Five historic sites to visit in Stanislaus, Merced counties

08/12/2014 1:26 PM

08/12/2014 1:47 PM

So much of history of the West was driven by the Gold Rush, and the valley is no exception. Most of the area’s cities and towns, Modesto and Merced included, ultimately came into being as a result of that era. It brought people who recognized the valley’s soil was among the world’s best for farming. It brought the railroads to move what it produced. It changed with the automobile and the airplane, and to understand this metamorphosis, here are a few spot that go to great lengths to tell the valley’s story:

McHenry Museum and Mansion

The McHenry Museum and McHenry Mansion are the historical centerpieces of Modesto and Stanislaus County. Robert and Matilda McHenry built their mansion at the corner of 15th and I streets downtown in 1883. It was home to McHenrys, including son Oramil, until 1919. Converted to a sanitarium in 1919 and to apartments in 1923, the mansion was purchased in 1976 by the Julio and Aileen Gallo Foundation. The Gallos then gave it to the city under the condition that it be restored and made available to the public. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1983 and survived a fire in 2011. The mansion is open Sunday through Friday, from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The museum was constructed after Oramil McHenry bequeathed $20,000 and three lots to the city to build a public library, which it housed from 1912 until 1971. The building became a museum and cultural arts center until 2003, and now is a museum solely that is home to the McHenry Museum and Historical Society. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Visit mchenrymansion.org/ and mchenrymuseum.org/


Knight's Ferry

Knight’s Ferry’s covered bridge is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi and became a National Historic Landmark in 2012. The original bridge across the Stanislaus River was built in 1862, but washed away in a flood that year during what was one of the heaviest rainfall seasons on record in California. The bridge that replaced it is the same one still there today. It was closed to motor traffic in 1981, but is still open for strolling by pedestrians. It is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and figures prominently in the annual Civil War Re-enactments in Knights Ferry every March. Visit stanislausriver.com/parks.html


La Grange

La Grange was first known as French Bar when miners came to the area in 1852. Now a California Historic Landmark historic district, it served as Stanislaus County’s seat from 1856 until 1862, when Knights Ferry won out by 29 votes. Many original buildings still stand, including the pre-1850 Adobe Barn at the east end of town. The town got a rebirth when Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts built the La Grange Dam, completed in 1893, two miles upstream on the Tuolumne River. And its old gold dredge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit facebook.com/lagrangemuseum


Merced County Courthouse Museum

The Merced County Courthouse Museum brings Merced County’s history to life in the building constructed in 1875. The courthouse also is on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes permanent and rotating exhibits that tell the story of Merced County and life in the valley. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Visit mercedmuseum.org/


Castle Air Museum

Castle Air Museum recently became home to a plane that once flew as Air Force One, but it is better know for its collection of military planes including fighters and bombers. Castle opened in 1941 as an Army Air Corps training field and was home to the 93rd Bombardment Wing and Strategic Air Command from 1946 until 1992. Castle pilots flew the B-52 Stratofortress, B-29 Superfortress and other bomber aircraft, but the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990 earmarked the base for closure, which came in 1995. The museum is open year round except on New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and during inclement weather. Summer/fall hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Oct. 1 through March 31. Visit castleairmuseum.org/

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