The most interesting natural phenomenon that has transpired in Kings county since its organization is the vanishing and reappearance of Tulare lake, a body of fresh water, for years the largest in area of any lake west of the Rocky Mountains. This lake at one time within the memory of some pioneers yet living covered one thousand square miles of territory, extending from Kern county northwesterly to near Lemoore. From 1854 to 1872, a period of sixteen years, the area of this lake changed but little. But along in the '70s, irrigation from the streams that poured into this basin which forms the depression in the great Tulare valley, the borders of the lake gradually receded. It is the opinion of Dr. Gustav Eisen, who knew the lake in 1875 and who made a study of it again in 1898, that the use of the waters from the streams by the farmers caused the gradual recession. In a well-written article on the subject Dr. Eisen relates that recession was rapid at the end of the first three years of irrigation farming. The tapping of Kings and Tule rivers, and Cross creek which is fed by the Kaweah river, and the spreading of the water out upon the plains through great systems of canals and laterals caused the southern end of the lake to shrink materially. The shore line in 1854 represented the diagram of an oyster, but by 1875 the southern end had shrunk until it was about a mile in width. At that time the lake was a great hunting and fishing ground. Sail boats and a steamboat plied its waters. At certain points a man could wade out for miles and not reach beyond his depth. From 1875 to 1880 the lake grew smaller and smaller and in 1882 the border had left Kern county entirely. In 1888 it had become almost circular in shape. From a body of water almost eighty miles in length in 1858, by the time Kings county was formed it had shrunken to about two hundred and twenty square miles. The process of evaporation assisted in aiding the irrigationists to uncover the bottom and as that appeared it baked and cracked under the influence of the summer sun until, checked and fissured, it invited the attention of the land seeker, for by placing solid wooden shoes sawed out of plank on the feet of horses, teams could be gotten upon the land and levees could be built and crops put in. Wherever planting was done in this uncovered lake bottom it was discovered that the soil was rich, especially at the deltas of Kings and Tule rivers and Deer and Cross creeks. The uncovered lands belonged to the state under what was known as the Arkansas act passed by Congress in September, 1850. This act provided that swamp and overflow lands such as were of no value in extending waterways and could not be settled upon under conditions governing the National Homestead Act, should revert to the states in which such lands lay. The California legislature in 1872 passed a swamp and overflow land act which was subsequently amended, enabling settlers to locate on these lands belonging to the state, the uniform price to be $1 per acre. The law also provided for a reclamation system, which when the requirements were met, the state would pay back to the settler the $1 per acre advanced. Under this act much swamp and overflowed land was acquired by large corporations through their allied interests. In 1880 the state adopted a new constitution and an important change was made in the matter of handling the swamp land, and Article XVII provided that lands belonging to the state which are suitable for cultivation shall be granted only to actual settlers and in quantities not to exceed three hundred and twenty acres to each settler.
As the waters of Tulare lake continued to vanish and the immense area was laid bare settlers and speculators believing that the lake had disappeared for all time, stampeded to Kings county and "Lakelanders" were as numerous and as enthusiastic as prospectors attracted to a great mining field where a lode has been struck. Reclamation districts of large and small area were organized and levees were erected out of the silt marking the boundaries of such districts. As fast as the water could be fenced in to smaller area by the excited land-seekers the work went on and the claimants plowed and planted and harvested. Some enormous yields of wheat and barley were recorded.
Finally, in 1895, there was no lake. Standing in the center of the vast expanse one May day the writer of this gazed out upon a vast sea of about 50,000 acres of waving grain. The millions of ducks and geese, pelicans, swan and other wild birds that once made the old lake their abiding place had vanished. A stray band of pelicans came in, looked down for the water, but finding none, vanished in the distance. Farmers banked upon a bounteous harvest. But during the winter months that had just passed the canyons of the mighty Sierras had been filled with snow and with the spring rains and warm conditions in the hills the torrents which had in other years formed and kept replenished the old lake came down the rivers. Some of the reclaimers who had particularly good levees managed through great exertion to get their grain out, while others less fortunate saw their thousand of acres go under water; saw their levees melt away like sugar, their houses, barns and haystacks float away, and in a few weeks the theory that irrigation and the multiplied population of the country using the waters of the Sierras in growing vineyards and orchards had robbed the county of its lake, had vanished, and Tulare lake was again on the map covering about the same relative area as it did in 1893.
At present a great levee has been built on the east side of the lake and many thousands of rich acres have thus been reclaimed and the further extension of the levee will expand the reclaimed territory to a large extent.