As Election Day 2016 looms, it is interesting to explore how Merced County residents voted a century ago. During the general election of 1916, the ticket was split. While the top of the ticket was won by Democratic presidential nominee Woodrow Wilson for a second term, down ballots were won by Republican candidates: Gov. Hiram W. Johnson to U.S. Senate, Denver S. Church to Congress, and H. Kylberg to State Assembly.
With about 80 percent of the registered voters (5,514) casting their ballots, Merced County also saw a higher turnout rate in the presidential election than in the 1912 election. All three incumbent supervisors, Daniel K. Thornton of Newman, George H. Whitworth of Planada and Thomas H. Scandrett of Merced, won their re-election bids. Representing District 1, Scandrett also continued to serve as the chairman of the board.
Scandrett was very well-respected. In describing Scandrett in a eulogy in 1942, historian and columnist Corwin Radcliffe wrote, “Probably no man who ever served on the board in Merced County was esteemed more highly by his constituents.”
Scandrett’s legacy was most visible in the last four years of his political career, from 1916 to 1920, as he tackled transportation, education and health care. While he was instrumental in choosing the G Street location for Merced High School and creating the tri-county tuberculosis sanatorium in Ahwahnee, he was most passionate about improving roads and highways for Merced County residents.
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Immigrating to America from Ireland at the age of 16, Scandrett picked up his first job in San Francisco before landing a more permanent position with the Kern County Land Co. in Bakersfield. In 1899, he took the helm as the cattle superintendent for the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co. and headquartered at Back Ranch. Scandrett was credited for renaming Back Ranch to Bellevue (“beautiful view” in French) Ranch, borrowing the idea from his former employer’s ranch in Bakersfield.
Immersing himself in local politics, Scandrett ran for supervisor and won in 1908 and became chairman of the board in 1912, a position he held until his resignation in 1920. During his tenure on the board, Scandrett oversaw a period of state and county highway construction and expansion. When the first California Highway Bond Act was passed in 1910 with a value of $18 million, Merced County saw the benefit as Sacramento-Los Angeles Highway (Highway 99 or Valley Highway) was paved through the county alongside the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in 1913.
When the second highway bond issue of $15 million was passed in 1916, as a member of the California Association of Supervisors, Scandrett carried on a bitter fight at the state level to preserve the powers of supervisors over the state highway commission. With the passage of the third highway bond of $40 million in 1919, Merced-Sequoia Road (Highway 140) and Pacheco Pass (Highway 152) were constructed and incorporated into the state highway system.
The completion of Pacheco Pass, which runs from the Pacheco Pass mountain road through Los Banos and out to the Valley Highway, was a very symbolic accomplishment for Merced County residents. Because Merced County was geographically separated by the San Joaquin River, the county was divided into east and west sides. With Pacheco Pass now connected to Valley Highway, Scandrett helped to unify Merced County.
At a local level, Scandrett supported much of the work done by Merced County Good Roads Association. Headed by John R. Graham, the association launched the “We Want Good Roads” campaign during the 1918 influenza epidemic. This epidemic made public meetings almost impossible, but the association never gave up. It partnered with local newspapers to expose the horrible road conditions and urged voters to support the bond measure through phone calls and letters. The hard work paid off with the election of Nov. 5, 1918.
Merced County has the honor of being the only California county to pass a good roads bond issue during U.S. participation in World War I, voting to spend $1.25 million for a concrete county highway system. Under the 1918 Merced County Road Bond, a county highway system with 107 miles of paved roads reached south to South Dos Palos, west to Pacheco Pass, north to Merced Falls, and east to Mariposa.
By 1920, Scandrett felt he had accomplished a good deal for Merced County residents. When a new career opportunity arose, he resigned from the board and moved to Lovelock, Nev., to manage the cattle operation of the Rogers Estate. Two years later, he would return to Merced and serve as the superintendent of Merced County General Hospital until his death in 1942. Scandrett’s legacy as a road warrior should be remembered as we continue to face the same challenges a century later.
Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday.
For more history of Merced County, please visit our current exhibit, “Ghosts of Merced County: Recreating Historical Moments.”
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.