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Exhibit Explores Lumber Town History of Merced Falls

By Rocco Bowman


The Merced County Courthouse Museum will open “Yosemite Lumber Company at Merced Falls” exhibit on Thursday, March 8 at 5 p.m. At the exhibit opening, local historian Grey Roberts will give a PowerPoint presentation titled: “Merced Falls: Once the Industrial Center” at 6 p.m.

In August 1910, the Yosemite Lumber Company (YLC) was formed by F. M. Fenwick, James Tyson, and Charles Nelson. They soon choose Merced Falls as the site of the lumber mill and purchased the 10,000-acre Minor Tract in Yosemite.

High-quality sugar pine stands were located 3,000 feet away from the bottom of the Merced River canyon on the high plateau around El Portal. To access them, the YLC could have constructed a long, winding rail of switchbacks to ascend the canyon slopes but decided instead to construct an incline rail straight up to the summit. Grant H. Nickerson, chief engineer of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, was hired to engineer the 8,000-foot incline rail and 150 rollers to keep the incline cable from dragging in the ballast.

When completed, the line was the longest of its kind in the world and could deliver 30 cars of logs per day to the valley below before they were shipped to the mill.

By the summer of 1911, even before the incline was finished, the construction began on the lumber mill and surrounding structures at the Merced Falls site. The sawmill required housing for its workers as well as the boiler house for power, resaw for secondary cutting, and a shed to sort the cut lumber by type and grade after cutting. In addition, family cottages, segregated housing in the quarters, boarding houses, and a hotel were erected to accommodate the permanent presence of employees and their families.

The company town also featured a company store, post office, pool hall, movie theater, school, hospital, tennis court, and baseball diamond. By July 1912, the first car of logs arrived at a functional Merced Falls with permanent residents and a year-round work schedule.

Once the Yosemite Lumber Company was established, Merced Falls became once again the industrial center of Merced. A little over 40 years later, the demise of the mill turned a thriving community into a ghost town. Today, nothing remains but crumbling foundations.

This photo exhibit documents the community life and business operations of Merced Falls and its connected logging camps. In addition, a digital mapping display reconstructs the infrastructure of the sawmill and the living quarters.

For more information about the exhibit, please contact the Courthouse Museum at 723-2401. The exhibit and opening program is free to the public.

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