WPA: Lake Yosemite

Sunset at Lake Yosemite in Merced, Calif. Tuesday, April 27, 2010.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Sunset at Lake Yosemite in Merced, Calif. Tuesday, April 27, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

Lake Yosemite, despite its vast shores and native sands is entirely man-made, right down to the splendid beach you might call your summer home away from home.

The water, of course, rests in an artificial reservoir that once provided the city of Merced with its drinking water, but now serves as the lifeblood of this area's ag industry.

What might come as a surprise is the fact that the sand for the main beach at Lake Yosemite was hauled from the Merced River in Cressey by a team of Works Progress Administration workers.

The local WPA program also created restroom facilities, new piers, diving boards, floats, outdoor barbecue pits and "the finest horseshoe court in the state," according to the May 25, 1939 edition of the Merced Express newspaper.

The work took nine months and cost an estimated $64,748.

In planning for the "Valley center of recreation," a commission created by the county supervisors had to consider whether houseboats should be kicked off the waters and passed rules like this one: "Concessions (should) be strictly limited to those which would further the enjoyment of the four primary purposes of the park" which were identified as picnicking, swimming, boating and fishing.

Nearly 3,000 people turned out to the grand opening of the lake on May 30, 1939. Local attorney H.K. Landram led an opening ceremony, according to the newspaper, and noted the "spiritual uplift it will provide in offering a place to rest and relax after a day of hard work."

Eugene W. Lee, 82, remembers going to Lake Yosemite for Livingston High School's 1945 Senior Skip Day. The sand at the beach meant more than a day in the sun to the Cressey native.

"By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, that sand had left a great hole in Merced River where everyone swam and drowned," Lee recalled from his Daly City home this week. "People from out of town that didn't know the area would want to swim in the river. They would wade in and then fall into a deep, big hole."

Lee said he and the other neighborhood kids knew better than to take a dip in the mighty Merced River, but he sure did enjoy that day at the beach in '45.