There was a time from the late 1800s until the early 1940s when the town of Merced Falls in northern Merced County was a center of commercial activity.
The gold rush created dozens of towns for the thousands of workers and families that would come to the Sierra Mountains and other western locations.
Merced Falls was born of the gold rush but continued to flourish thanks to the need for lumber and an abundance of tourists.
At its peak, Merced Falls had a large lumber mill that employed one-thousand workers. There was plenty of housing, a store, movie house, and a school.
A railroad served the logging industry and provided passenger service to take people to Yosemite National Park.
Like a lot of these booming areas in California in the early 1900s, times changed.
Automobiles became more common reducing the need for railroad travel. Once the lumber mill closed in 1942, it was only a matter of time before Merced Falls became a ghost town.
Thanks to an exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse Museum, we can explore dozens of restored photographs depicting life in Merced Falls during those boom years. We can see how a typical worker slept and lived in a company bunkhouse.
We can understand the reasons why this focal point of commerce in Merced County declined and left only a few visual reminders from that era.
The exhibit is made possible by the County Courthouse Museum, the UC Merced Library, and some individuals who loaned their family photographs and technical expertise. The Society and the Library co-present the exhibit entitled Yosemite Lumber Company, Merced Falls.
As great as the exhibit is with its photographs, artifacts, and skilled docents explaining some of the finer details, to truly experience what was Merced Falls one should actually travel to the site of that former company town.
It is relatively easy to get to the major intersection of Merced Falls. Taking highway 59 or Merced’s G Street to the community of Snelling, Merced Falls Road runs east just as one is leaving town.
About four miles from that intersection, the road takes a sharp northern turn toward the Mariposa County line. That intersection where the sharp northern turn happens is approximately the center of the former Merced Falls.
There’s a plaque marking the site. The group E Clampus Vitus placed the marker there in 1970. It reads in part: The flour and woolen mills were built in 1854 and 1867.
The town was destroyed by fire in August 1895. Yosemite Lumber Co. had a large mill here from 1912 until 1943.
Heading up the first incline in these foothills, the Mariposa County line is less than a half-mile away. Commerce flourished when Merced Falls was in its heyday, but there is very little left to show.
Heading south down the incline to the intersection near the Hornitos Bridge, the remains of a couple of buildings can be spotted from the road. Fencing prevents the curious from getting too close to the structures.
As the exhibit explains, there were flour mills, wool mills, and even a stage-coach stop in the community in the late 1800s. These mills burned. In 1912, the Yosemite Lumber Company started operations in Merced Falls.
Back in those days, lumberjacks would deliver thousands upon thousands of logs that came from the higher elevations including El Portal. A rail line, as well as the Merced River, kept busy moving the logs from the forests to the mill.
Some UC Merced students have been busy studying the area and some of the artifacts that have been contributed to the Museum’s effort to tell the story of Merced Falls and the Yosemite Lumber Company.
Being out in the open countryside looking at the remaining structures can get the imagination going. What was it like back then when this area was an active and thriving community? What factors contributed to the decline of Merced Falls’ commercial backbone?
What would Merced County look like today had the Yosemite Lumber Company either continued operation or a new business had moved in to replace it when YLC closed?
The general story is clear: Merced Falls was a gold rush boom town that continued to thrive through the mid -1900s thanks to the Yosemite Lumber Company, the Merced River, and a rail line.
There are likely many reasons why it could not survive longer. Some point to the automobile. Some point to the shift in the population centers of the San Joaquin Valley as well as the Bay Area.
There are, no doubt many reasons.
Thanks to the efforts of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, UC Merced, and some key individuals who wanted the history of Merced Falls to be preserved, more answers are now available for future generations to study and appreciate.
They are on a journey to learn more.
All it takes to be part of that journey is to take a short drive away from the City of Merced to see what remains of this historic site.
The Merced County Courthouse Museum is open Wednesday-Saturday from 1:00 to 4:00 pm