March 28, 2014

Railroads helped shape Merced as a destination

Back when 16th Street was lined with saloons and hotels, railroad passengers would get off on what was known as Front Street to unwind from their travels.

Back when 16th Street was lined with saloons and hotels, railroad passengers would disembark on what was known as Front Street to unwind from their travels.

Before Merced was incorporated as a city on April 1, 1889, in a 300-59 vote, a small settlement of early residents gathered near Bear Creek.

The tallest building was the four-story El Capitan Hotel. A grammar school and the courthouse, which housed the county offices and three churches – Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist – comprised the rest of the town.

The area around what is now Merced emerged in 1872 as a railroad town.

Long before the city was incorporated, its early inhabitants, the Yokuts, settled in villages along the Merced River, hunting and gathering wild plants. The number of people living in the North Valley, primarily Yokuts, is estimated by some historians at between 25,000 and 32,000.

An election for a new county seat was held in November 1872, said Merced County Courthouse Museum Director Sarah Lim. Merced defeated Snelling, the original county seat, and Livingston. “Merced became not only a political center, but also a business hub,” said Lim.

Central Pacific, the area’s first railroad, was built in 1872. It later became known as Southern Pacific Railroad. Lim said the railroad was critical in developing Merced because of the number of passengers who stopped in the area.

“In the early days, so much had to do with transportation and getting people from one place to another,” Lim said. “Transportation helped develop Merced.”

The city’s founder, Charles Henry Huffman, named a fountain in front of Applegate Park after his wife, Laura. The fountain would often be turned on for railroad passengers, who coined Merced’s nickname, the “fountain city.”

Huffman was also considered the builder of the city’s 1880s irrigation system, according to “Pioneer Genius,” a book about him by Colleen Stanley Bare. Merced’s Huffman Avenue was renamed M Street and Huffman Drive became today’s Bear Creek Drive, the author wrote.

By 1853, Le Grand resident Jim Cunningham’s great-grandfather, James Cunningham, settled in Merced County. The Cunningham family was among the earliest in the county and still owns more than 2,000 acres in the Le Grand area.

The farmer first came to the town in 1851 during the Gold Rush. “His idea was to work in the mines and accumulate wealth, which he intended to invest in ships,” Jim Cunningham said.

James Cunningham was elected to the Merced County Board of Supervisors, representing District 3 in 1858 and 1859. The native of Ireland is credited by many as one of the primary organizers of the county.

According to a family history written by his granddaughter, James Cunningham ran away at age 16 to sail the seas and wound up in Mariposa County after a long trip on horseback.

“Those guys were adventurers,” Jim Cunningham said of his great-grandfather. “To take off in a sailing ship and sail around Cape Horn, it took a certain type of individual.”

Jim Cunningham, who has lived in Merced County most of his life, spoke about what the town looked like before it became an incorporated city.

“In those days, when my family first came, there was no irrigated land like there is now,” Jim Cunningham said. “It was just open space without the crops. There was a lot of grain growing and cattle and horses.

He believes growth will continue with the addition of UC Merced. “Growth is inevitable,” he said. “The university is going to change this area a lot.”

City officials will commemorate the city’s 125th anniversary in a series of celebrations this year, beginning Tuesday.

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