Merced County Times Newspaper
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Early water rights traced back to Merced Falls, settlers


Merced Falls Dam and Erastus Kelsey.
Merced Falls Dam and Erastus Kelsey.

Before there was the Merced Irrigation District — which was founded in 1919 — a start-up irrigation system was developed along the Merced River from below Merced Falls to Hopeton.

A number of small ditches were constructed and water rights were obtained. These ditches were surveyed from 1852 to 1854 before Merced County was organized.

Erastus Kelsey (seen at upper right in photo), who settled near Merced Falls in 1853, obtained one of the first water rights in Merced County. The falls were dammed in 1894, and generators were put in place in 1896 to supply electricity to the area including Merced.

At this time, Merced Falls had a population of 200 people with an economy focused on farming, light, and power. Kelsey invested in farm land on both sides of the Merced River, and had a notable fig orchard. It was reported in a 1911 issue of the Pacific Rural Press that one of Kelsey’s fig trees bore 2,000 pounds of fruit one year and some years the yield of his orchard exceeded 200 tons of dried figs at $70 per ton. He also built a ranch house where his family’s descendants lived up until a few years ago when it was destroyed in a fire.

With the establishment of the Yosemite Lumber Company, Merced Falls eventually became the center of industry, and its population grew to more than 1,000 residents. The company had its own store, post office, pool hall, movie theater, school, library, hospital, tennis court, and a baseball team called “The Lumberjacks.”

The Times is publishing historical photos and information about the development of irrigation systems, and the growth of the Merced Irrigation District.

The Merced Irrigation District and the Merced County Historical Society are planning a community celebration and exhibit in recognition of MID’s 100-year Anniversary on Nov. 7. The date coincides with the formation of the District: MID was established in November 1919 when Merced County voters supported the formation of the Merced Irrigation District.

The exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse will help tell the fascinating story of how Merced Irrigation District was formed and how it has evolved over the past 100 years. More information can be found online at: or

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