Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Merced Falls: Water, Power, and Mills

Hugo Barrett’s postcard to his wife Emma Alice was postmarked Feb. 3, 1913. The postcard image depicts the Yosemite Lumber Company mill at Merced Falls. (Grey Roberts Collection)
Hugo Barrett’s postcard to his wife Emma Alice was postmarked Feb. 3, 1913. The postcard image depicts the Yosemite Lumber Company mill at Merced Falls. (Grey Roberts Collection)

One February day in 1913, Hugo Barrett, a local farmer, dropped off a postcard at the Merced Falls Post Office in the Yosemite Lumber Company. It had a simple message to his wife, Emma Alice, who was visiting her sister in San Francisco: “Dear Alice, you had better stay down until Sunday anyway. Everything is OK here.” Hugo missed his bride and was excited to share with her a postcard image of something that had made Merced Falls, once again, the industrial center of Merced County.

You may have guessed it --- The postcard is of Yosemite Lumber Company’s mill at Merced Falls.

The Yosemite Lumber Company, organized in 1910, was the brainchild of the original investors in the Yosemite Valley Railroad. As pointed out by Jack Burgess, historian and author of “Trains to Yosemite,” the founding of the Yosemite Lumber Company intertwines with the story of the Yosemite Valley Railroad. As discussed in the 1905 YV stock brochure, tapping into the immense supply of timber in the El Portal area, the eastern terminus of YVRR, would provide steady and profitable freight business for the railroad.

So, years before the establishment of Yosemite Lumber Company, the groundwork such as laying the freight routes and locating the timber lands was well underway. Merced Falls was an ideal location for a lumber mill because it was along the route of the YVRR, had a natural log pond - the Merced River - and was once the site of flour and woolen mills. But its selection was not without competition as Merced was another contender. Construction of the Merced Falls mill began in the summer of 1911 and the first trainload of logs arrived on July 28, 1912.

The boiler noise, the floating logs, and the presence of hundreds of mill workers and their families soon changed Merced Falls’ quiet country life. At the same time, the presence of the lumber mill had awakened and revived the industrial spirit that was deeply woven into the fiber of this rural community. Hugo Barrett watched all these transformations with great interest.

Settling in Merced Falls in the late 1870s, Hugo witnessed the different eras of Merced Falls: from being the center of industry, then a sleepy foothill community, to becoming once again an industrial powerhouse in the span of several decades. He was born in Mariposa County to Joseph and Henrietta Barrett and grew up at Barrett’s Ferry, about two miles upstream from the present Exchequer Dam. Joseph came to California from Canada during the Gold Rush and built a store and “bank” at the Merced River to serve the miners. In the early 1870s, he entered a partnership with James Pillans of Merced County and established a ranch at Merced Falls known as Pillans and Barrett.

Joseph and Henrietta and their six children relocated to the ranch in Merced Falls around 1878-79 and engaged in farming. By this time, Merced Falls was already a booming town with a flour mill operated by William Nelson and his son Henry and a woolen mill rebuilt by Merced Woolen Mills after the 1872 fire. William Nelson established the flour mill in 1854 and the woolen mill in 1867 and his choice of Merced Falls location was, of course, because of the immense water power of the Merced River and its falls. The mills employed many local people, including Hugo Barrett’s future father-in-law, and often hired Chinese immigrants to deal with labor shortages.

The booming mill business enabled Merced County farmers to market several hundred tons of their grain per year and, thus, bestowed on Merced Falls the reputation as the industrial center of Merced County. Neither of the mills escaped another disastrous fire and both burned to the ground in 1893. The mills were never rebuilt and this marked the end of the first industrial period of Merced Falls.

Before the arrival of Yosemite Lumber Company, Merced Falls had a population of 200 people with an economy focused on farming, light, and power. The falls were dammed in 1894 and generators were put in place in 1896 to supply electricity to the area including Merced. However, farming was still the heart of this rural town. What really put it on the map during this period was mostly farm news like Erastus Kelsey’s fig orchard. For example, it was reported in a 1911 issue of the Pacific Rural Press that one of Kelsey’s fig trees bore 2,000 pounds of fruit one year and some years the yield of his orchard exceeded 200 tons of dried figs at $70 per ton.

With the establishment of the lumber mill, Merced Falls became once again the center of industry. As a growing community, Merced Falls at one point had more than 1,000 residents. The company had its own store, post office, pool hall, movie theater, school, library, hospital, tennis court, and a baseball team called “The Lumberjacks.”

Although Hugo Barrett did not live to see the expansion, reorganization, and final demolition of the mill in 1943, his descendants did, from afar. His great-grandson, Grey Roberts, will talk about Merced Falls in a PowerPoint presentation during the opening of the Yosemite Lumber Company exhibit at the Courthouse Museum on March 8. Opening at 5 p.m., this event is free to the public.

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

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