The margins of Tulare Lake and the sloughs in the river bottoms were covered by a broad band of freshwater marsh. The tule, a bulrush that often grew to more than 15 feet in height, dominated this plant community. The Spanish word for this plant gave the name tulare, "place of the tules", to the lake.
The marshland was abundant in many kinds of plants and animals and the Yokuts tribes who lived nearby made use of these resources for transport, shelter and food. They used the tules to build boats and mats for shelter. They caught fish, turtles, birds and small mammals in the marshes. They harvested cattail tubers for food and collected sedges for basket material.
Grebes, bitterns, herons, ducks, coots, rails, wrens, three species of blackbirds and sparrows all nested in the tules. Lake fish spawned in the protected waters of the marsh with its plentiful food supply of tiny aquatic invertebrates.
Pacific pond turtles were so numerous along the marshy lake edges that they were caught and shipped by train to San Francisco and other coastal cities where "terrapin" soup and stew were menu items in the 1870s and 1880s. Turtles and fish were caught in the lake with seines that brought out up to 2000 pounds at a time. In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco.
The marshlands were not attractive to settlers. They made travel difficult, they could not be farmed, they had no trees to cut and they produced swarms of mosquitoes.
Reclamation of "swamp and overflowed lands", including the marshes of Tulare Lake, was widely favored. The State of California owned this land but sold it for $2.50 an acre to individuals who would reclaim it for farming. The State passed laws providing for reclamation districts to build levees, dams, and drains to help remove the water from the marshes, sloughs and lake bottom.
Wheat was the first major crop planted on these reclaimed lands and the San Joaquin Valley was the number one shipper of wheat in the country in the 1880s. As more irrigation water became available, cotton and vegetables became the main crops.
By 1899, the lake was dry for the first time and efforts to remove the remaining tule marshes and contain the lake continued well into the 20th century. The Lake continued to alternate periods of dryness with large floods. From 1923 to early 1936, the lake was gone, only to have more than 200 square miles inundated in 1937-38. The completion of large dams on the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern Rivers in the 1940s and 1950s has helped to control the rivers although the persistent waters still return in years like 1983 and 1997.
Since 1949, water has been provided for manmade marshlands as habitat for ducks and other wildlife in several refuges in nearby counties.
Text submitted by: Joyce Hall