The handsome new city hall on the corner of 18th and M streets, the wide paved streets, the concrete sidewalks, the power lines, and the improved business district highlight the progress of Merced in this 1910 panoramic photo of downtown. Businesses invested over $100,000 in building construction during the year of 1910, an increase of 100 percent of the previous year, with Merced Ice and Cold Storage Company leading the way. Harris & Garibaldi’s new block followed.
Canal Street was the favored location for a building boom since Harris & Garibaldi was located on the west side of Canal Street between 18th and Main streets while IOOF a year earlier erected its building across the street on the southeast corner of 18th and Canal streets. The Merced Post Office would move to the Harris & Garibaldi Block with C. F. Neumann as the postmaster.
While the Harris & Garibaldi Block beautified an undeveloped area in the heart of Merced’s business district, Merced Ice and Cold Storage Company ventured out of the downtown perimeter. John R. Graham took the southwest corner of N and Main Streets and turned it into the center of a major ice plant operation when a spur of the Yosemite Valley Railroad was connected to the plant. Born and raised in San Francisco, Graham came to Merced in 1892 after working for the National Ice Company in San Francisco. His business would grow to employ as many as 25 people and supplied ice north to Hughson, south to Madera, and east to El Portal.
If these two businesses were the new frontier in 1910, what happened to established Main Street? Well, it was business as usual. In addition to the general stores, blacksmith shops, livery stables, and hotels, there was the newly organized Merced County Free Library which took up its temporary home in the Security Bank Building at 435 Main Street. There was a great demand for entertainment since a new theater building was built on Main Street in addition to the Barcroft Opera House at 349 Main Street.
Main Street, serving as the main transportation corridor, was often festooned with large advertising signs, billboards, and business names. James T. Ragsdale’s Yosemite Stable, for example, was prominently displayed on the side of the building (as seen in this 1910 photo) so travelers knew where to park their rides. Then, there was the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the southeast corner of Main and M streets. Built in 1878 under the management of M. F. Moran, as advertised, it was the largest brick hotel in Merced. In 1877, two fires broke out within a week of each other on this block of Main Street. The fires were so catastrophic that the south side of the block was almost wiped out because of their wood construction. As a result, Cosmopolitan which stood on the former site of John Levinsky’s dry-goods store was built with bricks.
However, what is more telling about this photo is not what is most noticeable, but what is missing. The absence of a couple of buildings that anchor the corner of Main and M Streets no doubt catches the eyes of viewers. The Barcroft and Sons Co. took up the northeast corner of Main and M Streets where the Shaffer Building would be built and El Capitan Stable occupied the northwest corner of the same location where Hotel El Capitan would be erected.
Merced in 1910 was at a crossroads. Livery stables were on their way out to make room for garages. El Capitan Stable was sold to a group of Merced investors who organized the Merced Hotel Company. They contracted with Col. F. J. Amweg of San Francisco to construct a four-story hotel in 1911. Featuring 90 rooms with 42 private baths, a veranda, and the first elevator in Merced, Hotel El Capitan opened its doors for business on July 3, 1912.
The Shaffer Building was built by Richard Shaffer in 1912. After the death of his wife, Shaffer became concerned about the future of his five then-unmarried daughters. He built a three-story building on the northeast corner of Main and M Streets, hoping it would generate enough income for his daughters should they remain single. His daughters proved him wrong. They all married. The Shaffer Building was considered one of the largest buildings in town at the time with an elevator leading to the Elks Club on the top floor. One of its major tenants on the ground floor was the Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Merced.
Back to the panoramic photo of Downtown Merced, it was taken by Edmund Franklin Martin in 1910. The photo has been reproduced onto a 4-foot-long canvas and will be auctioned off at the Merced County Historical Society’s 29th Annual Bill Kirby Western Barbeque and Auction. To preserve Merced County history and support Courthouse Museum programs, please join us at the BBQ at Lake Yosemite on September 10. Tickets to the event are $50 apiece. They can be purchased in the museum gift shop, which is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 pm, or by calling the museum office at 209-723-2401.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.