A Visit to Historic Knights Ferry

By Bob Holton March 15, 2015 18:53
Miller's Hall, next to the General Store, was once a saloon, dance hall and brothel.  It now houses a library, post office, museum, water district office, craft shop and ice cream parlor.

Miller’s Hall, next to the General Store, was once a saloon, dance hall and brothel. It now houses a library, post office, museum, water district office, craft shop and ice cream parlor.

There is something inauspicious about a town built on the banks of a swift-running river – especially a river known to be disagreeable from time to time. Take Knights Ferry, for instance, a quaint little Gold Rush community (population 98, more or less) situated some 24 miles southwest of Sonora off Highway 108.

It would be hard to say how much of Knights Ferry’s irreplaceable history has been swallowed up by the Stanislaus River during the town’s 167 years of existence. Practically the entire business district, including all of Chinatown, was carried downstream in the winter of 1862, never to be seen again.

The town was immediately rebuilt, only to undergo several more washouts of lesser consequence until the creation of New Melones Reservoir. Its last major disaster happened in 1955 when all of the businesses and private homes in its flood zone, some dating back to the early 1850s, were inundated up to or above their windows. The loss was heavy. Old photos show buildings chained to trees to keep them from floating away.

Notwithstanding this disaccommodation of Mother Nature, Knights Ferry is now home to some of California’s most distinctive, historically significant structures of the post-Spanish and Mexican periods. Shall we take a tour? First stop: the Long House, also known as the Dent House.

The Long House has functioned nonstop as a private residence since 1851. For a while, in the mid-19th Century, it also served as a schoolhouse. Its original owner, Lewis Dent, was one of Knights Ferry’s most prominent businessmen and brother-in-law of Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant stayed as a guest at the Dent home twice, in 1852 and 1854, while stationed at Benicia and Eureka as an Army captain. This was before he achieved fame first as the general widely recognized for winning the Civil War, and later as the 18th president of the United States.

Next stop: The Schell House, circa 1856. What a magnificent specimen of Classical Revival architecture! Like the Long House, it too stands on high ground safely overlooking Knights Ferry’s flood-ravaged business district, and has served continuously as a private residence since its inception.

Dolly Haskell and Maggie

Dolly Haskell and Maggie

The story of Abraham Schell is remarkable in many ways. He was at once a Wells Fargo agent, gold assayer, banker, prominent lawyer, commercial builder, town benefactor, free thinker, prolific winemaker, and grower of vineyards covering some 75 planted acres on the old Rancheria del Rio Estanislao Mexican land grant, about a mile from town.

The stately Schell house, a two-story affair made of locally quarried sandstone, was long referred to as the Bank Building. In the front parlor, which was also Schell’s office, one can still see an iron door that leads to a concrete vault with the original safe still inside.

“About 80 percent of the house appears much as it did in the 1850s,” explains its present owner, Dolly Haskell. We find her standing outside with her dog, Maggie.

How does she like living in Knights Ferry?

“I love being here! Love the history! This is my home, I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “The old house has been in my family since 1962. It has been home to four generations of Haskells. I was 10 years old when my parents bought it. They met here in 1948 on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a shame the old schoolhouse isn’t here anymore – goes back to the 1860s, you know. Burned down twice.”

Clearly, Dolly can’t say enough kind things about Knights Ferry. But it’s time to move on.

General store, jail

An outing to this friendly little hamlet would be incomplete if it failed to take in California’s oldest, continuously operated general store, circa 1852. It’s a wonder that this little mercantile, situated on Main Street not far from the river, has survived the ravages of time and the raging waters of the Stanislaus.

Stepping inside, one of the first things we notice is that its original 163-year-old wooden floor has holes drilled in it so as to act like a sieve, letting water drain out. On the walls is a waist-high waterline from the flood of 1955. At the back of the store we find an excellent collection of photographs depicting Knights Ferry’s worst floods.

Heading about 100 yards upstream, we stop to ponder the old Knights Ferry jail. This sinister lockup is on the north side of Main Street, across from a vacant, waterlogged field that used to be Chinatown. Prepare to be shocked.

Essentially what we are looking at is a claustrophobic steel box comprised of four cramped cells with no toilets, no running water, no electricity, no modern amenities, and barely enough room for an inmate to stand up and stretch, much less perform a waltz.

Forget overcrowding. Forget prisoners’ rights. Imagine being a guest in this medieval-like calaboose when temperatures hit triple digits. Does a toaster oven come to mind? The old Knights Ferry jail last held prisoners in 1948. Dolly Haskell says her dad at age 25 was the last person to be jailed in the lockup, where he slept off a night of carousing at the local bar.

knights-ferry-bridge-edited-fn00150Covered bridge

At last we come to the piece de resistance of our day tour – the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi. Measuring 330 feet from end to end, this imposing landmark, like the entire town of Knights Ferry – including 100 surrounding acres – is on the National Register of Historic Places. It might be of passing interest to note that the bridge, completed in 1863, is not Knights Ferry’s first. It replaced an earlier span that was lost in the flood of 1862.

How this happened is an interesting story. The original structure, built in 1857, actually stood fast as water levels rose three to four feet per hour, eventually peaking at a record 35 feet above the river’s low-water mark. Then came the fateful moment when another bridge two miles upstream broke loose, was carried away in a torrent, and within minutes collided with Knights Ferry’s first bridge, ripping it from its foundation.

Today Knights Ferry’s second bridge remains unscathed and open for pedestrian traffic only, alongside the ruins of David Locke’s historic grist mill, circa 1855.

Early history

Knights Ferry was founded in 1848. Or maybe it was 1849 – history is not an exact science.

William Knight, frontiersman and scout for John C. Fremont, established a trading post and ferry crossing at this site, which soon became a heavily traveled route to the southern mines.

As the ferry business flourished, Knights Ferry’s population grew to between 5,000 and 8,000 inhabitants, depending on whom you ask. But Knight was not a great business promoter and constantly argued with customers. At least that’s one version.

Finally, one day in a heated discourse, he was gunned down in cold blood on Main Street. This happened in late 1849, less than a year after his arrival here. He was buried on the very spot where he fell, it is said.

Some say Knight’s unmarked grave is in the middle of Main Street, while others contend he was planted on the hillside overlooking town, in or near what today is the front yard of the Long House.

A partnership was formed between John Dent and James Vantine, who promptly took over Knight’s affairs, including the ferryboat concession which consisted of an old whaler and a rope tow.

As it happened, Knight was in the habit of charging as much as $200 for a single crossing. The toll was immediately reduced to $2 (with moderate increases depending on types of cargo) in hopes of attracting customers to a newly built restaurant and boarding house. Likewise, the whaler was replaced with a more seaworthy, modern ferry.

Upon completion of the bridge in 1857, designed to curtail adverse effects of winter flooding on the ferry business, the whaler and rope tow were decommissioned. Business went through the roof, figuratively speaking. These were flush times on the old Stanislaus. And there was more good news when placer deposits in the immediate area proved gold-bearing.

thru-bridge-edited-fn00227County seat

Knights Ferry became not only a major trading center but also an important mining district. In 1862 it was designated the county seat of Stanislaus County, a distinction it held for 10 years.

But all good things must come to an end.

As the Mother Lode’s placers began to dry up, Knights Ferry’s gold-driven economy suffered, depopulation ensued, and the town became all but irrelevant.

Nor did it help matters when, in the 1870s, the railroad announced plans to bypass this once-thriving metropolis.

Today, with its historic covered bridge, vintage buildings dating back to the early and mid-1850s and its grist mill ruins, Knights Ferry remains one of the most picturesque of the old river towns in our foothills.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
By Bob Holton March 15, 2015 18:53
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1 Comment

  1. Diane January 19, 20:21

    Oh, This is a Beautiful tour, Well done! Thank you so much!! Best,-Diane, GG Grand Daughter of Herrick Schell, Red Mtn. Vineyards.

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