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 lifesaving 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.
Still, it remained almost a half-century longer before Americans would fully discover one of California’s most valuable land areas: Merced.
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 from, 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 began with the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad. As the company laid track throughout the Central Valley in 1871, it established town sites at strategic locations as shipping centers for grain and other agricultural products.
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 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 W. 18th St. 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 W. 18th St. 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, art displays, community workshops, meetings and various other public interest forums.
Merced now operates under the council-manager form of government. At an annualized rate of 3.4 percent, Merced’s population has grown faster than the state average since 1980, netting a total population currently of some 81,000.
Merced continues to offer that perfect combination of small-town friendliness and sophistication to welcome every visitor and new resident.
For more detailed information about the city, visit www.cityofmerced.org.