Merced, CA (MCD)
Designed with an Arts and Crafts aesthetic, the Merced depot is an important gateway to nearby Yosemite National Park, famous for its giant sequoias, waterfalls and lush meadows.
324 West 24th Street
Merced, CA 95340
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 121,137
- Facility Ownership: State of California
- Parking Lot Ownership: State of California
- Platform Ownership: BNSF Railway
- Track Ownership: BNSF Railway
- San Joaquins
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
The Merced station is located about four blocks northeast of Courthouse Square Park and a few blocks south of Bear Creek and the parkland that lines its shores. As part of the Mobility First initiative of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, in 2011 the Merced stop received a new wheelchair lift and enclosure at a total estimated cost of $29,700. In June, 2014, volunteers from the El Capitan Leo Club, Clampers fraternity and other community organizations worked together to beautify the station, which is a gateway to the city and for tourists heading to the picturesque Yosemite Valley. The volunteers planted nearly 200 colorful, drought-resistant flowers and shrubs, for which Amtrak contributed the funding.
From the outside, the Merced station looks quite old, and it would be easy to mistake it for the depot erected by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) in 1917. Upon closer inspection, a commemorative plaque reveals that the current depot was completed in 2000. Almost a century after it was constructed, the old depot was in disrepair and city officials decided to replace it with an improved facility to better serve rail passengers and those using the bus to access Yosemite National Park. In designing the new station, Merced-based DePertuis Scott Architects consciously chose to reference the original structure which included features such as an open-air waiting room—popular in California and the Southwest—and materials such as brick and stucco.
Many of the ATSF stations in California were inspired by romanticized Mission or Spanish Revival architecture that alluded to an idealized past and provided the railroad with a distinct visual identity. Interestingly, the design of the Merced depot combined these revivalist aesthetics with motifs from the then-popular Arts and Crafts movement. Instead of round, Roman arches, the depot incorporated broader, shallower versions. At each end gable, the deep eaves of the roof were supported by heavy, rustic wooden brackets.
Overall, the one story station presented a rather picturesque roofline of cross gables and chimneys. The base of the structure, about three feet high, was constructed of brick while the remaining wall surfaces were coated in stucco, a favored cladding material that approximated the look and texture of hand-formed adobe. Similar to many depots, the simple gabled roof was extended to created deep eaves that sheltered passengers from inclement weather as they waited outside for the arrival of the train. A projecting bay window along the tracks had windows on all sides to allow the station master an unobstructed view down the line in order to monitor rail traffic. The exterior of the new facility echoes its predecessor even down to the small details, such as the sign that reads “Merced.” Flanking the name of the town are two crosses within circles—the logo of the ATSF. Funding for the station was provided by the Rail Program of the California Department of Transportation.
Merced is located at the center of the San Joaquin Valley, which was explored by the Spanish in the late 18th century. In 1806, Gabriel Moraga led a party of soldiers into the area; dehydrated and tired, they rejoiced at the site of a river that they called the “Rio de Nuestra Señora de Merced”—the river of our Lady of Mercy. After the region became part of the United States, the name was applied to both the county and its seat, but was shortened to “Merced.”
Early travelers encountered bands of the Yokut American Indians who were spread throughout the region. The valley was not settled by European-Americans until the 1820s. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, much of the land in southern and central California was broken up into large estates that were often doled out to the friends of those in power. Although isolated from populated coastal areas due to the mountain ranges, the valley was used for grazing. The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted adventures to California from the eastern and Midwestern United States. Many dreams of gold came to naught but settlers remained in the west and built lives. Subsequently, many of the Yokut were driven off their land and onto designated reservations.
Substantial population growth in the San Joaquin Valley did not occur until the arrival of the Southern Pacific (SP) and the ATSF in the late nineteenth century. By the early 1870s, the SP—and the Central Pacific Railroad (CP), which it controlled—were working on a line that would run down the valley to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those cities were California’s two most important ports and political and economic centers for the northern and southern regions of the state, respectively.
In the central section of the valley, the SP hired Charles Henry Huffman as a “town site agent.” He worked to obtain the best right-of-way for the railroad, and also chose land for depots, rail yards, and towns. In this capacity, Huffman is considered the founder of Merced since he designated the town site and moved there in 1872 when the SP laid tracks through the area. He later became a major wheat farmer and then began construction on the local irrigation system.
Similar to most railroad towns, Merced had to be built from scratch. A small village recently established along Bear Creek was soon abandoned as the shop owners moved closer to the depot and potential customers. Within a few years, the SP constructed a permanent station at 16th and N Streets. Historic photographs show a standard rectangular wood depot that responded to local climate by the addition of a deep veranda. Framed by arches resting upon squat classical columns, the verandah threw deep shadows onto the main structure in order to provide some relief from the hot summer sun. The first depot was replaced in 1926 by a station that featured a long, shady colonnade along the tracks. The building closed to passengers in 1971, but two decades later it was restored to house the local Chamber of Commerce and local and regional bus lines, including one that travels between Merced and the Yosemite region.
In 1888, Huffman dedicated a fountain at the depot park in honor of his wife; known as the “Laura Fountain,” it provided a cool respite to travelers after a long journey through the valley. Visitors can still admire the multi-tiered water feature which was relocated to Applegate Park in 1933 and is now surrounded by beds of roses in various hues. Adjacent to the depot, the railroad constructed the El Capitan Hotel to lodge visitors to Yosemite Valley, which became a national park in 1890.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the idea of leisure time was introduced to the growing middle class. New business concepts such as paid vacation allowed working professionals to take a break from their office jobs. The railroads, many of which were in fierce competition with one another, made long distance travel affordable. As industrialization increased, reformers called for Americans to reacquaint themselves with nature. Spots of exceptional natural beauty and biological diversity were seen to have a value beyond that of the land itself.
All of these factors attracted visitors to central western California’s Yosemite Valley. Tourists could take the train to Merced and stay the night at El Capitan or another hotel before heading east. Once in the park, visitors marveled at the waterfalls, streams, soaring granite formations, and the stands of giant sequoia trees. Railroads actively promoted tourism as a way to supplement their freight business. In 1907, the Yosemite Valley Railroad (YVRR) initiated direct service from Merced to the entrance of the park at El Portal. The YVRR built a large depot in downtown Merced across from the ATSF station, but it burned to the ground in 1929. The railroad later faced competition from the Yosemite Highway, constructed in the early 1920s.
Merced also developed a small Chinatown, for Chinese immigrants had been instrumental in laying SP tracks through California and some laborers stayed in the region to begin new lives in agriculture. Merced became a hub for a number of agricultural communities or “colonies” much like Madera and Fresno to the southeast. Typically, colonization efforts were initiated by land developers who aimed to secure water rights, prepare the land for agriculture, and then sell the plots; sometimes, the developer even planted basic crops to get new farmers started. Common crops included wheat, olives, grapes for raisins, and experiments with citrus trees and other fruits. Farming was made possible through an extensive system of irrigation canals, many of which have been improved over time and have become a distinct feature of the landscape.
As the valley communities grew in the last quarter of the 19th century, the SP had a monopoly on rapid transportation that led to complaints from farmers and travelers about high freight and passenger rates. The primary rival to the SP in California was the ATSF, which had entered the far southern area of the state in the 1880s. In the mid-1890s, the new San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad (SF&SJV) proposed an alternate route through the San Joaquin Valley; by purchasing the SF&SJV in 1899 and securing trackage rights over the SP’s Tehachapi line, the ATSF gained a route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco bay area.
The SF&SJV laid tracks through Merced in 1896 and a depot was soon constructed at the crossing of the tracks and K Street; it stood there until it was replaced in 1917 by the larger ATSF facility. Adjoining the depot was a Harvey House designed in a simplified Mission Revival style. Closely associated with the ATSF, the Harvey Houses provided meals for rail passengers in the days before dining cars were common; many also included hotel rooms.
Merced developed as a prosperous agricultural community. As the county seat, it also hosted the annual fair towards the end of summer. Usually the scene of gaiety, the fairgrounds and buildings were leased to the federal government at the outbreak of World War II. The U.S. Army quickly built hundreds of basic barracks which were subsequently used to house more than 5,000 Japanese-Americans, many of whom were third or fourth generation citizens. Forcibly relocated from the West Coast during the war due to unfounded fears about their loyalty to the United States, they remained at Merced for a few months before being relocated to Colorado. In 2010, a memorial at the fairgrounds was dedicated to the internees. It features a statue of a young girl sitting on a pile of suitcases and bags that contained the few possessions that internees were allowed to take with them.
In 2005, the newest campus of the University of California system opened northeast of Merced near Lake Yosemite. When fully developed, the school is expected to accommodate up to 25,000 students. The man-made lake was created to hold water for irrigation, and is a popular spot for boating and other water recreation. During the summer, boat races are held by the Lake Yosemite Sailing Association.
A glimpse into Merced’s past is available at the former county courthouse in Courthouse Square Park. Built in 1875, the gleaming white Italianate style building is capped by a dome that holds aloft a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Visitors may view an early 20th century classroom, the former Superior Courtroom, and a blacksmith shop, as well as temporary exhibits on local and regional history. To the southeast, the 100 foot tower of the Merced Theater is visible for miles, particularly at night when the orange neon “Merced” sign is lighted. Opened in 1931, the former movie palace is a local landmark known for its fantasy interior designed to resemble a castle. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the space is used to present films and live performances.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station. The San Joaquinservice is primarily financed through funds made available by the State of California, Department of Transportation, and is managed by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
- 12 Short Term Parking Spaces
- 34 Long Term Parking Spaces
- Accessible Payphones
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Accessible Ticket Office
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Accessible Water Fountain
- Baggage Storage
- Bike Boxes
- Checked Baggage
- Dedicated Parking
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Help With Luggage
- Pay Phones
- Quik Trak Kiosk
- Ticket Office
- Wheelchair Lift