Merredin's history varies from that of other wheat-belt towns in the sense that it started as a stopping place on the way to the goldfields. The first European explorer into the area was the Surveyor General J. S. Roe, who travelled through the region in 1836 but was not impressed by its dryness and the low rainfall.
By the 1850s sandalwood cutters were in the area but there was little agriculture. It wasn't until Assistant Surveyor Charles Hunt explored the area in the period 1864-66 that it began to open up. Hunt saw the pastoral potential but realised the importance of water. He called the area Hampton Plains after John Stephen Hampton, Governor of Western Australia from 1862 to 1868.
Hunt made five journeys through the area. Of the five journeys the first was exploratory (1864), the second established a track which moved from waterhole to waterhole (1865) and the third built a series of wells and dams. The result was a road which later became known as the York to Goldfields road and, until the arrival of the railway, was the only link between the coast and the gold towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie.
It is almost certain that Hunt climbed Merredin Peak (a short distance out of town to the north) and that he heard the town's name from the local Aborigines. There is, as always, some confusion over the origin of the name. Hunt claimed that the local Aborigines referred to the place as 'Merrriding' while other explanations suggest that the name comes from 'merrit-in' - 'the place of the Merrit' (merrit being a kind of tree which was used for making spears) - or that it was the name used by the Aborigines to describe the 'huge bare granite rock' which the locals now call Merredin Peak.
In the late 1860s a number of large pastoral leases were taken up in the area but no township evolved. As late as 1889, when Assistant Surveyor Henry King set up camp on the north side of Merredin Rock (see the Merredin Peak Heritage Trail for a map to the exact site), there was still no township. The first settlement was established to the north of Merredin Peak on the York to the Goldfields road but it was hastily moved when the railway, which couldn't follow the gradients of Hunts Road, was built a few kilometres to the south.
The town really came into existence as a result of the goldrushes. In 1888 the area to the east of Merredin was officially proclaimed a goldfield and over the next decade prospectors and fossickers poured through the area. Gold was discovered at Coolgardie in 1892 and at Kalgoorlie a year later. At first the prospectors used Hunt's waterholes road and this meant that they passed through the site of the modern town. In 1893 the railway reached the town. Merredin's importance as a town was directly related to the establishment of a superb water catchment scheme on Merredin Peak.
A rock wall was built around the contours of Merredin Peak. It led to a 100 m channel which in turn led into a dam which had a storage capacity of 25 million litres. The scheme held every drop of water which landed on the Peak and directed it all into the dam which provided water for both the town and the railway. The entire structure is still intact and can be easily reached at the northern end of town (the Merredin Peak Heritage Trail has a map). It is a fascinating wheat-belt attempt to solve the area's shortage of water. Constructed between 1893 and 1896, it ensured that Merredin would become much more than just another wheat-belt siding.
The need for the water from Merredin Peak disappeared in 1903 when C. Y. O'Connor's remarkable 565 km pipeline was completed. This joined the waterless goldfields at Kalgoorlie with the plentiful supplies of water in the Helena River east of Perth. Interestingly the Merredin Peak dam continued to supply water to the railway until 1968 and even today it is still used as the water supply for the fountain outside the Railway Museum.
Land in the present townsite was offered for sale in 1906 and by 1911 the Merredin Roads Board had been formed. In 1904 the Agricultural Research Station was established. It was here that the famous Bencubbin strain of wheat was developed.