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12 Defining Moments in California's History

12 Defining Moments in California's History

What older generations started, people today keep the legacy alive. We owe a lot of it to defining moments that shaped the Golden State.

Roubina Al Abashian


5 min read

November 27, 2021

California has a history so fascinating it might even seem unreal. While the state itself may have been recognized in 1850, hardships and struggles gave way to victories and prosperity, which in turn created a state with beauty and strong will. What older generations started, people today keep the legacy alive. We owe a lot of it to defining moments that shaped the Golden State.

In 1579, Francis Drake was halfway during his circumnavigation and sailed out in the Pacific, then turned east seeking the Strait of Anián.

1579: Exploration and Settlement

The first time California’s territory was officially claimed was when Captain Francis Drake of England explored its coast in 1579. Before his arrival to the Pacific Coast, Spain had already discovered the area and settled in. So, naturally, a war broke out between the two European countries, which ended with the Spanish staying in the area for another century. By the 1600s, many Spanish missions had been erected in the lower parts of the state, providing the Latin touch and influence we see today. 

1821: The Mexican Rule

By September 27, 1821, Mexico had gained its independence from Spain. When the colonizers began retreating from the area, California, by default, fell under Mexican rule. Shortly after, travelers from the United States began arriving in Alta California. Soon enough, they started developing American settlements all across the land. Eventually, the United States declared war on Mexico and founded the California Republic in 1846.

The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad.

1849: The Gold Rush 

Another defining event that shaped both California and overall U.S. history was the Gold Rush. The discovery of massive amounts of gold in the state brought thousands of prospectors and settlers to the land, all looking to make a fortune. Rumor has it that during the first half of the 19th century, an estimate of two billion dollars worth of gold was mined in the Gold Rush towns of California—the term “American Dream” was created during this era. But the Gold Rush caused a lot of trouble to indigenous tribes living there, who had to flee the area due to an overflow of settlers. 

1850: Being Recognized as the 31st State in America

California officially being recognized as a U.S. State was one of the most defining moments in the country’s history. On September 9, 1850, the United States House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 150 to 56. Two days later, California was formally admitted to the Union as its 31st state.

North America's first transcontinental railroad was a 1,911-mile continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869.

1869: First Transcontinental Railroad

The First Transcontinental Railroad was a 1,911-mile continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869—it was meant to connect the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific Coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. With the opening of the new railroad, it was now possible to transport goods such as coal from California to other states. Soon after the invention of fully functional refrigerator cars, the Golden State became the number one agricultural producer in the U.S.

1905: The Construction of Ocean Shore Railroad

Ever wondered how the Bay Area’s railways came to be? In the early 1900s, Ocean Shore Railway Company came up with the idea of building a high-speed electric railway that connected San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Work on the project started in 1905, but the construction process faced a major setback when the 1906 earthquake struck. Development continued a year later, but the railway was never fully completed. The few railways that were finished allowed passengers to go back and forth between The City by the Bay and the coastal town of Pacifica. The railway paved the way for future developments that now cover all of the Bay Area. 

More than 3,000 people died as a result of the earthquake, and over 80 percent of the city of San Francisco was destroyed.

1906: Earthquake and Aftermath

On April 18, 1906, tragedy struck the state of California. The infamous San Francisco earthquake and the large-scale fires that followed greatly destroyed the area. Due to the colossal damage, San Francisco witnessed the largest maritime rescue in the United States’ history. However, that same year, the state started rebuilding the S.F. Bay Area with stronger and more earthquake-resistant materials. Nowadays, we get to witness the beauty and strength of the newly built structures as we stroll down Fog City’s neighborhoods

The issue of woman suffrage was being raised across the country and five states, all in the west, had approved the radical and controversial idea.

1911: Women’s Rights

One of the best examples of defining moments in California was the women’s suffrage movement. Women’s struggles for equal rights in California was a long and turbulent one. In 1896, women had failed to obtain their right to vote. But the fight didn’t stop there. With determination and willpower, everything changed on October 10, 1911—a special election was held in California to grant women the right to vote. The amendment passed, making the Golden State the sixth state where women could vote equally with men, only nine years before it was legal nationwide.

In the early 1900s, Hollywood became the world capital of the commercial movie industry. Several factors explain why filmmakers prefer this district.

1900s: The Film Capital

Back in the 1900s, Thomas Edison had complete control over what motion picture productions could and couldn’t do. Actors and producers were growing sick of patents, which they believed were blocking their creativity. Lucky for them, Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company didn’t legally affect California. Naturally, all the talent started flocking to the state, with most choosing to settle in Hollywood. With its ideal climate and outstanding scenery, the area was perfect for the filmmaking industry. In 1919, the first motion picture studio was built just outside of Hollywood, and the rest is history. Hollywood rightly earned the title of the Film Capital of the World.

The Great Highway is a road in San Francisco that forms the city's western edge along the Pacific coast built in 1929.

1929: The Construction of One of the World’s Greatest Highways

One of the main reasons people started visiting California in large numbers during the early 1900s was the completion of the Great Highway. On June 9, 1929, over 50,000 people gathered along Lincoln Way in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the highway, making it one of the biggest gatherings to date. Today, driving this scenic stretch is considered one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco.  

1945: Signing of the United Nations Charter

The San Francisco Conference is perhaps the most defining moment not just in the Golden State, but the entire world. The famous meeting was held in 1945 to sign the United Nations Charter, created to maintain international peace and security. More than 3,000 important guests were present at the conference, which started on April 25 and ended on June 26. 

In the feminist spirit of the personal being political, the most basic form of activism was an emphasis on coming out and living life openly.

1965: The Rise of the Gay Rights Movement

California has always been a pioneer in bringing justice to the LGBTQ+ community. One of the most critical events in the Gay Rights Movement happened on New Year’s Day, 1965, in the California Hall, San Francisco. A costume party fundraiser for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was being held. The night was going smoothly until the police showed up and unjustly harassed the guests. While not much changed that day, it was still a significant turning point in California’s gay rights movement, especially against law enforcement prejudice. 

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