Does old Berenda still live?
Courtesy of the Mariscotti Family
Berenda in 1910.
In 1872, the Southern Pacific Railroad stretched its tracks down the San Joaquin Valley, connecting it with the Sacramento Valley. In its wake, several little farms popped up around its primitive depots, and one of these was named Berendo.
It was an enterprising fellow by the name of Leroy Dennis who played the leading role in founding Berendo. He built a huge storage barn near the depot, and soon people were coming from miles around, driving their horses and buggies to Berendo’s lively “warehouse dances.”
Sensing that the railroad would trigger the development of modern farm life, Dennis prepared to provide the essential supplies and services that soon would be needed.
A former sheriff of what was then Fresno County, Dennis built the first store and hotel in the area — they would serve as the basis for Berendo’s early beginnings.
As these fundamental needs were met, additional hotels, general stores, a blacksmith shop, a laundry, saloons, and, finally, a school were added.
Then the nearby mountains came alive with mining and lumber activity, and Berendo soon felt the impact. Mail and passenger service had to be provided to the foothills and mountains, giving rise to stage coach operations between Berendo and Buchanan and up into the higher country of Grub Gulch and Fresno Flats.
Within a short time, people were taking the Berendo route to go up to the mines and lumber mills to work. All the while, the mercantile establishments of Berendo continued to thrive.
In the 1880s the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company persuaded the railroad to attempt to build a branch line from Berendo to Raymond. This line was completed on May 14, 1886, and Berendo received another thrust of growth. The railroad bed of these tracks can still be seen near the Daulton Ranch and at many other sites at the higher elevations.
The U.S. Postal Service officially changed the name of the town in 1919, to conform to a more accepted usage that had been in vogue for quite a while. Berendo denoted a male antelope, while Berenda — the new name — meant a female antelope.
The town had a brief moment of notoriety in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt took the train from Berenda to Raymond on his way to Yosemite, but the town began to die after that as other travelers took alternative routes.
The town was hit hard in 1907, when all of the Yosemite traffic was lost, as the Yosemite Valley railroad was constructed from Merced to El Portal. The farming interest began conducting business in Madera, and copper miners ceased to bring their ore to the Berenda depot for shipment.
On August 31, 1935, the Berenda post office was closed. For all practical purposes, the town was dead.
The track from Daulton to Raymond was abandoned in 1942, and the 10-mile track between Berenda and Daulton was abandoned in 1956.
All of the buildings on the west side of the railroad tracks, except the school house, were moved to the east side to make way for the construction of the Golden State Highway (99) in 1914.
When Highway 99 became four lanes in the 1940s, the Berenda passenger and freight depot were dismantled. The Southern Pacific’s water tank was dismantled in 1958, due to the absence of steam locomotives. That left just the school house as Berenda’s only surviving building.
The rabbit drives and geese, coyote, and antelope hunts, which were popular diversions in Berenda, faded away with the town, but the pieces of Berenda’s past live on in the memories of the old and imaginations of the young.
The next time you are traveling on Hwy. 99 north of Madera, keep a look out for the old Berenda school house. If you allow your imagination some freedom, you’ll see the kids out there playing dodge ball, and if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the chugging of that old steam engine as it begins its pull up to Raymond.
When all that happens you will see that Berenda is far from dead because its past is secure.