and rail with local transportation systems, and optimized Stockton’s strategic geographic location at the crossroads of California.

Two new books released from Arcadia Publishing celebrate the faces and places that shaped today’s Stockton. “Downtown Stockton” and “Stockton In Vintage Postcards” Both books are available for $19.99 at area bookstores, Arcadia Publishing or in the offices of the Downtown Stockton Alliance.

Download a brochure, to learn more about our free, guided tours of historic Downtown Stockton (PDF)

To take a self-guided tour of art and history in Downtown Stockton, download a brochure with map (PDF)

To take a self-guided tour of Maintenance Hole Covers in Downtown Stockton, download a brochure with map (PDF)

Additional Resources:

Historical Nuggets: The following Postcards from the Past are provided by Alice van Ommeren, the author of "Stockton in Vintage Postcards" and a member of the Stockton Cultural Heritage Board.

Spirit of Stockton’s Chinatown

The spirit of Stockton’s historical Chinatown hides in two blocks surrounding Washington Street. Thousands of Chinese from the Kwangtung province came to Stockton during the 1850’s due to a combination of political and economic unrest in China and the discovery of gold in California. After the Gold Rush, many found opportunities in railroad and reclamation projects and settled in Stockton. By 1880, the city was home to the third largest Chinese community in California.

The earliest Chinese community in Stockton was located on Channel Street between Hunter and El Dorado Streets. Fire destroyed much of this original settlement and the community moved to the south bank of Mormon Slough. Later, the center of commerce and social activity for the Chinese community moved to East Washington Street between Center and Hunter Streets. The area was well known for its residences, restaurants, stores, and gambling houses.

Discriminatory laws up until the late 19th century restricted immigration and prevented the Chinese from buying property. Finally, after the turn of the century, American-born Chinese were allowed to buy property and own buildings. The Lincoln Hotel, built in 1920 by the Wong brothers on South El Dorado Street, was considered one of Stockton’s finest hotels of the time.

During the 1960’s, redevelopment and construction of the Crosstown Freeway destroyed most of the original Chinatown. But, there are some reminders of its illustrious past. The Asian-styled Lee Center and the promenade on Chung Wah Lane were built on the site of the original Chinatown. Chinese family associations are still located in the area.  On Lock Sam, a popular Cantonese restaurant, was originally established on Washington Street in 1895.

As we invest in neighborhood revitalization, we should remember the Washington Street Chinatown as one of the city’s earliest residential and commercial neighborhoods. More importantly we must remember the early Chinese pioneers for their courage to persist and thrive in Stockton and for their vast contributions to the city.


Hunter Square

Hunter Plaza, currently under construction, was designed as the heart of the city by its founder Charles M. Weber. Envisioning a plaza in the tradition of Mexican and Spanish towns, he donated the land to Stockton in the 1850s. Now called Hunter Square, it is one of the most historic sites in Stockton.

Located in the shadow of the County Courthouse, Hunter Square has always been the center of county government. The Square was historically surrounded by banking and retail. It was also the location of farmers’ markets, street fairs, concerts and carnivals. Four different courthouses have been built next to the Square in the last 150 years, but it has endured and hosted numerous public meetings and political rallies. 

Hunter Plaza was home to many important events in Stockton’s history. For example, it was the site of the 1857 California State Fair. On July 4, 1876, the Plaza was the location of the Centennial Celebration. In 1909, the “Rush of ’49,” an unusual street fair depicting a gold mining camp, was held in the Plaza.

Water features have always had a place on the Square. In the 1850s, a beautiful fountain was built from an artesian well. It was awarded a blue ribbon at the State Fair, but was eventually demolished when the well dried up. In 1891, a granite drinking fountain was constructed on the side of the Plaza facing Main Street. Created with funds collected by the Stockton Mail newspaper, the tall classical-style fountain was known as the “Mail Fountain” and included an ice chamber for cooling water.

The most recent fountain was built in 1967 as the centerpiece for the redesigned Hunter Square. During the City’s West End Renewal Project, Main Street was also closed to create a park while the north end of the plaza was dedicated as a parking lot. Currently, the fountain sculpture is in storage during the construction of a new County Court House.


Remembering Main Street

Some remember Main Street as a bustling city street that drew all of Stockton to its unique stores and important businesses. Often photographed and the subject of vintage postcards, Main Street was at one time the heart of Stockton’s downtown area.

The city’s earliest businesses were clustered around the waterfront, a convenient location for trade and transportation to the southern gold mines. By 1851, the area had been plagued by a series of floods and fires and businesses started migrating towards the Courthouse Plaza and Main Street. 

The early buildings on Main Street were wooden framed and included grocery and provision stores, saddle and harness shops, as well as hardware and machinery merchants. Horse drawn carts and buggies traveled the unpaved road while pedestrians used the wooden sidewalks. By the turn of the century, Stockton had grown into an industrial city. Streetcars running down Main Street and the presence of banks, hotels, and theatres, attracted a steady flow of visitors.

By the 1930’s, Main Street boasted several skyscrapers and became the center of Stockton’s leading shops and prominent businesses. The pioneer stores were replaced by larger retail stores, including the Owl Drug Store, J.C. Penney’s, Woolworth’s. Nevertheless, many specialty shops and small businesses remained. Main Street continued as the hub of commercial activity for the city.

During the 1960’s, Main Street was made into a one-way street in an effort to improve the flow of traffic downtown. The west end of Main Street closed with the building of the fountain on Hunter Square Plaza. The substantial residential and commercial growth north of the Calaveras River contributed to the decline of Main Street and downtown.


Cunningham Castle

Castles built in Europe during the Middle Ages are known to be architecturally pleasing on the outside, but gloomy on the inside. It was no different for the castle-like jail built in Stockton in 1893 on the northeast corner of San Joaquin and Channel Streets. The building was nicknamed “Cunningham’s Castle” for its fortress-like design and its construction under the supervision of Sheriff Thomas Cunningham.

Several architectural plans were submitted to the Board of Supervisors before the building’s Richardsonian Romanesque design was chosen. This unique architectural style was popular in the 1890’s, mainly in large cities in the northeast United States. The building style was influenced by medieval architecture and is characterized by round masonry towers and turrets with conical roofs, short robust columns, contrasting stone colors and rough-faced stonework.

Construction of the three-story brick building began in 1891 but was not completed until 1893 due to financial problems. Expensive masonry used in the construction design contributed to a final cost of $90,000. At the time, the facility was considered one of the finest jail designs in the state for its security and modern features. The first two floors contained eight cells laid out in a semi-circular arrangement. The basement held six cells. There were additional cells for women prisoners and witnesses. The cells, referred to as “tanks”, were completely enclosed except for windows in the doors. The jail had its own gas well which provided heat and lighting.

Designed to hold 75 prisoners, capacity was quickly reached as the city’s population more than doubled from 1900 to 1920. By the late 1940’s the jail was averaging a population of over 400 inmates. Record capacity was reached in 1954, when the jail held 518 prisoners. On April 19, 1958, the jail released its last prisoner amid complaints of inhumane conditions. The lime mortar holding the bricks had begun to slowly weaken over the decades. The structure was torn down in 1961. In 1972, the City Council designated the location of the old jail as a Stockton Historical Landmark.


Stockton’s Famous Mineral Baths

Stockton was once the site of several renowned mineral baths. The first mineral baths in Stockton, the Weber Baths, were built in 1883 and occupied the current site of the Hotel Stockton. They boasted a substantial size swimming tank with more than forty dressing rooms. Stockton’s abundance of natural gas wells allowed for a steady and continuous flow of warm water into the baths. The gas actually pushed up the mineral water which contained iron, sulphur, magnesium, soda and salt and was deemed therapeutic.

Stockton’s most famous mineral baths were the Jackson Baths built in 1893 at the present location of McKinley Park. Three wells supplied water to one large pool and several smaller pools which were surrounded by swings, a trapeze, slides, springboards, and 150 dressing rooms. The facility included twelve bath houses for private parties, a clubhouse for entertaining, and a grand stand for musical concerts. The thirteen acre resort also featured lawn areas with picnic tables and barbecue pits, and even a small zoo and a scenic railway.

Renamed the Stockton Mineral Baths after substantial renovations in 1920, the expanded pool became the largest swimming tank in the world with a central circular pool with two wings. Renowned architect Glenn Allen designed the four-story light house tower with a statuary and fountain at its base, two Venetian bridges at either side of the circular pool, and several slides and waterfalls. Private pavilions, wading pools and sandy beaches made all that Stockton’s most popular attraction of the time. Although the wells dissipated by the 1940s, memories of them live on in vintage postcards and photos.



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