Museum Notes: Exhibit to chronicle Merced’s growth

The Eiffel Tower was dedicated on March 31, 1889, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution; meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the ballots of eligible voters were being counted.

They would decide whether Merced would be incorporated as a city. As a result of the special election held on March 30, Merced was incorporated as a sixth-class city with a vote of 300 to 59 on April 1.

So why incorporate as a municipality and pay more taxes? There were different reasons for incorporation.

First and foremost, this young railroad town established in 1872 was reaching maturity. According to the 1880 federal census, Merced had a population of 1,446, which was 334 more population that Fresno and 34 more than Visalia. It was considered the second-largest valley town south of Stockton, just behind Modesto.

As the population increased so did the need for services. To pay for these services, a municipal government was needed to collect and allocate taxes.

For Merced, a much-needed sewage system was the main argument in favor of incorporation. “The first thing that should be thought of after Merced becomes an incorporated town is a good system of sewerage,” stated a San Joaquin Valley Argus editorial on March 9, 1889.

For years, the County of Merced, instead of installing a complete sewage system, dug ditches or cleaned blockages here and there to temporarily solve the drainage problem. The presence of stagnant water had become a great health concern to an ever-growing population.

“Merced in her present exposed condition is not only not proof against disease but is in danger of disease epidemic in character and deadly in result,” declared the Merced Star editor on March 28, 1889.

He also warned readers that the current sewage problem would further devalue property and deter out-of-town buyers whose first inquiries about the new town were often regarding sewage facilities. By emphasizing both the financial and sanitary aspects of a good sewage system, the Merced Star presented a valid and urgent argument for incorporation.

Other added benefits for incorporation included an efficient police system, pointed out by the San Joaquin Valley Argus, and a plentiful supply of water, according to the Merced Express.

A reliable water supply was another reason behind incorporation. In 1888, the Lake Yosemite reservoir was completed. It provided water to eastern Merced County, especially to the town of Merced. The Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company had made irrigation possible for this part of the county.

Despite the Wright Irrigation Law of 1887, which allowed farmers to organize water districts to irrigate their lands with water diverted from the Merced, San Joaquin, and Kings rivers, Merced farmers did not pursue a public water project because the Crocker-Huffman company had already financed and developed a water delivery system in the Merced region.

As a result, Merced, if incorporated, would be able to negotiate a reasonable water rate for its citizens, especially when one of its esteemed residents was Charles Henry Huffman, a partner of the Crocker-Huffman Company.

Thus, the Merced Express editor believes that “Merced will soon become a city of running streams, flower gardens and shade trees” when he solicited votes in favor of incorporation on March 23.

The last reason behind incorporation had much to do with the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company and the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. By this time, the Crocker-Huffman Company had monopolized not only water but also land in eastern Merced County.

As the other partner of the Crocker-Huffman, Charles Crocker, who was also a principal owner of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, wanted to further promote land sales in and around Merced.

After the completion of Lake Yosemite reservoir, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company immediately published another promotional pamphlet to home seekers entitled, Free Excursion to Merced, California. Needless to say, if Merced was to be incorporated, it could only increase the value of the Crocker-Huffman landholdings as well as the railroad land and further encourage settlement and colonization.

For the public good and private interests, Merced was incorporated and became a city.

In less than two decades, Merced had matured from a railroad flag stop to a political and economic center. By 1890, it had a population of 2,009, a council-manager government, a volunteer fire department, and a set of ordinances to ensure public health and safety.

Unlike the French in 1889, we are not going to build an iron tower to celebrate Merced’s 125th anniversary. Instead, the Courthouse Museum in collaboration with Merced High School’s Summer History Program is preparing an exhibit to chronicle the progress of our lovely city in the past 125 years with a look at its government, business and culture. Please mark your calendar and join us for the exhibit opening on June 26.

For more Merced County history, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display until the end of May is the Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “The Way We Worked.”