Merced County Times Newspaper
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Forgotten Athlone: Once home to county’s first college

 

Athlone was an old railroad town located about 10 miles southeast of Merced.

The construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad gave birth to Athlone in about 1872, it was also a stage stop on the way to Plainsburg.

Athlone was a very small community and was razed in 1950 during an expansion of Highway 99.

The location was first called Plainsburg Station or “Plainsburg Switch” in the early days. Wheat and cattle were a couple of the main enterprises in the area. For this reason, Athlone became a busy shipping point for the railroad. Buchanan Road (Buchannan Hollow Road today) was built to help the farmers get their products to Athlone to be shipped. The cattle pens were used by Miller and Lux to ship the many head of livestock that they had in the area.

One of the first settlers was Patrick Gilhane, an Irish immigrant who built a saloon and named it the Athlone House after his home town in Ireland. Other early settlers were Lee and George Fancher who acquired 1828 acres of land in the area that was used for agricultural and grazing purposes. This property was located southeast of Athlone and bounded by Sandy Mush Road to the south and Athlone Road to the east. The plans for Athlone were laid out and roads built in 1874. This helped to have Athlone become the official name of the town. A Post Office was established in 1881 and remained in operation, on an intermittent basis until 1937, when it was absorbed by Le Grand.

In 1884, a grammar school was built, and by 1890 Athlone had a population of around 50. There were two warehouses in town, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a wagon maker, a hotel and saloon, a barber shop and a boot maker. By 1900 there were over 15 businesses in town. Later they even had a branch library and service station. The station was an Associated Gasoline dealer and remained active until the 1940s.

Another interesting aspect of Athlone was that it was home to the first college in Merced County. The Athlone Normal Academy operated from 1898 until 1906. It was a teachers training college and 50 students completed their studied at the Academy.

Just as Athlone had taken much of the business from Plainsburg. Le Grand with the shipping center established on the Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1890s caused the failure of several businesses in Athlone and the moving of others. Athlone was able to stay in business, although reduced, because of its proximity to Highway 99 and the railroad.

In the early 1940s the War Department was looking for places to build auxillary air fields for pilot training. The area around Athlone was ideal because of the level fields and outside of the Merced area. With Athlone near a railroad station, along the highway and near power lines it was an ideal location. On January 3, 1942 the U.S. leased 235 acres from Fred Fancher and the Army built a paved 3,000 by 3,000 foot landing mat runway. The site was used by the War Department as an auxillary landing field for the Army Corps Basic Flying School. The field was used exclusively for the training of pilots. The field was closed in August of 1945 and the lease ended on November 30, 1945. No trace of the airfield remains.

The expansion of Highway 99 in the early 1950s started the demise of Athlone by eliminating the last remaining commercial business, the service station. Today all that is left is a few private homes and many acres of farm ground. There is a road sign there for Athlone Road that ends at Highway 99 with no on or off ramp.

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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