Central Valley, California

Stanislaus County, California

Knights Ferry

RIDE to it on a PASHNIT TOUR


Stanislaus - COUNTY

State Highway to reach it - PAVEMENT
Just a few - CURVES

Modesto - GAS

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Longest Covered Bridge west of the Mississippi River

Knights Ferry Covered Bridge is a can’t-miss stop along Highway 108/120 (and due south of Highway 4) as you ride out of the Central Valley into the Sierra Nevada Foothills. At 379 feet in length, Knights Ferry is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River. It has also been designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark as of 2012.

The Knights Ferry Covered Bridge that now stands across the Stanislaus River was not the first bridge or crossing constructed there.  Originally, the crossing had been a ferry built from an old whaling vessel by Dr. William Knight, and his partner James Vantine in 1848. In 1849, Knight founded the town of Knights Ferry, but is also credited with founding Knights Landing in the Sacramento River Delta.

 

As Argonauts flooded into the Sierra Foothills to seek out the gold, Knight established his ferry crossing which quickly became very profitable  The ferry was said to have been built to increase the business at their trading post, yet toll charges could run as high as $200 for a single crossing. Profits were as high as $500 a day, or $12,000 a day by modern equivalents. By the end of 1849, Dr. Knight had been shot and killed in an argument in the town he founded, and a new partnership between John Dent and Vantine was established.

Dent, Vantine and Company replaced the old whaling boat ferry with a modern style ferry, and were issued a San Joaquin ferry permit for $300. As businessmen, they reduced the toll charge to two dollars, hoping that the increased travel on the ferry would improve the patronage at a newly built restaurant and boarding house in nearby Knights Ferry.

Captain Ulysses S. Grant, while visiting his brother-in-law, earned from "fifty to one hundred dollars per day".  (It was during one of his visits that he was purported to have drawn the plans for the first bridge at the present site.)

In 1852, Vantine sold his holdings to the Dents and moved back east.  Profiting from the increase in business from the growing population and prosperity in the area, the Dents agreed to finance the construction of David Locke's millworks.  With help from his brother Elbridge, David Locke completed a sawmill in 1854 and completed a stone mill office near the bridge in 1857. The Mill Office was built by David Locke (the remains of the building still stand next to the bridge).

 

By mid-January of the following year, the Lockes opened their highly profitable grist mill using two stones to grind flour.

To help ensure the success of the mill, the Lockes needed to guarantee the flow of commerce over the Stockton-Sonora Road (currently known as Highway 108/120), and they accomplished this by purchasing the ferry from the Dents for $26,000 on the first of November, 1865. The purchase price included the timber that had been cut previously for a bridge that Dent and Vantine had been planning to build.

Although there was some discussion between Locke and the town's business community on where the location should be, Locke won out.  In early 1857, construction began at the site of the current bridge, next to the mill.

Upon completion of the bridge, the ferry system was dismantled, and it was hoped that the new open-truss bridge would curtail the effects of the winter flooding on the transportation, which had plagued ferries. Up until the 1861-62 winter, the uncovered bridge had served well, and Knights Ferry's population had grown continuously.

 

As the community prospered, Locke entered into a partnership with other bridge and ferry owners, forming the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company.  He sold the bridge to the company in July 1858, but remained in authority of the Knights Ferry bridge.

An warm unseasonable rain swept across the Sierra Nevada in early 1862. So much rain fell in the Sierra Nevada, records show the equivalent of 10 feet of rain and snow over a period of 43 days. Then a warm spell caused the previous month's heavy snows to melt.

It has been described as the worst disaster ever to strike California. Modern day meteorologists that have studied 1862 records of the storm event have called it a 500 to 1000 year storm. In 1862, the Central Valley, a flat valley 70 miles wide and 300 miles long, filled with water creating an inland sea, an unprecedented event. 

 

As the icy water from the Sierra Nevada joined with the Stanislaus River, the height of the river began rising three to four feet per hour, peaking at a remarkable 35 feet above the low water mark.  The river nearly reached the tops of the cliffs during the spring of 1862. As sweeping water battered the homes and most of the businesses in Knights Ferry, the bridge held fast.

However, the fate of the bridge had been sealed not from collapse, but from collision.  The bridge at Two-Mile Bar, only a short distance up river, was torn from its foundation.  Pushed by the raging floodwater, it was uplifted from its moorings and floated down river crashing into the Knights Ferry Bridge, crushing the truss supports and knocking it from its rock foundation. 

 

The bridge, the mill and the town lay in ruin. This wouldn’t be the last flood on the Stanislaus River. The town of Knights Ferry experienced another 15 major floods by 1955. With the construction of New Melones Dam up river, water levels could be controlled and stored for dryer months.

Loss of the bridge was set at $20,000. Undaunted, the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company set to work on a new bridge, a covered bridge that would sit eight feet higher than its predecessor above the river. Within a month, as the floodwater subsided, the retired ferry was forced back into service along with a new foot bridge. In March, actual construction of the covered bridge began, and fifteen months later, it would open to traffic.

As stonemasons and metalsmiths were called into action, Locke himself collected the necessary timber to be used for the truss structures.  Fir, pine, and oak woods were all utilized, with linseed oil added for preservation and lubrication.  Hundreds of other laborers converged on the area, as construction in and around the town proceeded.  By May 1864, the craftsmen had completed their work on a bridge that had been designed for low maintenance, large loads, and a long lifespan. The new covered bridge was 379 feet long, the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River and currently considered the longest in the United States.

Along with the new bridge, came new toll rates.  The county, acting on the request from the owners, set new charges.  Tolls ranged from two cents for hogs or sheep, to five dollars for horse and mule teams.  Rates were even set for circus animals which crossed the Stanislaus in pursuit of a paying audience.  Dromedaries (camels) were two dollars, with all other undomesticated beasts set at a dollar. Elephants were the exception; they carried a three-dollar toll charge.

In 1869, Locke sold the controlling interest in the bridge to Thomas Roberts, a prominent citizen of Knights Ferry. For the next few years, the bridge was a profitable enterprise, yet the popularity of the crossing would change as the neighboring communities of Modesto and Oakdale grew. In 1871, the center of government for Stanislaus County relocated, moving from Knights Ferry to Modesto.

The Stockton-Visalia Railroad also added to the decline of Knights Ferry. The railroad had opted to make their train stop at Oakdale building their train station there, effectively bypassing Knights Ferry completely. As the center of transportation and commerce shifted, the flour mill (bought by David Tulloch in 1859) was sold, and a small room was added to house a single turbo generator. 

 

This generator was powered by water brought down the hill in a penstock leading out of the old San Joaquin Ditch. The company, declining in importance as a producer of flour, was renamed the Stanislaus Water and Power Company on October 26, 1897. The power plant stayed in operation until 1920 when the new Melones Powerhouse began operations.

As the economic and political changes compounded, travel over the bridge slowed, and the public vocalized the need for a free bridge crossing. On November 12, 1884, the county purchased the bridge from Edwards for $7000. They had also agreed to pay lost toll charges of $126.83 from tolls not collected while the agreement was finalized.

Few modifications have been made to the bridge since it was built in 1863.  The wooden roof was replaced with tin shortly after the county purchased the bridge in 1884.  In 1918, the deck was repaired, and the sand that protected the planking was eventually replaced by asphalt.

At the turn of the century, the flour mill was converted into a hydroelectric plant in 1899. A wooden structure upstream from the mill collected the river water, then fed the water into a large pipe called a penstock, a portion of the penstock is half buried and still visible today. The river water fed into a turbine that spun a large pulley from the down force of the water. A massive pulley spun the turbine to generate electricity.

Tom Prowse, the plant manager, continued to reside in the small stone mill house until the plant closed in 1927. The mill house was sold in 1939 to R.G. Hunter, who used it for a vacation home until the 1970s when the Army Corps of Engineers purchase the land and buildings for preservation.

New "felloe guards," or wooden guard rails, were added to either side of the interior walls to keep the wagon and auto traffic from hitting the trusses as they passed one another.  In 1970, the chain-like fence was added to keep individuals from knocking the wooden sidings out and diving from the bridge.

With the load capacity of the bridge rated at 5 tons, large trucks and autos strained the aging span, and in 1981, county engineers spotted cracks in the support structures.  The bridge was finally closed to vehicular traffic on the 2nd of June, 1981.

The Sacramento District Corps of Engineers received title to the Knights Ferry Covered Bridge on April 18, 1985.  In addition to safeguarding the bridge under the National Historic Preservation Act, the Corps of Engineers operates and managed nine recreation areas along a 59-mile stretch of the Stanislaus River.

Present day, the bridge is easily accessible along Highway 108/120 as both Tioga and Sonora Pass leave Modesto behind and begin to climb into the foothills. Knights Ferry Covered Bridge is one of the best-preserved 19th-century wood-iron Howe truss bridges to survive and was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2012.

Visitors can take a short walk from the Knights Ferry Museum past the restored mill and mill office to the bridge, its length and dimension giving rise to the historic nature of the landmark. Massive beams loom overhead, while thousands of inch-thick planks lie on their side to form the deck, having allowed over 150 years of history to pass through.

The recreation area that surrounds Knights Ferry opens each season in late May. The park is a central entry spot for rafting and kayaking said to attract 25,000 rafters per year. You can also enter the river from the town of Knights Ferry from the business there that offers rafting trips and will take you back to your vehicle.

The town of Knights Ferry is a tiny gold rush era town and within walking distance of the bridge. It’s the perfect stop for ice cream at the General Store in the center of town while on a ride across the foothills.

Sonora Road leading west out of town becomes Orange Blossom Rd along the north side of the Stanislaus river and meets up with Highway 108/120 a few miles later. Northbound riders can take East Sonora Rd which is a fun deserted road connecting with Milton Rd up to Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass.

Closing Thoughts

You should never ride past living history if you can help it. There is always something interesting to see. The great thing about Knights Ferry is it's rarely ever crowded and you can easily make this a quick stop to check out the bridge, the museum, the serenity of a quick walk along the river and then you can be back on your journey.

 

Take your pick, Highway 4, Highway 108 or Highway 120 are right outside the door.

Knights Ferry - Photo Gallery

 

MORE INFO: Knights Ferry

RIDE TO IT on a PASHNIT TOUR


GPS LOCATION
37.819722, -120.664444 - Knights Ferry

LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Orange Blossom Rd
East Sonora Rd
Highway 108

Highway 120
 

RELATED INFO:
Knights Ferry

Stanislaus River

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