How business and competition led to Merced becoming California’s ‘gateway’ to Yosemite

The sounds of the season have already begun to fill the fresh, cold Merced air.

Occasionally mixed in with the holiday “symphony” is the train whistle, which often evokes nostalgia for many Mercedians since it was the building of the railroad that led to the birth of Merced.

Railroads are also closely intertwined with the history of stagecoach lines from Merced to Yosemite.

Because of the Central Pacific (later SP) Railroad, Merced was established as a gateway to Yosemite in 1872; then, with the opening of the Yosemite Valley (YV) Railroad in 1907, Merced became the “Only Way to Yosemite.”

Merced has not always been the “Gateway to Yosemite.” From 1885 to 1896, the gateway designation was shifted from Merced to Madera and Raymond because of Henry Washburn, whose stage line dominated Yosemite travel.

With the arrival of the railroad, Washburn began to methodically establish his monopoly.

Washburn first built Wawona Road reaching the heart of Yosemite, then made his competitors bring Yosemite-bound tourists from Merced to Wawona, and finally convinced the railroad company to build a branch to Raymond.

When Washburn died in 1902, the San Francisco Call called him “the greatest of all developers of Yosemite Valley.”

Washburn’s success in the stage business was rooted in his Merced operations. As one of the first livery stables in Merced in 1872, Washburn, a Mariposa businessman, and his partner, John McCready, set up shop at the northeast corner of Main and M Streets and called it Washburn and McCready.

Their competitor was a man by the name of Martin McClenathan, whose El Capitan Stable was just across M Street at the other corner of Main.

In 1872, they both hauled Yosemite-bound tourists by way of Mariposa, and the competition was so intense that it led to a temporary rate reduction to as low as $1.

In one instance, a Yosemite visitor was so overwhelmed with offers from the rival lines that he decided to sleep on it. He went to bed with the $1 deal but woke up with a $50 offer. Little did he know that while he was sleeping, the two companies got together and ironed things out.

The competition between McClenathan and Washburn continued throughout the 1870s. Washburn realized that to win the “war,” he needed to build good roads to Yosemite Valley because, up to that point, the stage could only go as far as Wawona, and the remainder of the journey was on horseback or foot.

In early 1875, upon McCready’s departure, Washburn got additional capital for his road project when Emery Chapman and William Coffman joined the partnership. The business was renamed Yosemite Stable. Later that year, Wawona Road was completed, becoming a game-changer for Washburn. It would eventually become the most popular and scenic route to Yosemite, beating Coulterville and Big Oak Flat Roads.

Washburn bought out his partners in 1877 and founded the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company. By the end of the decade, he sold Yosemite Stable to J.J. Stevinson and moved the stage office to El Capitan Hotel.

Meanwhile, McClenathan remained a worthy rival until the early 1880s when he struck a deal with Washburn to bring his Yosemite visitors to Wawona and abandon the Coulterville route.

E.M. Stoddard and his son, D.K., who took over El Capitan Stable after McClenathan’s death in 1886, would continue this arrangement until 1896.

In 1885, Washburn’s dream of monopolizing the Yosemite stage business was one step closer when the SP agreed to build a branch line from Berenda to Raymond. He then transferred his headquarters from Merced to Madera.

Merced lost not only an important business but also its designation as a “gateway” to Yosemite because Raymond replaced Merced as the starting terminus for Yosemite.

Merced regained its “gateway” status 11 years later when the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley (Santa Fe) Railroad arrived in 1896. With the Stoddards running their own stage line with the Santa Fe passengers, Washburn’s monopoly in the Yosemite stage business came to an end.

In 1907, the opening of the Yosemite Valley Railroad from Merced to El Portal solidified Merced as the “Gateway to Yosemite.” The following year, Merced became the “Only Way to Yosemite” with a new traffic arrangement between the YV, Santa Fe, and SP in which the SP agreed to discontinue the Raymond route for Yosemite-bound tourists.

Back to the original Yosemite Stable building at the northeast corner of Main and M Streets. It witnessed the progress and development of the city for over three decades before it was torn down in 1903.

Its neighbors did not fare as well: across Main Street, the Levinsky Building and Moran Hotel were destroyed by fires in 1877 and 1883, respectively; directly behind, H. A.

Leeker’s hay shed was damaged by fire in 1882; and across M Street, El Capitan Stable was burned down in 1886. The Shaffer Building, still standing, was built at the Yosemite Stable site in 1912.

As we celebrate our city’s progress and honor our traditions this holiday season, please attend our 38th Annual Christmas Open House at the Courthouse Museum on Dec. 4 from 1 to 4 p.m.

This year’s Christmas program will feature the Central Presbyterian Church Handbell Choir, Our Lady of Mercy School Christmas Choir, Harmony Valley Chorus, Merced Baroque Sinfonia, Sandra Stocking’s Flute Group, and St. Anthony School Choir.

The Open House is free to the public. For more information, please contact the Museum at (209) 723-2401.