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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann


Chapter II
THE FIRST LAP—RIVER TO FOOTHILLS

In 1849 a miners’ trail led from the loading levee straight to the gold camps at Sonora, Chinese Camp, Big Oak Flat and other diggings whose names became household words. For the first two miles it was lined with tents. At night, for the entire distance, its lights were camp fires. An almost continuous procession of men and pack animals plodded its rough miles, glad of any kind of thoroughfare that would take them to their destination.

Before the dry season of ’49 had soddened into winter mud, David Morrell Locke traveled in the first wheeled vehicle ever to pass along this sketchy road as far as Knight’s Ferry;1 the change from pack mule to freight wagon had begun and, from then on, was never allowed to lapse. Soon the goods transported yearly to the Ferry amounted to thousands of tons.

When, in the ’50s, the clattering wagons with their six to sixteen mules or horses came down the miners’ trail they were empty. After hours of back-breaking work at the loading levee the teamsters coaxed and swore until the animals lay into their collars and the heavily inert wagons were started. Lurching and groaning, they moved slowly out of town along what is now Weber Avenue, Pilgrim Street, Main Street and Wilson Way and was then the beginning of the Mariposa Military Road to Fort Millerton and Fort Tejon.2 After about a mile they completed the townward loop and met the oncoming empty wagons and trotting pack trains. Passing these from time to time they moved on laboriously toward the mountains. The pack animals carried an average of 300 pounds each. In summer each freight animal could pull some 2000 pounds; in winter only 1500.

The teamsters leaving Stockton dreaded wet weather. The soil immediately around the town was a rich gumbo and the first rains turned roads into quagmires. At such times the drivers started in the afternoon; fought their way through the mud, yard by yard, and spent the night at “The Nightingale.”

For the first three miles the military road was coincidental with the beginnings of the route to the mines, called at first the Sonora Trail and later the Sonora Road; then the latter separated and turned eastward toward Farmington. In the morning they had a firmer road and a rested team. This satisfactorily solves the problem of why Nightingale Station, in the intersection of the Mariposa and the Farmington roads, is listed as the first night’s stop.

Another solution of the mud difficulty was to drive from the levee to French Camp from whence a firm, sandy roadway could be found to what is now Manteca; thence to the Stanislaus River opposite Oakdale. This is near the spot still known as Fremont’s Crossing.3 Across from Oakdale the freighters struck the sandy north bank of the Stanislaus River and followed it to Knight’s Ferry. This was known as the river road or the winter route. The going was very bad between Stockton and French Camp; in fact, freight was sometimes sent that far by boat and reloaded in wagons.4 Eventually the townspeople connected them with a plank road.

The Nightingale still stands on the east side of Highway 4. It is known that John Nightingale bought a ranch near Linden in 1854 so it is possible that he opened his station at about the same time. The present building, however, is probably not so old. It has real dignity and charm, with heavy white pillars in front and a wrought iron railing around the small upper balcony. Each of its large upstairs bedrooms held four occupants and the gathering room downstairs was utilized for dances.

A few yards beyond John and Sarah Nightingale’s old station the freight route turned left into the Farmington Road and started for the mountains.

Four Mile House and Eight Mile House stood on the Sonora Road beyond its point of severance from the Military Road. Twelve Mile House catered to the stages, serving breakfasts to the passengers at fifty cents each. Fourteen Mile House was a favorite with the teamsters, but there was not a home nor a ranch on the entire route that would not supply a meal or a bed when necessary. When Ulysses S. Grant passed this way on mule-back in the summer of 1852 there was a house every few miles and the traffic was considered as heavy as any place in the United States. 5

The little settlement of Farmington grew and improved quickly. In 1858 D. B. Stamper erected a hotel; a blacksmith shop and saloon followed soon and, after a few years, the J. A. Campbell family kept a popular roadside stopping place known as Farmington Hotel.

At 3.3 miles beyond Farmington the modern traveler is forced to leave the old freight road and to detour to the right around an unseen dam through country where beef cattle fatten in fenced fields; then to turn left on the road to Milton and to cross the line into Stanislaus County. Presently one comes to a dead-end against a crossroad and must turn left again toward Eugene. In springtime these green rolling hills are beautiful. Littlejohn Creek meanders here and there. Hundreds of red cattle brighten the landscape and scores of graceful white egrets. Beyond the bridge over Littlejohn Creek one comes again to a dead-end against a cross-road. An empty house faces its thistle-thicketed barns across the road; a forsaken home almost hidden under matted elms. In their deep shade lurk the stumps of oaks cut long ago for timber. The five mile detour is complete, for this was a well known landmark on the Sonora Road and was the beginning of a settlement strung eastward along its course and known tersely as “Twenty Six Mile” or simply “Twenty Six.”

Here, at one time and another, was the residence of the sons, James and Patrick, of the pioneer Patrick Ford whose original home was the rear of the building.

The first comers were squatters named Dillon and M. J. Dooly. When stages began to run they maintained a barn and kept the stage horses.6 Later Dooly ran one of the first stage lines. The four young Irishmen who became the permanent settlers of Twenty Six Mile all worked for Dillon and Dooly at first, as hostlers or in some such capacity; then they obtained land from them and presumably from the government also, and built their homes. They were Patrick Ford and the three brothers, James, Daniel and Luke Nolan.

Next to the Ford home came the land of James Nolan. It was he who kept the store, bar and post office officially known as Twenty Six Mile and now obliterated. Beyond it and still on the north side of the road, is a fenced enclosure often utilized as a corral. It used to be the neat garden surrounding the James Nolan home and the flower beds were outlined with stone ale bottles. They are still there but trampled solidly into the hard earth. They were imported from Ireland packed in barrels and were sold at the bar. Several ranches of the vicinity had their landscaping emphasized with these containers giving a remarkably chaste effect; but the brew that came out of them (which, presumably, was not wasted) was the color and almost the consistency of molasses and was not a beverage for weaklings.

Across from this home site was the stage barn of Dillon and Dooly. Next, on the north, is pretty little St. Joseph’s church, with its white altar and pointed windows, for which Daniel Nolan donated the land in 1886. His ranch is just beyond it. Daniel had but one child, Hannah. She married T. D. Brennan and secured the succession with eleven children. Their home, standing a quarter mile south of the road, is the third building to be erected on the site and one family has lived there continuously since gold rush days.

The Milton Road presently turns north. In the angle is Twenty Eight Mile House boasting two false fronts and a “drive-under.” At one time it was a store, post office and bar. Patrick Ford’s daughter Kate inherited this portion of the land and, marrying Daniel Kelliher, came here to live. Although, after the fashion of the time, the teamsters dubbed it Twenty Eight Mile, the Kellihers called it Eugene for their son. In due time fire destroyed the bar furnishings which they then replaced with the ones formerly used at the earlier Twenty Six Mile. They have been presented intact to the Haggin Memorial Museum in Stockton by the daughters of the family and portray an excellent picture of the interior of the old roadhouse bars characteristic of the day.

At Eugene the Sonora Road parts company with the road to Milton which starts off to the north taking the paving with it. The former, curving and whimsical, keeps on toward Knight’s Ferry past the land of the fourth early settler, Luke Nolan.

At 4.8 miles beyond Eugene there is an unmarked fork in the road. The left branch, crossing a little slough, approximates the old road. In spring these rolling knolls are velvety green. In summer wild oats fur their smoothly molded sides in all shades of beige and silvery grey like the flanks of a Siamese cat.

A good black-topped highway (successor to the old river route) swings along opportunely from the southwest and, gathering in the meandering little hill-road, proceeds to the left. It then immediately pours itself into a canyon leading toward the Stanislaus River.

Over a gateway a sign reads: “Rancheria del Rio Estanislaus.” Beyond it spread the opulent valleys and grass-covered hills of the old Mexican grant. Ignoring its invitation one comes at once to Knight’s Ferry.

In the days before detours and modern complications it was considered an even forty miles from the loading levee. The road did not curve to the left in town as at present but went straight down the hill to the ferry.

When in 1849 D. M. Locke rode the first wagon into the settlement he found a trading post of the simplest kind presided over by William Knight, a decisive and rather hard-bitten pioneer who was said to have been educated in Baltimore as a doctor. Available data tells us that, after his graduation at the age of 24, Knight some years later adventurously settled in Santa Fe, became naturalized as a Mexican citizen and married Carmel, daughter of José Tapia, a former governor of New Mexico. In 1841 he came into California with the Workman-Rowland Party. Apparently he approved of the new country, as he soon returned for his family, leaving them at Los Angeles while he went north and, in some fashion, obtained a renewal of his naturalization documents. Again he returned for his wife and children and settled them on the Sacramento River at a spot now known as Knight’s Landing. This was in 1843. An Indian mound rose safely above flood waters and on it Knight built a cabin of poles held with rawhide thongs and sporting a roof of tules. This was burned in 1845 and replaced by a log house, the first built in the county, the timbers of which were hauled one at a time by a riata fastened to a saddle horse. In ’46 he obtained a land grant of ten square leagues in the vicinity and called it Rancho Carmel for his wife.7 Margaret Ruppel quotes that he was in appearance “ . . . tall and knarled as a mountain pine, ageless with a long white beard which seemed transplanted, some how, from his bald and shiny head.”8 He was a choleric individual and is said at different times to have challenged both General Vallejo and John Sutter to a duel with pistols.9 In 1846 he enlisted in the California Battalion, serving as a private in Company A. under Lieut. Colonel John Charles Fremont who wrote of him in his Memoirs: “He was one of the settlers and one of the best. . . . I had engaged him as scout, for which he proved excellently well qualified. His specialty was hunting. . . .”

During the first month or two after the discovery of gold Knight left Carmel and his children at the Landing and set out. He took five Indians with him and headed for the first big river crossing between the boat landing at Stockton and the mountains. Here he set the Indians to panning gold and set himself to the task of running a trading post and a small row-boat ferry over the Stanislaus River. This was soon known by the name of Knight’s Ferry. And, so the story goes, the diggings nearby, worked by Knight’s Indians and probably by those of Charles Weber, opened operations in the fabulous Southern Mines.

D. M. Locke wrote in his journal on August 16, 1849: “We reached Knight’s at 10 o’clock A.M. Took breakfast pork & beans, hard bread & coffee $1.50 each. Went and saw them digging gold for the first time. The Indians only dug enough to get liquor 50˘ a glass.”

H. E. Dudley, later the first citizen of Dudley Station on the Coulterville Road, arrived at Knight’s trading post on the very same day. He wrote in his diary: “On Thursday the 16th we arrived at the Stanislaus river at what is called Knights Crossing, here we stopped two nights on one of which the kyotes or Indians carried off our frypan, for which I gave them credit. Didn’t old Knight’s coffee & beans suffer some, and faith that was about everything he had in the provision line.”

Jacob Wright Harlan had occasion to cross the river in the spring of ’49. “The ferry boat,” he wrote, “was a little skiff that would hold about five or six persons, and our wagon had to be taken apart and carried over piecemeal.” He described their attempt to tow the wagon bed which resulted in swamping it just above the “rapids.” A young man named Brannon nearly lost his life in the flooded river.

Ferrying this party took the entire day and they paid the ferryman $200.00.10

Knight planned an adequate wagon ferry but did not live to construct it. He was dead within a few months after this incident and rumor says that, like so many of the early pioneers, his death was caused by a gunshot wound. His widow, Carmel, married John Wolfskill, a neighbor, twenty miles distant.11 The firm of Dent and Vantine, in which there is some evidence that John R. Willms should be included,12 were probably Knight’s partners in the trading post. They seem to have taken over his affairs. The Dents wrote to Major S. Cooper at Benicia and asked him to come and take care of Knight’s effects but he never made the trip.13 The proposed ferry was soon built—a fine scow, well railed in, one of the best in the country. They also established a combined restaurant and boarding house.14 The ferry was managed by two persons who maneuvered it across the 150 foot river with ropes. The crossing took only a minute or two and the fare settled down to a moderate two dollars.15

There were three Dent brothers. John and Lewis came by ox-team from St. Louis in ’49.16 George is said to have arrived with his pretty wife in 1851. She was then, it is supposed, the only white woman in the settlement.17 The family soon owned a ranch well-stocked with cattle and horses, and by the year 1855 George was postmaster. In the same year that George arrived the government took over the trading post for an Indian reservation store and eventually John Dent was appointed Indian Agent by President Buchanan. They had the town surveyed and registered under the name “Dentville” but the title was not destined to be much used and was soon forgotten.18

An interesting sidelight on one of the Dent brothers comes to us from William Redmond Ryan in his Personal Adventures in Upper and Lower California. He had been at the upper crossing of the Stanislaus River and was on his way to Stockton when the meeting occurred. The brother may have been Lewis who is known to have been a lawyer. Ryan wrote: “In the morning the Doctor came up with us, accompanied by another gentleman, a lawyer named Dent, and an intimate friend of his. He had left the States a considerable time previously to this, and shortly after the discovery of the gold countries, and had been trading with the Indians and the Americans in various parts of the mines, with unusual success. He was now on his way to Stocton, to procure a large supply of champagne brandy and dry goods, his partner meanwhile remaining at the ‘diggins,’ to attend to the trading post. I found him to be a highly intelligent, well-informed gentleman, and learned that he stood in excellent repute as a professional man. His character and habits were of a practical stamp, and well adapted to the half-venturous, half-civilized life of California, during this interesting and bustling period of its history. He was looking forward to the settlement of the country, and appeared sanguine as to the position it would eventually, and at no distant period, occupy as one of the States.”19

In 1852 the spring freshets were high and owners of ferries up and down the Stanislaus were caught unaware. Evidently Dent and Vantine were able to save theirs as, for a time, they seem to have had the only ferry in operation on the entire river.

The settlement grew steadily and was in a favorable location to catch trade. Miners wishing to reach the mountains trudged along the well-beaten Indian trails and several of these converged on the rancheria of José Jesús where the tribe maintained a river crossing with native boats just below the present bridge site. A foot-bridge was constructed. All memory of it is erased but there is evidence that one at least, and possibly more, existed.20 It connected the town with Pentland’s vineyard downstream from the present bridge and on the south side of the river-bottom-land.

The river had endless potentialities for generating power and always fascinated the busy brain of D. M. Locke. Although he had taught school to obtain the money to come west he soon gained experience in business in the growing town of San Francisco. His diary told that, on August 31, 1850, he began to dig wells in that place and soon was peddling water from barrels on a cart. In the fall of ’51 he laid pipes along the Market Street and the California Street wharves and took a contract to supply water to shipping. Meanwhile he returned at odd times to Knight’s Ferry and, forming a partnership with the Dent brothers, planned the first dam on the Stanislaus—an affair solidly constructed of logs upriver from the present bridge. In 1853 Elbridge Gerry Locke, brother of D. M., arrived from the east coast and, according to his diary, commenced work on the dam in August of that year. Next he undertook the building of a wing-dam and the erection of a saw mill and a grist mill. The saw mill was in operation by June, 1854, and probably, according to Mr. David Tulloch, stood on the south bank near the present bridge terminus. It was completed first and one of E. G. Locke’s brief entries reads: “Tended saw mill.” Four months later it is supposed that the grist mill went into operation. E. G. Locke’s diary is succinct and deals mostly with the tally of working days of each carpenter, but it is evident that the grist mill was in running order at least as early as January 19, 1855, when an entry states that it started “on Richardson wheat.” A daguerrotype in the possession of Mrs. J. F. Tulloch of Oakdale shows that the mill was a frame structure set far down in the river bottom. The bridge was not yet built and does not, of course, appear in the picture. After the grist mill was finished Locke and Company built a passable wagon road as an approach to it.21

The Miners’ and Business Mens’ Directory for the year commencing January 1, 1856, bore, under the caption, “Knight’s Ferry,” this item: “Some 300 yards above the Ferry is located the Flouring and Saw Mills of Messrs Locke and Company. . . .” If Mr. Tulloch’s opinion that the saw mill was on the south bank is correct, this blanket distance of 300 yards would indicate that it was very nearly opposite the flour mill. The Directory also included this advertisement: “Stanislaus Mills, Knight’s Ferry, San Joaquin County. Locke and Co. Proprietors. The Mill was built in 1853-54. By 1856 it has a fireproof warehouse capable of storing 2000 tons of wheat. Mills and warehouse cost the proprietor over $50,000. Stanislaus Mills supply flour to all points of the Southern Mines, Stockton and San Francisco.”

All this time heavy wagon traffic at Knight’s Ferry was being ferried across the river. A Stockton paper noted that on one day in 1850 more than one hundred heavily loaded freighters passed through the town on their way to the mining camps beyond,22 and for the next two decades the town was a freighting center. According to Robert A. Curtin there was a bridge at Two Mile Bar which, as the name suggests, was about two miles upstream and he supplied information as to the existence of an early road, north of the river and connecting the two settlements, where for a few years it was customary for freight wagons to travel on their way to cross the bridge at that place. There has been a dearth of exact information concerning the dates and ownership of the various bridges and ferries in the neighborhood so we are truly indebted to the scrap-book of Mr. Curtin for the foregoing item. This first bridge, which antedated the one at Knight’s Ferry by at least five years, was “an arched bridge,” an uncovered wooden structure built by one, E. C. Frisbee, who kept a trading post at Two Mile Bar. Frisbee, short, stout and suspicious, had a glass eye which never closed and which in the unpredictable early fifties was something of an asset, permitting him to sit comfortably in his store and take short naps with impunity.

The name “Dent Bar” on a map of 1853 would seem to indicate that the Dent family had interests upstream either at or near Six Mile Bar.23 An article in the San Francisco Bulletin intimates that there was either a bridge or a better ferry farther up the Stanislaus by 1856, and that travel was being deflected to that route because of the lack of a bridge at Knight’s Ferry.24

To Mr. Ed Whitmore of Modesto we are also grateful beyond measure for the following data, backed up by the appropriate legal documents to prove them: The Dents were in the middle ’50s at the height of their influence in Knight’s Ferry and the neighboring region. Beside the property, of whatever nature, near Six Mile Bar and the Knight’s Ferry boat they owned and operated Keeler’s ferry, downstream from Knight’s near the junction of Edwards’ Creek with the Stanislaus River. It was just below the cliff now known as Lovers’ Leap and then referred to quite seriously as “The Jumping Off Place.”25 By 1856 there were rumors that the Dents were about to abandon the ferry franchises for the purpose of building a bridge a half mile or more above the Knight’s ferry crossing. This did not set well with the business men of the town and a petition was started, dated August 1, 1856, praying that Thomas W. Lane and others might be issued a license to build a toll bridge or a suitable ferry at the (then) present crossing. Signed by Palmer & Allen, merchants, and seventy other citizens.

It was then that the Dents commenced to bow out and get ready for more spectacular careers in other places. On October 11, 1856, a document was signed stating that D. M. Locke was a partner in both ferries. Two days later the petition was filed. At some indefinite time Locke sold Stanislaus Mills to Hestres & Magendie. On November 1st of ’56 the Dents sold both ferries to Locke who then gave notice of intention to build a bridge immediately above the Stanislaus Mills where he already owned land on both sides of the river. Locke also acquired the bridge at Two Mile Bar. Fortunately the necessary legal papers were filed and are now at the Court House in Modesto, California. They are written in longhand, of course, but have all the necessary whereas’s.26

Meanwhile the town grew. The present general store is said to have been built in ’52 and residences even then climbed the steep and narrow streets. Lots brought as much as $ 2000 apiece. Business flourished. Beside his share in the ferry Vantine had an excellent winery. Dakin and McLauflin ran a smithy and wheelwright shop and made wagons that faithfully came to market on Saturdays for fifty years. Young Lewis McLauflin and Hugh Edwards, visioning a quick fortune, ran away to San Francisco intending to sell sea-gulls’ eggs from the Farallone Islands. They found their prospective poultry business surrounded by far too much salt water but the inner drive that started McLauflin on this novel venture led him later, as the broker for Fair and Mackay, to several fortunes won and lost in the stock market. It was he who attempted to negotiate their famous corner in wheat.27 Abraham Schell was the lawyer and banker for Knight’s Ferry.28 The Lewis Voyle family ran first a public house in “Buena Vista” on the south side of the river and then a livery stable on the Canyon Road. Ranchers, heedless of the quest for gold, built homes near the trading center. John R. Willms, one of the first, founded his ranch in 1852 and the family has lived there a full century. He registered the first cattle brand in Stanislaus County. The second brand belonged to Lewis Williams, another ’49er, who built his home three miles outside the town where the establishment is still in view from the Sonora Road. Mr. Williams married in succession two sisters; a third died at his home while on a visit; so that these three daughters of far-off Wales lie side by side in the Knight’s Ferry cemetery. Mr. Williams bought the property of Thomas Edwards who had run an early hostelry called Owens House but who moved into town about 1860 and purchased the house belonging to John Dent. Lewis moved to Stockton in 1858 to practice law. John and George had left Knight’s Ferry by 1860.29

Early in the history of the settlement the Chinese arrived. Their wierd shacks looked flimsy but were exceedingly adhesive. Every successive house had but three walls and was added on the side wall of its predecessor. As a Chinese builder was accustomed to put in ten nails where an American would use one, Chinatown was a solid unit almost a block long made up of cubicles. Once in awhile a fire would sweep away the whole odd-smelling affair for, the minute a blaze started, the entire Chinese colony rushed for the river—pig-tails and shirt tails flying—and stayed there, chattering noisily in their shrill singsong, until it was over. Because their houses could not be pulled apart with grappling hooks they were the bane of the volunteer fire department. None, however, questioned their frugality or industry. During the persistently wet season of 1851-52, when wagon traffic was hopelessly bogged, the Chinese, weighted with fantastically heavy burdens swung from poles and neck yokes kept the supply line moving between Stockton and the Ferry.30 And finally, at the end of the phenomenal era of prosperity, for more years than the old-timers can remember, a small square adobe was the home of the last Chinese, Oh Kow.

*   *   *

By August, 1858, the substantial Locke bridge was in operation and at the end of five months a formal report showed the net profits of the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company for that period as something over $4700. The bridge was a great boost to business and, in the year 1859, a newspaper, The Ferry Bee, edited by W. J. Collier, appeared but lasted only a little over a year. It was a four-page, twenty-column affair; its final editor being J. B. Kennedy. Later the Stanislaus Index took over its assets and was published by Garrison & Whicher until 1862 when it gave up the ghost.31

The town was prosperous and contented. All these citizens and many others served their community, each in his own way.

And then came the deluge.

In the Southern Mines time is reckoned from the flood of ’62.

The Stanislaus rose and roared. Two Mile Bar was devastated. A house owned first by Lewis Williams and later purchased by William Gobel was chained to two large trees. The chain broke but the dwelling became lodged and was saved. Very little else survived. Mr. Proctor, engaged in removing the goods from Flower and Proctor’s store, floated down stream with the building and was drowned.32 The bridge at Two Mile recently acquired by Locke was propelled down the river like a battering ram, sweeping away a tremendous chain used as a log boom and crashing through the log dam. An indefinitely described “wire” suspension foot bridge was entangled and disappeared into the tossing wreckage. The mass hit the Knight’s Ferry bridge squarely, hurling it downstream. The bank below it crumbled and washed away. The foundations of the frame flour mill caved in and it was tossed to total destruction. The sacked flour, however, washed into a cove where it was afterward salvaged. The water had penetrated about an inch, forming when dried, a hard crust beneath which the remainder of the flour was perfect. With the bridges and the mill went the homes of Oscar Bouckou and several others and the wheelwright and blacksmith shops of Isaac Dakin and Lewis McLauflin. The two young house-wives, Mary Jameson Locke and Laura Jameson Dakin, who were sisters and writers for Godey’s Ladies’ Book and current magazines, must have felt that they had had more than their share of calamity.

Bancroft’s Hand Book Almanac for 1863 says: “About one-half of the town of Knight’s Ferry, an enterprising place in the foothills, was literally swept away by the impetuous current of the swollen stream. The river rose twelve feet higher at this place than the highest previous water-mark and the current was sufficiently strong to propel millstones, iron safes, and huge boulders.”

The townspeople started to rebuild at once, hardly waiting until the waters subsided. The topography of the place had changed though, and it never again looked the same. A road (whether or not the main freight route is not known) which had run along the edge of the river bluff was obliterated and there never since has been a road between Main Street and the water.

Hestres & Magendie decided not to rebuild the flour mill and the noble stone building so familiar for the better part of a century was then erected by David W. Tulloch whose family has remained a factor in the town history ever since. The bridge was a different matter. Locke rebuilt that at once, selecting each massive timber himself as it stood in the forest. As he grew old it was a matter of pride to him that it remained so sturdy. 1863 was a dry year and it was difficult to float the logs down from the mountains through the shallows of the river but it made the construction of the bridge piers easier. They were eight feet higher than those of the unfortunate first venture and the span, completed by May 30th of 1863, as noted by Brewer in his pocket journal, still stands in daily use as one of the longest covered bridges in the west.

It was the drought of this year that caused Mr. Edwards to take his family and his cattle across the Sierra and to settle in Owens Valley, later founding the town of Independence and, still later, after moving west again, that of Crockett, California.33

In 1863 Abraham Schell acquired over 15,000 acres of the Rancheria del Rio Estanislaus and established the vineyard and winery of which the large, cave-like cellars remain.34 These were the days of the Civil War. Men drilled in the armory, captained by Mr. Schell. A cannon, probably from the militia post of 1849, was mounted and fired on all suitable occasions, but the horror and tragedy of war were far away and did not touch the mountain communities.

Knight’s Ferry, in the days of its most intense activity, served the hurrying procession of miners. With the end of placer mining these intinerant, rootless men settled down somewhere and ceased to move. The town then served the freighters that rumbled and boomed across the bridge. Eventually it became a trading center for the families of cattlemen and ranchers.

By the end of the ’60s the transcontinental railroad made certain luxuries accessible in the west and the mountain towns claimed their full share. Silks and imported foodstuffs from the Orient they had always enjoyed. Now they could buy American manufactured and canned goods and order various trade magazines and periodicals for their own pleasure and betterment. Post office records35 show that in 1869 Isaac Dakin subscribed for and received Harper’s Weekly Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Tribune, the Wagon Builder’s Journal, the Rural Press, the Stockton Daily Independent, Godey’s Ladies’ Magazine, the Horticulturalists’ Monthly and the Christian Union. Goods of fine quality crowded the crude shelves of the stores. Life was a queer blend of privation and ease.

But the peak days of growth were over for the town on the Stanislaus. The highway, when at last it appeared, “passed by on the other side.” The town is unspoiled and is a must for those who are interested in the settlements founded as a direct result of the discovery of gold.

*   *   *

Of the happenings of the first decade in the town’s history the visits of Ulysses S. Grant are probably the ones most discussed. They were uneventful and almost unnoticed at the time but his later greatness focussed attention on them and, because of much misunderstanding and incorrect conclusions, they warrant an attempt at explanation. Grant, a brother-in-law of the Dents, had come with heroism through the Mexican War and arrived in California where, after an assignment at Fort Vancouver in the Oregon country, he was given a captaincy and an extremely dull post at Fort Humboldt near what is now Eureka, California. He was lonely, homesick and bored. He was not paid enough to send for his wife, the former Julia Dent, and his small son, to say nothing of the baby he had never seen. He saw no chance for betterment. He was given a chance to resign and did so, afterward leaving for home as soon as seemed practical36 but, between 1852 and ’54 he had made three visits to Knight’s Ferry.37

There is a tradition in the town that Grant drew the plans for the first covered bridge during one of his visits. As such stories usually have some basis in fact the authors made a determined effort to trace it down. The late George S. Voyle was interviewed at his home in Visalia and told this story: An amusing character in Knight’s Ferry, Mark B. Brown the sexton, was locally known as “Doggie Brown” from the amazing number of canines that trailed him wherever he went. His home was northwest of town near the cemetery and, when his lonely death made it necessary for the neighbors to clear out the house, very little was found that they cared to keep. Some verse was saved which has since been printed for the interest of his fellow townspeople and, when Mr. Voyle’s father returned home from this act of neighborliness, he took with him a workmanlike drawing in ink of one set of braces for a bridge. It was signed “Ulysses S. Grant.” When the Voyles moved to Visalia the drawing went along packed with other papers in a trunk which was then stored in a tank house. The wet winter of 1951-52 caused the tank to overflow and reduced the stored papers to pulp —completely beyond restoration. Mr. Voyle’s description of the drawing was, however, clear and concise. It was clean, he said, and showed no sign of use. He knew of no way that comparison could have been made between the drawing and any bridge that existed before the flood of 1862, as no pictures have been found showing detail of the bracing. D. M. Locke, to the end of a long and upright life, denied that Grant had anything to do with the planning. His son, Alex, denied it in a formal interview38 and no one has been found who can connect the drawing with the bridge in any more definite way. Mr. Elias, in Stories of the Stanislaus, states that the Dents were about to build a bridge in the summer of 1854 and that Captain Grant was able to give them assistance through his knowledge of engineering and that he made a trip to Sonora especially to select timber for the structure. This might have been a first operation toward the building of the rumored bridge mentioned on page 28 of this volume, or the Dents may have planned one at another site. No data has been available to us showing that they actually erected one.

Another tradition concerning Grant came from usually accurate sources: He was said to have commanded a military post at Knight’s Ferry, and the very spot where his camp was supposedly pitched was pointed out. This, unless he commanded by remote control, appeared impossible. An inquiring letter sent to Washington, D. C., elicited answers from the office of the Adjutant General and from the Chief Archivist of War Records to the effect that no such post had been held by him. Luckily, Jacob Wright Harlan, in his book, California ’46 to ’88, gave the key to the situation. He wrote:

“ . . . we went on to Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus river, where Captain Grant was stationed, although what good was accomplished by him or any soldiers being at such a place was not very apparent to us. The captain was absent and did not make his appearance while we were there.”39

This item was dated April, 1849.

Undoubtedly there was another Captain Grant whose presence in Knight’s Ferry preceded that of the future president. The site of the 1849 encampment of militia is given as the south bank of the river below the bridge at the point where the James Stone home was later erected. It was marked with an oak tree larger than the rest of the river bank growth.

Further proof of a predecessor was furnished by Grant himself: In the year 1879 he and his party were in California on their way home from a trip around the world. They wished to include a visit to Yosemite and, at Stockton while en route, Grant was evidently accosted by a stranger who claimed to have seen him before. Grant then addressed the citizens in a speech including the following terse sentences:

“Among many gentlemen I met today was one who was sure he knew me at Knight’s Ferry in 1849. While I could not dispute the gentleman’s word, I was never on this side of the Rockies previous to 1852. I was only three times at Knight’s Ferry in 1852 and in 1854 and I think some one must have been personating me there. However I am glad to meet you to-day and can never henceforth deny being in Stockton in 1879.”40

Grant’s blunt statement leaves no doubt as to the main point at issue: it was another man whom the stranger had met. In the light of Jacob Wright Harlan’s statement it was almost certainly the Captain Grant who commanded the encampment of soldiers in 1849. Through the years the identity of this pioneer figure has become vague and any anecdote or story concerning either Captain Grant unfortunately is apt to be attributed to the more famous of the two.

U. S. Grant’s visits to the town were few and short. His last sojourn was in the spring of ’54. He was unhappy, drifting, putting in the days until it would be advisable to start for home. The years have set an aureole about the moody, silent visitor that was not visible at the time. He loved to ride but, when not on a horse, spent many aloof hours whittling. Some of his biographers seem to believe that it was his withdrawal from the regular army that cleared his path to greatness; that it was because he, a West Point graduate, later served among the untrained forces that he had a chance to rise to Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces and to hold the nation undivided. But during the last days he spent at Knight’s Ferry he had reached a low level of discouragement and had not yet begun to climb. The citizens of the town had no conception that the unresponsive young man of whom they had heard rumors of “too much liquor” would be hailed in less than a dozen years as the savior of the nation.

In a short time he made his few and brief farewells and started on his predestined road to the White House.

*   *   *

The homes and families of Knight’s Ferry have remained as nearly undisturbed through a century as those of any town of comparable size we can call to mind. It is amazing that so many of the old wooden structures are left.

To see and understand the town enter it from the west by the canyon road but do not make the curve into Main Street. Continue straight across a grassy down-slope to the river where, in a large piling of boulders, are some cable fastenings said by those who should know to indicate the old landing. Here was Knight’s row-boat crossing and later Dent and Vantine’s railed wagon ferry. There was a ferry toll house on the south bank.

Above the road and facing the river the first building is the Masonic Hall housing Summit Lodge, No. 112, F.& A. M. It first met on February 7, 1857, using the same furnishings still utilized there today.

Outside the fence, a few feet up the hill to the west and back of the building is supposed to be the grave of the town’s founder, William Knight. It is toward the brow of the slope up from the canyon road to the fence. The spot was shown to us by Robert A. Curtin who had it pointed out to him years ago by the late George Voyle of Knight’s Ferry. Mr. Voyle told the authors that he was uncertain just where the grave lies but that, as a little boy, he was frightened by the thought of it and would never go up the stairs and into the hall unless his mother walked on that side of him. Mr. Curtin went unhesitatingly to the spot and we have never found his phenomenal memory to be at fault nor the data contained in his many scrapbooks and written remembrances of the country-side. The site of the grave is controversial, however, as Sol P. Elias states that a tradition in town places it off the northeast corner of the hall.

Immediately back of the Masonic Hall is the home of Mrs. Samuel Baugh. At one time it was octagonal with a small cupola in the center of the roof and was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. George Dent, but it has been remodeled until little trace of its former shape remains. Mrs. Baugh’s father, William Gobel, came from St. Louis in ’49 with the Dent brothers. Samuel Baugh owned the blacksmith and wheelwright shop in town about the turn of the century.

The yellow house next to the Masonic Hall was the home of Abraham Schell. In 1861 he started a lending library of some 900 volumes. The safe where he handled the banking business of the community is let into the wall of the big front room. The substantial dwelling is now the property of Mr. Schell’s heirs.

Up the canyon road a hundred yards or so is a small bridge over a rivulet which comes down the hill at an angle to the highway. David Tulloch and George Voyle are authorities for the statement that John Dent’s home where Ulysses S. Grant visited was on a flat just above the branch ravine west of the highway. The house, which they describe as a two-room adobe, might have been on the level where “Robuck’s Roost” now stands, or possibly on the tiny flat below it and just above the stream. The ravine appears on old maps as “Dent’s Gulch” and runs into the river. It was set out to grapes for its full length. Later the property was sold to Mr. Lodtmann and was used as a winery. The firm of “E. & J. Lodtmann” had a brewery as well. The canyon road appears on old maps as “Grant Street.”

Directly across Main Street from the Schell residence is the vine-covered fire house with its bell tower. As far as is known it is the original building and is just big enough to hold the spindling, rackety hook and ladder wagon. The record of the organization of the volunteer fire department in 1871, under the chairmanship of A. T. Bartlett, is among the documents carefully preserved by Mr. and Mrs. Roy De Graffenreid at the Red and White Store.

West of the Masonic Hall and across the canyon road was the site of Major Lane’s Hotel which flourished when the town was young and which burned in 1864. Later the Voyle livery stable was built near the site.

Before the flood of ’62 the old freight road was closer to the river than Main Street is today and the space sloping up from it to the Masonic Hall and the Schell home was used as a plaza. In the southeast corner of the latter was a pretentious, two-story brick building erected as the Fisher Hotel but taken over as a courthouse during the ten years, from ’62 to ’72, that Knight’s Ferry was the county seat of Stanislaus County. Two stories was more than sufficient for the county’s not-too—staggering quota of business so the county officers frugally rented the upper story back to the hotel which then proceeded as usual.

The ancient store building, once owned and operated by O. C. Drew, is under a group of cottonwood trees on the northeast corner of Main and Dean Streets. It contains some of the original Wells Fargo & Company’s wooden pigeon-holes for letters and packages. Opposite the store and backed up to the always unpredictable Stanislaus River was Dakin’s second wheelwright shop.

Up the hill one block the gracious shady-porched house on the northwest corner of Dean and Ellen Streets was the home of Lewis Dent, long occupied by the Charles T. Kennedys. The name “L. Dent” is scratched with a diamond on a window pane at the rear of the house. The gnarled fig tree in the yard is said to be 107 years old, having priority over any in the great central valleys.41

Another block up the hill, on the northeast corner of Dean and Vantine Streets, is the home built and occupied by Isaac Dakin and his family in the late ’50s and now the home of Mr. Guy Tandy. The eldest son, Wilbur Dakin, remembered that it had a spring in the cellar and could have withstood a siege. Younger children Henry and Alice were also born here.

The property above it on the north was the site of the McLauflin residence. The northwest corner of the intersection is owned by John Grohl whose family still holds the property at Green Springs where they lived three generations ago. On the southeast corner the Voyles made their home.

On Shurl Street the church was erected on the foundations of the original place of worship. On Main Street, opposite the end of Shurl, was the Barnes Hotel, famous because of Mother Barnes, its proprietress. She was quite able to run all departments under her power; was both cook and waitress and always cut her own hair off short at the back of her neck. She wore carpet slippers and brought the baked potatoes to the table in her apron where she slapped them out by hand. She was also her own bouncer and promptly evicted any person who didn’t measure up to her standards. Probably for that very reason her place was popular.

Chinatown ran from this point to the old mill, clustering on both sides of Main Street. Here China Mary hung caged mocking birds in the windows of her delapidated cabin and here, where one sees an abrupt little mound on the south side of the road, the last Oriental, Oh Kow, dwelt on like a winter fly in his adobe under the locusts. The presence of the “tree of heaven” bears witness to their one-time residence for the Chinese were fond of its feathery leaves and comfortable shade and spread it wherever they went. The metal jail is said to have been built after 1900.

The ruins of the fine old flour mill are a mixture of the first and second structures. The brick storage warehouse and Locke’s little stone cottage across the road remained intact when the rest toppled into the river and were lost. The ill-fated first mill was a frame building standing close to the water. When the second mill was built of stone it was placed higher and Mr. Tulloch added the stone warehouse which stands between the brick structure and the bridge. Both the Locke and the Tulloch mills were in turn connected with the road by a pedestrian bridge jutting out from a second story entrance.

The long masonry wall running along the roadside from the west end of the mill and ending under a luxuriance of blackberry vines is all that is left of a proposed woolen mill that was promoted in 1885 but never made the grade. Across on the hillside is a blossoming oleander which David Tulloch says was planted by his grandmother in 1855.

From the north end of the bridge a very dim road may be seen leading eastward into the hills. This was the road to Copperopolis sixteen miles away, built by Mr. Tulloch and traveled every second day during its peak by teams hauling flour and barley. It is now impassable.

Up the river and just below the last bend Locke swung a tremendous chain to form a log boom which held back debris. It was broken at the time of the flood. A few links were salvaged from it, of which three are hanging in the I.O.O.F. Hall, the property of Stanislaus Lodge, No. 170, instituted in 1870. Much of it still. lies in the river bed. Nearer the bridge, at the smooth water, was the later Tulloch Dam. Old irons are imbedded in the rocks and some cement work is visible.

The Locke Dam, of logs, was just above it. The wing dam came down the north side of the river and ended at the island under the bridge. The concrete wing dam, still visible, was built by Mr. Tulloch right over the original log wing dam built by Elbridge Locke as recorded, day by day, in his diary. The door-like opening in the wing dam was where the great mill wheel hung, no change in location being made by Mr. Tulloch.

The saw mill was indefinitely near the bridge and on the south bank.42

The covered bridge used to have foot walks elevated about eighteen inches on either side; between them was only room for the wheels of a wagon to turn comfortably and the depressed road-bed was filled with sand. The walks have been removed to give more space although it is still a tight squeeze for two-way traffic. In 1869 the bridge was sold to Thomas Roberts who in turn sold to the county in 1884. Since then it has been toll free.

Old pictures show the later Locke residence, or toll house, at the southern end of the present bridge west of the road. The house now owned and occupied by R. G. Hunter is just beyond the original toll house site. Most of the historical landmarks including mill, bridge, rancheria and Grayson Hotel are on Mr. Hunter’s property.

Across the road from Mr. Hunter’s home was the rancheria of José Jesús. During the winter huts occupied the meadow; the tribal burial ground was just beyond them to the east. Written opinions of the habits and living conditions of any Indian tribe run an amazing gamut—from something akin to admiration, down through tolerance to absolute disgust. The residents of Knight’s Ferry seem to have taken their adjacent rancheria in their stride. It was a big one—about two hundred in population, and, due to its powerful chiefs, was of the socially elect among the nearby tribes. Other villages trekked miles to take part in their powwows. Its dugout and sod-roofed sweat house held an amazing number; one authority said a thousand. The huts were made of straw and small sticks and looked like baskets turned upside down. Into these the families crawled through small holes in the front. There seems never to have been a clash between the original citizens of the rancheria and the white newcomers.

Years passed. The basket-like huts gave way to shacks of unpainted boards of which but one remains, blackened and weather-beaten. Their habits changed also and the indigenous Knight’s Ferrians grew to acknowledge their white neighbors as friends. Luis was the last of the tribe, a simple, sweet-natured man. When, after a long absence, Mrs. Tulloch returned for a final visit both the pioneer woman and the Indian wept at parting.

At the height of the freighting industry, when many of the teamsters were driving one wagon and trailing another, it was customary to leave the trailer, or “back-action,” near the toll house while the team pulled the first wagon up the hill. The mules then ambled down again with great clanking of chain harness and picked up the trailer. This, the first real hill of the journey, was a serious obstacle in muddy weather and provided to the small boys of the town a fund of profanity which they considered useful. Girls were carefully kept elsewhere.

On the top of the cliff south of the river a settlement came into being which was called Buena Vista. It began to grow just after the flood of 1862 when most of the inhabitants of Two Mile Bar moved down the river and on to the grateful security of higher land. The name is now seldom heard, and, although Highway 120 is (from here well into the mountains) laid along the approximate course of the Old Sonora Road, the latter name is seldom heard either. It turns eastward within the settlement and unrolls its attenuated length toward the Sierra.

A few yards beyond the turn, on the left, was an establishment that began as Dent’s Hotel but was better known for a much longer period as Grayson’s and was operated by Daniel and his wife Mary. The early building burned but was reconstructed and still stands facing the highway. There were, according to the directories, three adult males in the family—C. W., R. H. and D. (Daniel) Grayson—all from Arkansas. Their hotel was of excellent reputation. Standing, as it did, at the extreme limit of town and backed up against the rancheria of Estanislao and José Jesús, it marked the point of departure from the familiar living conditions of the valley settlements and was the last stop before commencing the pull that exchanged foothills for mountains.



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