How Lodi got its name

By Christi Kennedy
Special to the News-Sentinel

Lodi — it’s a four-letter word that has been debated often.

When newcomers ask, “How did Lodi get its name?” most residents might smile, shrug their shoulders and say well, it depends on whether you want to believe the story about the injured race horse or the bridge in Italy.

Traffic passes under the Lodi Arch
Traffic passes under the Lodi Arch on Pine Street. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

In the summer of 1869, there were just a few farms scattered amid the dry brush and majestic oak trees when the Central Pacific Railroad laid its tracks across the land where Lodi now stands.

For several years the small group of settlers had called their location, Mokelumne or the Mokelumne District. This name came from the river that was named after the Mokel settlement of Miwok Indians who once settled here.

So it was natural that the name chosen for the new railroad stop just south of the Mokelumne River was Mokelumne Station. But the name was troublesome. It was difficult to spell and pronounce.

Still, the name stayed with the growing community for the next four years. The railroad line through the Mokelumne region linking Sacramento and Stockton was completed on Aug. 9, 1869. Sixteen days later, on Aug. 25, 1869, a new town plot was filed in the county courthouse. The 166-acre town site was titled Mokelumne, and the new town with its troublesome name officially was born. The town quickly prospered.

Merchants in Woodbridge, three miles to the west, packed up their merchandise and opened new stores in Mokelumne. The first merchants were Charles O. Ivory, a New York native who came to California in 1853, and his partner J. M. Burt.

Their general merchandise store with living space in the back was built across from the railroad stop on the northwest corner of Pine and Sacramento streets, the nucleus of the new town. Other Woodbridge merchants and homeowners followed Ivory and Burt.

In the next few months, the railroad built its depot. A stable was built, and a stage line was established. A hotel and post office opened, and more homes were built. In the next two years, a butcher shop, drug store, jewelry store, wagon-making shop and an undertaking parlor opened for business. A church was built in 1871, and a new, larger Salem School was built in 1872. Mokelumne was a thriving community.

Trains stopped several times a day, and the stagecoach pulled into town once a day. As more people settled here, the town’s troublesome name became more of a nuisance. Mail and railroad clerks pulled their hair out trying to sort through the labels on shipments.

The post office used the name Mokelumne, but the Wells Fargo stage and Central Pacific Railroad agents referred to the town as Mokelumne Station. Adding to the confusion, there were two other communities with similar names in the area, Mokelumne Hill to the east in the gold mining region and Mokelumne City to the northwest at the intersection of Dry Creek and the Mokelumne River. Finally in the spring of 1873, residents signed a petition to drop the Mokelumne name. A committee was appointed to select a new name for the town.

The committee was composed of farmer John U. Magley, postmaster and hotel owner Daniel Crist, harness maker Richard Cope, and Judge A. C. Meeker. The name, Lodi, was the committee’s popular selection and easily beat out “Salem,” the only other suggestion known.

The townspeople quickly adopted the much shorter and easier to spell name, and Ivory started writing Lodi in his daily cashbook on May 16, 1873. The town’s new name became official on March 21, 1874 when Assembly Bill No. 639 was approved by the state Senate. To this day, however, no one knows for certain why the name, Lodi, was chosen.

There were no minutes kept during these committee discussions that took place 132 years ago. In the decades after the name selection, the children of the town’s founders told their versions of how Lodi was chosen. There are three versions of why the name was selected, but none can be proven.

The most colorful, and probably least likely, story is that Lodi was chosen to honor a famous state champion racehorse. The stallion, Lodi, was an unbeaten, five-year-old when he ran against the horse, Norfolk, in a race during the summer of 1865, four years before the railroad established Mokelumne.

This race, held at Sacramento’s Union Park, was witnessed by Mokelumne area residents Allen T. Ayers, John Hutchins and Asa Van Valkenburgh. During the race, Lodi suffered a crack in his right fore hoof and, despite gallant effort, lost the race.

The story is that people were so impressed by the courageous horse that they named the town after him. However, it is unlikely that the horse would have been in the minds of Mokelumne residents eight years after the race.

In 1873, the horse was then 13 years old and had been retired to a Napa farm for nearly eight years. But the racehorse theory was a great story that few could resist telling over the years. Things may have become more confused by the fact that around the 1890s a family in the area owned a racehorse they called Lodi.

Early Lodi District Chamber of Commerce publications favor the legend of Lodi the racehorse, and the Native Sons of the Golden West erected a plaque about the horse in front of City Hall on Pine Street in 1955.

A second theory is that the name Lodi was chosen because the Morse and Elliott families wanted to name the town after their old hometown of Lodi, Illinois. Elliott E. Morse, who saw the early trains pass through town from his front porch as a young boy in 1869, said in a 1944 newspaper article, “The name was taken from a town in Illinois, from which the clans of Morse and Elliott came from in the early days by covered wagon. I can’t remember the other names voted upon. But my uncle, who for many years was United States marshal, made quite a plea for Lodi — and Lodi was selected.”

Local historian Warren Braukman Hicks discounted the racehorse and Lodi, Illinois theories in his 1954 college seminar paper. He wrote that there were more than 20 communities in the nation named Lodi in the 1870s.

“These other towns must have obtained the name from a source other than the stallion or Lodi, Illinois,” he wrote. That source, Hicks wrote, was probably Napoleon’s first military victory in May 1796 at the Bridge of Lodi over the Adda River in Italy.

The third theory that the town’s name was suggested by Napoleon’s victory is the most likely story. Two English brothers, Robert and Richard Cope, supported the choice of Lodi, according to the spring 1990 Lodi Historian. Robert, a bootmaker, and Richard, an original member of the name selection committee, were among the town’s early residents and were “great admirers of Napoleon and the almost insurmountable difficulties met by him and his brave soldiers at the Bridge of Lodi, Italy.”

It is logical that the name Lodi was suggested because the difficult construction of the railroad bridge on shifting sand of the Mokelumne River was comparable to wartime obstacles encountered by Napoleon. In later years, Richard Cope claimed to have given Lodi its name.

To add credibility to this theory, William Lawrence, son of founder Ezekiel Lawrence, wrote in the 1885 Cyclone that Lodi was named after Napoleon’s battle, not a racehorse.

The Lodi Historian article noted that Lawrence’s version, printed while those involved in the name selection were still alive, was never disputed in later newspaper issues. This may be the best evidence that Lodi was named after Napoleon’s battle.