On November 9 of 1849, William Knight was killed in the streets of the town he founded, gunned down by a man whose name is now lost to history. James G. Fair was in town the day it happened. He called it, “one of the most cold-blooded murders” he had ever witnessed. Knight was buried where he fell, in front of the Masonic Hall, on a low hill overlooking the plaza.
Knight, a former scout, fur trader, and physician of sorts, arrived in California with the Workman-Rowland party in 1841, having traveled overland via the Spanish Trail. The following year he sent for his wife and family, and in 1843 they settled on a tract of land along the Sacramento River. There he founded the town known as Knights Landing, presently in Yolo County.
Knight moved to a site on the Stanislaus River in the spring of 1849, where he pitched his tent and established a trading post and ferry. An old whaling vessel served as building material for the first ferry constructed by Knight and his partner, James Vantine. Attached to a heavy cable, the ferry was powered by the river’s current.
Knight had chosen his site well. The river bars and banks, the hills, and gulches for miles in all directions were rich in gold. The wealth of the region, combined with being located on the main road from Stockton to the Southern Mines, resulted in thousands of miners passing through the settlement of Knights Ferry. And if they wanted to cross the river, they had to pay the ferryman. During the height of travel, the ferry receipts rose to $500 a day, but one day Knight fell, never to see the full results of his efforts.
Dent, Vantine & Co. took over the ferry business after Knight’s death. Comprised of Vantine and the brothers John and Lewis Dent, the company’s first act was to build a new boat “in the classic ferry style.” After paying $300 for their San Joaquin County ferry permit, the firm lowered the toll charge to $2 in the hopes it would increase ferry travel and patronage at their newly built restaurant and boarding house. When the post office was established on July 28 of 1851, Lewis Dent was appointed the first postmaster. The Dents tried to rename the town Dentville, but the name Knights Ferry was too firmly established and their efforts came to naught.
Vantine sold his interests to the Dents in 1852 and moved back East. The continued growth and prosperity of the area encouraged the Dents to invest some of their profits in the construction of David Locke’s millworks. David and his brother Elbridge completed the sawmill in 1854, and by mid-January of the following year had opened a highly profitable grist mill.
The Dents planned on building a bridge across the Stanislaus River, having gone so far as to purchase the lumber needed for its construction. Legend has it that the Dents’ brother-in-law, Ullyses S. Grant, drew up the plans for their bridge while visiting the boys in 1854. Grant had married their sister Julia, back in St. Louis, Missouri. She remained home while Grant was serving on the west coast. The Dents never got around to building it; though, as they sold the ferry and the timber to David Locke on November 1 of 1856, for $26,000. Locke immediately began work on a bridge across the Stanislaus.
The work on the bridge progressed rapidly and on January 7 of 1857, the Board of Supervisors issued Locke his first license. The fee was set at $140 per year, and at the same time the board set the toll schedule for the bridge. A two horse or ox team would pay $1 to cross the bridge; one horse and vehicle 75 cents; one horse and rider, 50 cents; loose horses, mules, or cattle, 20 cents per head; hogs, sheep or goats, 10 cents per head; a footman, 25 cents.
The bridge was completed in 1857 and the ferry system dismantled at that time. As winter flooding had always plagued the ferry business, it was hoped the new bridge would eliminate that worry. In 1858 Locke sold the bridge to the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company, of which he was a partner.
In addition to Knights Ferry being an important stage and supply center, the new bridge, the mills, and the completion of a ditch on the north side of the river to bring water to a rich strata of ancient gold-bearing gravel, all combined to create a period of great prosperity for the community. By 1859, Main Street was home for two hotels, four general merchandise stores, two attorneys, a physician, blacksmith, livery stable, boot store, book and stationery store, and market. On April 1 of 1860, the town became part of Stanislaus County when Governor John G. Downey signed a bill that annexed away an area of over 150 square miles from San Joaquin to Stanislaus County. Knights Ferry served as the county seat from 1862 to 1872.
Towards the end of 1862, a warm, unseasonable rain swept across the high Sierras, melting the heavy snows of the previous months. This icy runoff joined the Stanislaus and the river began to rise. On January 11, the flood crested at Knights Ferry. Rising three to four feet an hour, the river peaked at thirty-five feet above its low water mark. The torrent swept through town, washing away many homes and most of the business section. But the bridge stood fast, even though its deck was under several feet of water.
It’s likely that the bridge could have survived the flood as the supports and foundation were holding against the troubled waters. But bridges aren’t designed for impact. A short distance upstream from Knights Ferry was the mining camp of Two Mile Bar. And the Two Mile Bar bridge. Torn loose from its foundations, the Two Mile Bar bridge had become an unstoppable force and was heading downstream. Picking up speed, it smashed into the Knights Ferry bridge, crushing the truss supports and knocking it off its foundations. It was totally destroyed.
On January 14 of 1862, The Daily Alta of California reported:
“We are informed by a gentleman who arrived last evening from Stockton that the whole town of Knights Ferry has been swept away...mills and everything clean swept off!”
As the flood waters subsided, the old ferry was brought back into service, and in March the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company began construction on a new bridge. This one would be a covered bridge and would sit eight feet higher than its predecessor. Completed in record time, the new covered bridge opened to traffic in the spring of 1863. It still stands today, open to foot traffic, and offers its services for a pleasant stroll over the Stanislaus River.
Knights Ferry rests about one mile off Hwy 120, near the banks of the Stanislaus River. The river was discovered by Gabriel Moraga in October of 1806 and was originally known as Rio de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. It was later known as Rio Estanislao for the Indian Leader, Estanislao, who fought a bloody battle on its banks in 1829. When John Fremont used the Americanized spelling, Stanislaus River, in March of 1844, that version stuck; to the river and to the county which was formed in 1854 from a chunk of Tuolumne County.
Knights Ferry is located twenty-one miles west of Jamestown via Hwy 108.
The Tulloch Mill Ruins, huge roofless rooms scattered about with bits and pieces of old machinery, stonily overlook the Stanislaus River below. This massive building which once tapped the power of the fiery river now stands empty and silent; only the river remains unchanged.
David and Elbridge Locke began construction on the first grist mill here in late 1853, opening for business between October of 1854 and January of 1855. By 1857, the mill and the land surrounding it had been acquired by Emile Hestres and Jean B. Magendie, who operated the business under the name Stanislaus Mills. They were wiped out by the flood and forced into insolvency. David Tulloch then acquired the property which consisted of the mill site and a stone and brick warehouse. Rebuilding with brick and stone, and higher up on the bank of the river, the mill was back in business within the year, producing 130 thousand barrels of flour years. “Stanislaus Flour” was the preferred brank of flour throughout the Mother Lode, responsible for many a biscuit.
Tulloch died in 1896 and the business slowly died too. At the turn of the century, the mill was converted into one of California’s first hydroelectric plants. A fire occurred on August 8th of 1956, which destroyed the wooden roof and interior timbering of the complex, leaving the stone walls we take pictures of today.
The Tulloch Mill Office is located up behind the mill ruins. This is where the mill’s business and financial affairs were attended to during its operation. More recently, it has served as a summer residence.
The Covered Bridge is the town’s most famous survivor from the years of the Gold Rush. The 330-foot-long bridge crosses the Stanislaus River at the north end of town, and is the longest structure of its kind west of the Mississippi. Dating from 1862, it originally operated as a toll bridge, with the fees set by the County Board of Supervisors. The tolls ranged from 2 cents for hogs and sheep, to $5 for horse or mule teams. The fee was $2 for dromedaries, while $1 would cover most other undomesticated animals. Elephants; however, carried a $3 toll. The bridge was a profitable enterprise and in 1868 Locke sold his controlling interest to Thomas Edwards, a prominent citizen of Knights Ferry. After a while the traffic and fees declined, as the nearby towns of Modesto and Oakdale grew, taking the traffic with them. Eventually the county acquired ownership and operation of the bridge and eliminated the toll.
The Iron Jail is undeniably the worst place to be on a hot summer day in Knights Ferry. Sitting in the weeds and grass, amidst a few trees offering little or no shade, this old hoosegow is said to have originally been a powderhouse from Oakdale. The jail saw its most use shortly after the turn of the century, when the Goodwin Diverting Dam above Knights Ferry was under construction. The dam workers often headed into town on Friday and Saturday nights, and were sometimes guilty of disturbing the peace. When this happened, the offenders got to spend the night on one of the bunks in the jail’s four cells; usually being released after sobering up.
The Knights Ferry Hotel was established in 1854, its appearance virtually unchanged since those early times. This attractive, wood-framed building with its wide, end-to-end front porch and hitching posts waiting for reins, was one of six busy hotels which once served the wayfarer in Knights Ferry.
The General Store has been in continuous operation ever since it opened for business in 1852. One of the early owners, George Valpey, also served as the town’s Wells Fargo agent. It is located on the corner of Main and Dean.
Miller’s Saloon is a two-story, wooden building which opened in 1863 and was the social center of town for many years. Upstairs was the dance hall, which was also used for social gatherings, club meetings, and grammar school programs. The saloon and card rooms were located on the bottom floor, offering easy access for those wishing to partake of the libations offered inside. It stands opposite the General Store.
The Firehouse is a neat little replica of the original wooden building which was carried away by flood waters in 1955. Reconstructed in 1976, it houses the original horse-drawn hook and ladder fire wagon used for battling fires in the early 1900’s.
The Masonic Hall was completed in 1870, some thirteen years after Summit Lodge No. 112 was granted its charter. Raising the money apparently took some doing. The Masons held their meetings on the upper floor, while Dr. James Lowe rented the lower, where he operated a drug store for many years. The balconied, two-story building is located on a knoll above Main Street, facing the river below.
The Sandstone Home was built in 1856 for Abraham and Catherine Schell. The imposing, two-story building has a floor to ceiling vault located in the living room; Schell being a prominent lawyer and banker, he used the vault to store important bank business and legal papers. It is right next door to the Masonic Hall.
The Knights Ferry Visitor Center is located in a modern structure near the mill ruins. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it offers an interesting look at the history of the Stanislaus River through exhibits and a video presentation. Plan to stop in before exploring the ruins and countryside, and then maybe enjoy the picnic grounds on the other side of the river.