The City of Los Banos, population 37,017, is situated on the west side of Merced County and is the county's second largest city. The city is conveniently located in the center of California and is about two hours from the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento, as well as Yosemite National Park. California's Monterey Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean are accessible in one and a half hours, as well as the Valley's major cities of Stockton and Fresno. The Silicon Valley is just more than an hour's drive away.
Gabriel Moraga, with his troop of Spanish Calvary from the Presidio of San Francisco came riding through the Pacheco Pass under orders from the Spanish Governor of California to explore the San Joaquin Valley in 1805. His journey through the valley brought him through the area where the City of Los Banos now stands.
These explorers were astonished to note the great wealth of natural life everywhere. Gazing in every direction these Spaniards saw ducks, geese, cranes, herons, pelicans, curlew, antelope, deer, elk and grizzly bears all living in their natural environment. Prior to their visit only the local Native Americans had ventured into the area.
Moraga and his men noted a pool, situated at the crossroads of three Native American trails. They named this spot after the patron saint of scholars, San Luis Gonzaga, and this was the first spot in Merced County given a name.
In 1844, Don Jaun Pacheco built an adobe fortress at the San Luis campground. At the time of the Gold Rush, Pacheco's spot became a famous stopping place for the stream of gold seekers traveling through, and it soon became known as Pacheco Pass.
Later, Andy D. Firebaugh built a toll road through the Pass, and suddenly, Moraga's pool became a main line of world travel. Still more fame came to his pool when the eastern entrance to the Pacheco Pass was dammed up, expanding the pool into a lake 300 feet deep, creating San Luis Dam and Reservoir.
The main road through Los Banos, Pacheco Boulevard (California State routes 152 and 33 go by this name as they pass through Los Banos), commemorates Pacheco's Pass, which is now registered as California Historical Landmark #829.
The next Spanish explorer to leave his name stamped on the region was Padre Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta. He was a Franciscan monk who was stationed at Mission San Juan Bautista from 1808 to 1833. On his missionary visits to the Native Americans, he discovered pools of water in the rocks at the summit of the mountains in a little creek bed that flowed down into the San Joaquin Valley. At these baths or pools he camped overnight with his band of Native Americans from the Mission. Reports of these baths led to the local ranchers naming the creek "El Arroyo de Los Banos del Padre Arroyo." When American settlers arrived, they became too tongue-tied to say "El Arroyo de los Banos del Padre Arroyo" every time they wanted to speak of the creek. In time, that lengthy moniker was reduced to "Los Banos Crick."
Its official spelling is without the eñe., and signs do not insert the tilde above the n. It can be pronounced either as if the eñe were present ("los banyos"), or as it is spelled (an anglicised "loss bannos").
Henry Miller arrived in San Francisco in 1850. After working as a butcher he became aware of the need for a better grade of cattle than that which was available at that time in California.
He came to the San Joaquin Valley and began his land acquisitions and cattle empire. He acquired land on both sides of the San Joaquin River ultimately owning that land for a distance of 120 miles. He is credited with being the first to introduce the crops of cotton, rice and alfalfa to the valley.
Miller made a great effort to get the railroad to extend through the West Side and that eventually decided the present day location of Los Banos. Agriculture remains the number one industry in and around Los Banos and this is due mainly to the early success of Henry Miller.
The Los Banos area was initially settled, according to Mexican land grant records, back in the 1840s. The first white settler in the area was Uriah Wood, who built his two room cabin in 1859. The original site of Los Banos was located several miles from the current town center, about a mile and a half west of the railroad. The town was essentially a trading post at this point.
In 1873, a pioneer to the area named Gus Kreyenhagen ran a trading post near Los Banos Creek. The Post Office Department decided to establish a Post Office at the trading post and named it after the creek, hence the name "Los Banos."
The city of Los Banos features many points of interest. In fact, the Bank of Los Banos is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The town's history is chronicled in the Milliken Museum, formerly the Los Banos Historical Museum, now named after local farmer, mail carrier, and historian Ralph Leroy Milliken, who started the museum's collection in 1954 with documents, artifacts, and oral histories. He served as the museum's curator until his death in 1970. In recognition of his pioneering effort, the museum was renamed after him.
However, the centerpiece of downtown Los Banos today is the newly created Miller Plaza which honors the city's founder, Henry Miller. The 10-acre, half-oval public plaza features a monumental scale bronze arrangement of Miller with cattle. His company, the Miller & Lux Corporation, was headquartered in Los Banos on a site currently housing the Mexican restaurant España's and the Canal Farm Inn.
Los Banos has a long history of Portuguese and Spanish immigrants, as do many of the nearby towns on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. This is reflected both in local restaurants and in several festivals and parades that take place during the year. Los Banos is locally known for its annual May Day Fair during the first week of May and its annual Tomato Festival.
Los Banos is known for being a family-oriented community, which has maintained its small-town atmosphere while accommodating continued growth. Residents continue a tradition of generosity, and like to help local causes whenever they can. One such effort has been to recognize Los Banos' veterans who died in war. The town contains 'Veterans Park,' and values commemoration of veterans' contributions. Los Banos is an agricultural community, and land and water rights were as important to early Los Banos residents as they are today.
Los Banos may be geographically spread out, but its residents harbor a spirit that helps them all come together for common causes.
**Our sincere thanks go to the mayor of the City of Los Banos, Mike Villalta, for meeting with us, and Dan Nelson, historian and water authority head, for taking time to speak with us as well. The City of Los Banos' website can be found here: http://www.losbanos.org/. Thanks go to http://ourlosbanos.com/ for the pictures we show here. Also, thanks to the Milliken Museum for the tour. The Merced county website has a digital tour of historic sites in Los Banos, including the Milliken Museum, here: http://mercedcountyevents.com/milliken-museum-and-los-banos-historic-sites/**