Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

‘Calm Before the Storm.’ Century-old photo provides a glimpse of old Merced

“Calm Before the Storm” was probably taken in the winters of 1912-13 or 1913-14 in Merced. Looking west from M Street, the row of palm trees marks N Street between 17th and 18th streets. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
“Calm Before the Storm” was probably taken in the winters of 1912-13 or 1913-14 in Merced. Looking west from M Street, the row of palm trees marks N Street between 17th and 18th streets. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

It was an overcast day in Merced when this photo was taken.

Everything was quiet and calm: the trees, windmills, and drying clothes were perfectly still and people were going about their business as usual. However, there appears to be storm clouds rolling in from the north into our quiet rural community in the Central Valley.

I titled this undated photo “Calm Before the Storm.” Looking west from M Street, one can really appreciate the serenity and beauty of our town. In the center of the photo is N Street with a row of palm trees bounded by 17th Street on the left and 18th Street on the right. The Seventh Day Adventist Church with its steeple is seen on the corner of 18th and O streets. Its visibility and appearance, no doubt, add to the calmness of our quiet town.

Even though the location has been established, the time frame of the photo is in question. By looking at the height of the palm trees, the photo must have been taken not long after the trees were planted which would date it sometime after 1905. However, if you look at the top of the photo, the Yosemite Valley Railroad cars, wye and depot are visible in the background which would narrow the time of the picture to circa 1907.

But, there are more clues.

Studying the angle of this photo, it is apparent that it was taken from a high elevation such as the roof top of the Hotel El Capitan on M and 17th streets. This would date the photo closer to 1913 because the hotel opened for business on July 3, 1912. Since some of the trees are bare in this photo, it could be the winter of 1912-13. But the critical clue is the Yosemite Valley Railroad’s first roundhouse which is visible behind the tall trees at the top of the photo to the right. This wooden roundhouse which was destroyed by a fire on August 17, 1914, narrows the photo’s time frame to the winter of 1913-14. The photo must have been taken before the roundhouse fire and after the opening of the Hotel El Capitan.

With place and time frame established, there is still much more to discover in this photo. In the center is an alleyway that divides the landscape left and right. On the north side of N Street, two houses are on the left of the alleyway and four houses on the right. The first house on the right by the alley belonged to Peter A. Bouchet. If you look closer, there are two people talking over the fence in front of the house. They appear to be having a casual visit and maybe they are talking about the incoming storm. Peter Bouchet was a French immigrant who worked as a well borer. By this time, his wife, Nancy, had passed away and three of his four children were still at home: daughter Alta was an office clerk; Elmer and Bernice were minors. His oldest child, Pearl, had left home.

In the foreground, to the left of the alley, is a vacant lot. This area often was used for public gatherings in the early 20th century from carnivals to William Jennings Bryan’s Chautauqua talk in 1917. What was not known about this empty lot is the usage prior to its vacancy. This area and the adjacent lot, where clothes are being air-dried, once housed two Chinese laundries. One was on the corner of N and 17th streets and the other, called Sam Lee Laundry, was at the building on the left foreground where the clothes line is. Sam Lee was not the name of a person but a business, which means “triple profits” in Chinese. Both laundries may have been at these locations from the early 1880s to the late 1890s, which means they both survived during the Anti-Chinese Movement in Merced.

During the height of the Anti-Chinese Movement in the 1880s, local governments passed ordinances to restrict Chinese laundry operations in the name of public health. In addition, the locals in 1886 organized a “white labor” laundry which was opened for business at the corner of O and 17th streets, just a block west of the Chinese laundries. Even with its modern machinery such as Mr. Bergenheim’s hydraulic washer, the “white labor” laundry failed to put the Chinese laundries out of business.

Although the town looks calm in this photo, Merced was a growing community. By 1914, Merced had a population of about 5,000 and was equipped with a city sewage system, 20 miles of cement sidewalks, and 10 miles of paved streets. In addition to the Yosemite Valley Railroad, the main lines of Southern Pacific and Santa Fe also served Merced, which made it a desirable gateway to Yosemite National Park.

The stillness of this photo can be deceiving. The story of the palm trees planted by the Merced Improvement Club, the Bouchet’s little house by the alley, and the bygone Chinese laundry business at the corner provided a glimpse of the bustling life of our town in the early 20th century.

To learn more about Merced County history, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the “Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County” exhibit.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum@sbcglobal.net.

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