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Sheriff saw Berenda coming

For The Madera Tribune

The once thriving village of Berenda was home to this showcase of education, Berenda School, seen here in the 1890s.


When Fresno County Sheriff Leroy Dennis chose not to run for reelection in 1872, he decided to move to a little spot in the north end of the county where the Southern Pacific Railroad had just built a freight depot. Dennis was certain that a town would grow up around the depot, and he wanted to be there when the boom came. Little did he know that in 20 years, the little village he envisioned would one day be a major transportation link for the new county of Madera.

Prior to the coming of the railroad and Dennis’ arrival, there had been no towns on the Valley floor of what is now Madera County. When the tracks reached a nice level spot a few miles north of the Fresno River, on March 5, 1872, the railroad installed a 20,000-gallon wooden water tank for its steam locomotives, and behold, a town site was born. They named it Berendo, the Spanish name for antelope, because of the herds of the quadrupeds that loped across the countryside. Later, the name was changed from Berendo (male antelope) to Berenda (female antelope).

Just as he had planned, Dennis was there to get things going right from the start. The enterprising former sheriff played the leading role in the growth of Berenda. Sensing that the railroad would trigger the development of modern farm life, he prepared to provide the essential supplies and services that would be needed. Dennis built the first store and hotel in the area — they would serve as the basis for Berenda’s early beginnings.

As these needs were met, additional hotels, general stores, a blacksmith shop, a laundry, saloons, and finally a school were added. When the nearby mountains came alive with mining and lumber activity, Berenda soon felt the impact. Mail and passenger service had to be provided to the foothills and mountains, giving rise to horse stage operations between Berenda, Buchanan, and up into the higher country of Grub Gulch and Fresno Flats.

Within a short time, people were coming to Berenda to travel to the mines and lumber mills to work. All the while, the mercantile establishments on the valley floor continued to prosper.

As the village continued to thrive, people came from miles around, driving their horses and buggies to Berenda’s lively “warehouse dances.” They spent the night in one of the three hotels built prior to 1900, and were pampered by the town’s laundress who washed clothes at the rear of the Vignolo Hotel and answered to the nickname of “Snowball.”

In the 1880s the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company persuaded the railroad to attempt to build a branch line from Berenda to Raymond. This line was completed on May 14, 1886, and Berenda 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 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 it then began to die as travelers took alternative routes.

Berenda was hard-hit in 1907, when all of the Yosemite traffic was lost to the Yosemite Valley Railroad that was constructed from Merced to El Portal, and the farming interest began conducting business in Madera. To make matters worse, the price of copper dropped, and miners stopped bringing their ore to the Berenda depot for shipment.

On Aug. 31, 1935, the Berenda post office was closed, and for all practical purposes, the town died. 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 schoolhouse, were moved to the east side to make way for the construction of the Golden State Highway (99) in 1914. The Southern Pacific’s tank was dismantled in 1958, due to the discontinued use of steam locomotives, and Berenda School was moved further to the west when Highway 99 became four lanes in the 1940s. The Berenda passenger and freight depot had been dismantled in August 1940. The schoolhouse is Berenda’s only surviving building.

The rabbit drives, along with the 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. If you really want to find out about Old Berenda, visit the Vineyard Restaurant in Madera. Chris Mariscotti can tell you a lot.


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