Banta, California, is a town of a hundred or so denizens these days — depending on where you decide to draw the borderline — but it was once a place with high hopes and a bright future.
In the mid-1840s, before it became known as Banta, the small settlement was actually known simply as the town of San Joaquin Valley — a roadhouse, corrals and a few assorted buildings at the head of the West Side-River Road, which ran from here down the valley through Los Banos, finding its terminus at the village of Tranquillity, largely following the route of today’s Highway 33. (Tranquillity later became one of the principal worker’s camps for immigrant Okies during the Dust Bowl era.)
At that time, San Joaquin Valley was also the last outpost on the stage road between Stockton and San Jose, served by the McCloud Stage Company — nothing but a dusty trail from here through the Diablo Hills until you reached the Southbay half a day later. (Yes, Altamont commuters, some things never change.)
During the Gold Rush, San Joaquin Valley’s stage stop was the Elk Horn Inn, which was purchased by Ransom Chamberlain in 1853. Chamberlain expanded the inn to include a two-story hotel, restaurant and bar, and renamed it the White House. Ten years later, young Henry Banta bought the inn from Chamberlain and changed the sign on the awning to read “Banta’s White House.” Soon, local residents, travelers and teamsters began calling the settlement “Bantas,” and the town began appearing on maps and stagecoach schedules under that name.
Soon, the Central Pacific Railroad surveyed its section of the transcontinental line and began laying tracks and ties from Stockton through Bantas on the way to the Bay Area. As a new railroad depot was being built before his eyes, Banta could see that good fortune had arrived virtually at his doorstep.
Tragically, the White House burned down in 1867, but was quickly rebuilt — only to burn down again a year later. Bowed but not broken, Henry Banta began petitioning the Central Pacific Railroad to route its proposed low-level Martinez branch (now known as the Mococo Line) through the town, which would help the railroad avoid the hilly route via the Altamont to the Bay Area. Banta went so far as to deed half of his land in the town to the CPRR for its depot, railyard and service facilities, and then borrowed enough funds to build a new twelve-room hotel, plus a livery stable, several houses and a dry goods store.
Instead, the Central Pacific decided to run the new line a few miles west of Bantas, then, under division roadmaster J.J. Tracey, consolidated its operations from Lathrop, Ellis and Bantas to the spot where the railroad’s lines from the Bay Area, the southern Central Valley, Antioch, and Sacramento intersected; that town would become known locally as Tracey (which, in a short time, through mapmaker’s errors, became “Tracy”).
With that decision, Bantas would be relegated to being little more than a small village at the far end of the Tracy railroad yards.
While it takes only a handful of minutes to walk the entire downtown (and even less if you walk fast) you’ll find Nicolas Canale’s old original wooden Banta General Store, built in 1911 down near Grant Line Road; the beautiful brick-fronted J. Brichetto Building, constructed by Giuseppe “Joseph” Brichetto in 1911 at the corner of G and 7th streets; and the historic Banta Inn, catty-corner from the Brichetto, which first opened its swinging doors as a saloon back in 1879.
Canale and Brichetto, who were brothers-in-law — Joseph was married to Nick’s sister — had also once been business partners, starting a grocery store together back in 1886, but they split up and started competing enterprises around the time the Lincoln Highway came through.
Although their split is said to have been acrimonious, they could still be seen from time to time at opposite ends of the Banta Inn’s bar, tossing off an occasional scowl at each other. By the way, Mr. Brichetto is responsible for two famous local edifices — the one here in town, and his final resting place, Brichetto’s Tomb, in the hills south of here, overlooking the broad expanse of land he once owned.
Back in the early 1910s, Banta was a key stop along the original Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first thoroughfare that linked the east coast to the west. And those train tracks that run through downtown Banta? Why, those tracks carried the original Transcontinental Railroad on its route from San Francisco to points east!
Next time you’re traveling through the magnificent San Joaquin Valley on Hiway 99, head west from Manteca or Lathrop (north of Modesto, south of Stockton) and take the Tracy exit up 11th Street (old Hiway 50, and part of the historic original Lincoln Highway). Stay in the right lane and hang a right on Grant Line — or Banta Road, if you miss your turn at Grant Line — and in minutes you’ve arrived!