The City of Merced is located in the Central Valley of California. Merced is located approximately 110 miles southeast of San Francisco and 310 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The City has a population of about 80,542, and serves as the county seat. Merced is located on Highway 99, the dominant north-south freeway in California, and is served also by Highways 140 and 59. Two railroads, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern / Santa Fe, have main lines which pass through the city.
Merced, known as the "Gateway to Yosemite," is less than two hours by automobile from Yosemite National Park to the east while Monterey Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and several beaches lie to the west.
The early Spanish explorers of California missed the huge Central Valley on their journey of discovery, probably because the stories of the “vast desert beyond the mountains” had no doubt reached the ears of the Franciscan missionaries and the journeying soldiers.
However, in 1806, a contingent of Spanish troops from the Presidio in San Francisco traveled on foot across the valley “wasteland” in mid-summer with no water and in temperatures of over 100 degrees. Finally, the group reached a river. Drinking from its cool life-saving water, they named the river, “El Rio de la Mercedes”—the River of ‘Mercy’.
Merced County, and later the city, were both named after that Merced River, which flows through and gives life to the area.
In 1820, adventurous trappers employed by the Hudson Bay Company—who were always in search of new sources of furs—discovered a pass through the High Sierras that led into the valley below. These stalwart trappers found few fur-bearing animals in the valley. They pushed further south and crossed the San Bernardino Mountains into Southern California where they received a relatively unwelcome reception from the astonished early settlers, who thought the mountains protected them from the east. At that time, Spain had dictated only Spanish and Mexican people could live in the area. The trappers were sent back to where they came, after being given food and being allowed to rest.
The trappers told stories of the richness of the land, the beauty of the mountains, the wonders of California and the pass across to Merced. Their tales led Merced to justifiably claim the title as “the Gateway to Yosemite” for more than a century.
The early travelers trekked by foot, on horseback and in crude boats along the Merced River into Yosemite’s “Magnificent Valley.” Later visitors, especially tourists, would travel by stagecoach to Yosemite through well-developed Merced routes.
The actual city of Merced was established in 1872, just a few years after the formation of Merced County, in 1855. The arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad through the Central Valley brought a new importance to area and to Merced. It was selected as the new county seat, replacing Snelling, because of the arrival of rail transportation; it established town sites at strategic locations as shipping centers for grain and other agricultural products.
Primarily an agricultural region, the addition of canals and irrigation changed the crops produced in Merced County. The County has long been one of the top agricultural producers in the country with a wide variety of crops grown, as well as dairy production.
Lots in the new town of Merced began selling in February 1872. At that time, the county seat was in Snelling. To prompt an election to move the county government from Snelling to Merced, the railroad offered the county the four city blocks of Courthouse Park, on condition that within two years the populace would vote by public election to move the county seat. Within nine months, the citizenry held a special election and chose Merced as the site for its new county seat.
The first Merced post office opened in 1870 and, in 1875, a new courthouse was completed. That building is now the Courthouse Museum.
The first map of Merced was the "official map of Town of Merced, Merced County, Cal., on line of San Joaquin Division, Central Pacific Railroad" recorded at the request of H. B. Underhill on February 10, 1872.
The City of Merced was officially incorporated April 1, 1889. At that time, the size of the city was approximately 1,700 acres and the population was just under 2,000. A half-century later, on April 12, 1949, the city became a charter city, by which time there were 15,000 people living in Merced.
The original City Hall was located at 560 West 18th Street and later was moved to 18th and M Streets. The Police Department was housed in the City Hall building until 1960 when the department moved into its new location at 22nd and M Streets. In 1972, the expanding city workforce necessitated the moving of some of the city offices into a leased space known as “City Hall Annex,” across the street from the original City Hall. Currently, Merced’s City Hall is housed in an architecturally beautiful and modern Civic Center located at 678 West 18th Street. The facility not only houses most of the city’s services under one roof, but also is open for the public to use for City Council meetings, arts displays, community workshops, meetings and various other public interest forums.
Merced has now grown to a population of over 80,000 and continues to expand. The country’s newest university, the University of California Merced has recently opened. The addition of the University has spurred another era of growth as the city moves into the twenty-first century. Although agriculture remains a mainstay, technology is becoming a major force.
The economy has traditionally relied upon agribusiness and upon the presence of Castle Air Force Base. Over the past twenty years, more diversified industry has entered the area, including printing, fiberglass boat building, warehousing and distribution, and packaging industries.
Current recreational opportunities in the city include Applegate Park and zoo, Bear and Black Rascal Creeks and their bike trails, a skate park located in Applegate, a live stage theater downtown, two first run movie theaters, The Mainzer Theater which is known for its historic and architectural value, County Courthouse Museum circa 1889, the Merced Multicultural Arts Center and the County Library. Though still growing, Merced has several shopping areas including the Merced Mall. Merced's Main Street contains several restaurants, a movie theater, and other assorted shops.
Merced also annually hosts the Merced County fair at the fairground located within in the city.
The city of Merced, along with its surrounding cities, is serviced by the Merced Sun-Star and the Merced County Times. The Sun-Star daily newspaper has a circulation of over 20,000 in the Merced area and the Times weekly newspaper has a circulation of over 5,000.
Merced is a dynamic community, characterized by its young, diverse and friendly residents. Its neighborhoods offer a pleasant mixture of Victorian era homes with majestic tree lined drives, a vibrant, revitalized downtown and several modern developments. Throughout the day, residents can be found enjoying Merced’s extensive bike trail system, its meandering streams, scenic lakes, abundant parks and athletic fields.
Merced’s residents enjoy the benefits of being home to the University of California’s 10th Campus. As the nation’s first research institution built in the 21st Century, the University provides students an opportunity to be pioneers at the newest campus of the venerated University of California.
Serving as the commercial, entertainment, cultural and governmental hub of a wide area, Merced offers amenities typically found in much larger cities. The epicenter of this activity is downtown, where residents enjoy boutiques, small cafés, coffee houses, cultural centers and urban parks. Merced continues to maintain its small town character all the while building upon its urban amenities.
**We would like to thank the Merced County Courthouse Museum and the Merced County Historical Archives, especially Sarah Lim and Herb Wood, for their tour, information, and generous use of their pictures. Their website can be found here. http://www.mercedmuseum.org/ Please visit http://www.cityofmerced.org for in-depth detailed information about the city. Also, thanks to http://www.villageprofile.com/california/merced/03/topic.html for historical information.**