Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Hotel Tioga: The Finest in the West

Main Street (or 17th Street) looking east, circa 1928 when the Hotel Tioga was just built. When the hotel sign was lit up at night, its red light can be seen many miles away. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
Main Street (or 17th Street) looking east, circa 1928 when the Hotel Tioga was just built. When the hotel sign was lit up at night, its red light can be seen many miles away. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

Merced County Historical Society will hold its 28th Annual Bill Kirby Western Barbecue and Auction on Sept. 11 to raise money for the Courthouse Museum and its programs.

Among many unique auction items is a reprint of the 1948 aerial photo of Merced, featuring the Hotel Tioga in the center, the abandoned Yosemite Valley Railroad Roundhouse in the background, and the El Capitan Hotel in the foreground.

When this photo was taken, the original portion of El Capitan Hotel (or Hotel El Capitan) built in 1912 had already been destroyed by a fire in 1931 and replaced by the Simonson Building. The hotel annex built in 1924, also damaged by the same fire, was rebuilt by Stanley Simonson and opened for business in 1936. Today, the Simonson Building has been torn down and the El Capitan Hotel annex stripped down to its frame as part of a 114-room boutique hotel project.

A black and white photo of the grand El Capitan Hotel, dated 1928, will also be auctioned off at the barbecue.

The U-shaped Hotel Tioga, prominently featured in the 1948 aerial view, occupies one corner of the palm tree-lined N Street and Main Street. Merced in 1948 was still a small and quiet community with a population of 17,000 in an area of three square miles. But beneath its tranquil appearance, Merced was a busy transportation hub in which the “Gateway to Yosemite” welcome arch marked the western entrance to the city on old Highway 99, and the Hotel Tioga was an ideal accommodation for travelers.

Built in 1928, the Tioga was not only a world-class hotel but also a center of local activities and regional conferences. From the beginning, San Francisco investors were very interested in financing a new hotel in the Merced community. There had been a history of the Bay Area people investing in Merced from the Crocker-Huffman irrigation project to the Yosemite Valley Railroad.

When the Merced-Yosemite All Year Highway (Highway 140) opened in 1926, Merced was overwhelmed with the flow of travelers. Word passed along the line that “it will be hard for you to get hotel accommodations in Merced,” according to Sun-Star columnist Corwin Radcliffe. As a result, many Yosemite-bound tourists tended to stay away from Merced for overnight stops.

Ralph McLeran, a former San Francisco Supervisor and contractor by trade, decided to make his mark in Merced by building the finest hotel in the west in a city the size of Merced. Shea & Shea was hired to design a five-story Spanish renaissance style building with arches on the first floor, elegant arcade entrance, and a two-story tower atop the hotel. To ensure his vision became a reality, McLeran only trusted his company to build this fireproof structure with a steel frame and reinforced concrete. McLeran & Company was a well-established builder in San Francisco whose construction jobs included the Pantages Theatre (now Orpheum Theater) on Market and Hyde streets and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

McLeran & Co. excavated the site in October 1927 and began construction of this 175-room hotel at the beginning of November. By January 1928, the proprietors of the new hotel, P. G. Denson and F. S. Gardner, announced the name of the new hotel as Hotel Tioga. In addition to guest rooms, there was a coffee shop, a dining room, two banquet rooms, a grand lobby, two bungalow apartments and a penthouse in the tower, and shops on the first floor.

The construction of the building alone was $250,000, and the final cost for the hotel amounted to $700,000. The new hotel also provided the latest air-cooling system to maintain a temperature of 70 degrees during the summer, a heating system for the winter, 160 baths, 42 independent showers, and two guest elevators. The finest details of the hotel were the decorations and furnishings. Sixteen colors and a Spanish motif were incorporated in draperies, carpets, and upholstery in the lobby. The Coffee Shop had an Indian theme with the pictures of “Chief Tioga” and his relatives as wall decorations.

On the official opening day of May 22, 1928, a staff of 60 people under the direction of Denson and Gardner welcomed guests and other hoteliers from far and near. A delegation from San Francisco headed by Mayor James Rolph, a close friend of McLeran, also took part in the festivity. Denson not only promoted the new hotel as the most comfortable accommodation for travelers but also assured the citizens of Merced that he and Gardner “will do everything possible to make the hotel a real center of the community social life.”

During the last 90 years, the Hotel Tioga has evolved from lodging for presidents to royalty to affordable housing for Merced residents. Today, it is undergoing another transformation and its future is yet to be written. But for now, you can have a piece of Hotel Tioga history by bidding on the 1948 aerial photo of Merced.

This photo not shown here can only be purchased at the event. Please support the Courthouse Museum by taking part in our annual Bill Kirby Western Barbecue and Auction on Sept. 11. All tickets are sold in advance of the event.

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