Now we know the Tuolumne Hotel with the stone inscription of “1873” was not erected in 1873 because the original structure was destroyed by the disastrous fire of 1877. So what caused the May 17, 1877, fire that wiped out nearly all of the south side of Main Street between M and Canal streets?
Well, the fire originated next door to the hotel in William McDonald’s blacksmith shop. It was a hot summer night and the Montgomery Queen Mammoth Circus was in town. After a long day of work and school, almost the whole town went to the circus. When the alarm went off around 6:45 p.m., immediately it created such a panic that the circus-goers fled in all directions. When the townspeople realized their worst fears – another fire within a week – the flames already had consumed a portion of the recently established town.
This kind of catastrophe highlighted the difficulties the pioneer settlers faced. William McDonald, by the time of his death in 1914, was the longest-established blacksmith in Merced. Being one of the first settlers to purchase a lot on Main Street, he invested in the new town of Merced as he erected a blacksmith and wagon shop in the spring of 1872. After the fire of 1877 gutted his building, he soon rebuilt on the same site and operated the shop until his death.
McDonald was no stranger to adversity. He had to provide for himself from a very young age. He was born to Sweden and Ellen McDonald on March 12, 1852, in Galt, Ontario. As one of seven children, McDonald left home and became self-sufficient by working odd jobs at the age of 9. A few years later, he entered a blacksmith apprenticeship before immigrating to the United States in 1868. The following year, he left Grand Rapids, Mich., for California.
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After a year or two working in San Francisco and Oakland, he came to Merced County and opened a blacksmith shop in the Bear Creek settlement. When the Central Pacific Railroad Co. auctioned off the city lots in 1872, McDonald joined the others and relocated his business to Merced.
It is interesting to note that the railroad company originally intended to make N Street the main street of Merced because the railroad operated a magnificent four-story hotel at N and 16th streets. Of course, the price tags of N Street lots were much greater than the rest of the city lots. Merchants like McDonald came together and made 17th Street the town’s Main Street.
During the years before the 1877 fires, in addition to McDonald’s blacksmith shop, other businesses on the south side of the 500 block of Main Street included the Tuolumne Hotel, Star Hotel, Patrick Griffin’s saloon, I.W. Harris’ saddler shop, Willows Brewery, Fred Karan’s brewery, St. Louis House, Farmer’s Hotel, Thomas Hall’s barber shop, and John Levinsky’s dry-goods store.
After the fires, some left and some stayed. As a survivor, McDonald thrived in difficult circumstances. With his success in blacksmithing and carriage works, he built another storefront on the same property in the late 1890s and expanded his business to agricultural implements. In addition to manufacturing wagons and buggies, his factory also made plows and cultivators and sometimes employed more than a dozen men.
McDonald was up to the challenges, not just of rebuilding his business after the fire, but also of personal tragedy – the loss of his wife, Phoebe. McDonald married Phoebe Branson of Mariposa in 1874 and they had four children. Phoebe died in 1887 when their youngest child, Theresa, was only 7 years old. McDonald continued to provide a loving and secure family life for his children, first with the help of Phoebe’s sister, Theresa Branson, and later with his second wife, Agnes Dunn.
Little Theresa grew up to marry James J. Garibaldi and have a son named James Donald Garibaldi. Donald would eventually become a successful lawyer, state legislator, judge and powerful lobbyist. Because he valued public service, McDonald would have been very proud of his grandson’s achievements. McDonald was a member of the volunteer fire department, vice president of the Lake Yosemite dedication committee and a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party after his naturalization in 1873. McDonald died at his home at 220 W. 21st St. on June 7, 1914.
As part of the Courthouse Museum’s upcoming exhibit about the old hand-drawn road maps of Merced County, it is important to acknowledge blacksmith William McDonald whose wagons traveled many miles of county roads. Unfortunately, the museum does not have any examples of McDonald’s wagons or buggies. If you have one and would like to loan or donate it to the museum, please contact the office at 209-723-2401.
The “Let’s Google That Old Road” exhibit will open on June 16.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.