It was mid-day, mid-week and mid-May. So, no traffic — too early for homebound commuters and summer tourists, and the weekend sightseers had probably not even thought about Saturday yet. Westbound on California State Highway 108, however, I had picked up some topographic companions that were going my way. State Highway 120 had joined me coming out of Yosemite National Park. And the Stanislaus River just came flowing in alongside from the “gold country,” up in the foothills of the Sierras. We would all stay in close company through Oakdale, but ahead at Riverbank the breakup was preordained, so Highway 108 and I would soon split south toward Modesto. Ahead was Knights Ferry — on the map, a minuscule black box that was right next to the river.
It would do fine for a lunch stop. Had I not been looking for it, I would never have found this place. I’m glad I did. I hate those doleful regrets, when sitting around a campfire somewhere — usually months later — I learn that I passed up something really worth seeing. There are 150 years of California history on display here, plus a sprawling park built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and they do good work. Of course, they have the resources and the skills to build things well. It is, however, their extraordinary planning and attention to detail that make them stand tall among park builders. It pains me to see a park — city, county, whatever — assembled with good intentions, but with scant thought given to what happens after the politicians unveil their names on the plaque and cut the ribbon.
Often the park runs out of money, or the people run out of attention. Soon trash piles up and weeds flourish, then the trees die and the grass turns brown. Not so with parks run by the Corps of Engineers. “Knights Ferry” — like the “Oregon Trail” — is a place name that evolved with use. Nobody proclaimed it as such, and then went about making brochures for visitors’ centers. William Knight, along with a partner, operated the first ferryboat across this river starting in 1848. The next year, Knight got shot during an argument, but the ferry business continued — albeit under new management. “Knights Ferry” stuck, and became the name of the town that sprouted up around it. Here was the economic funnel for the gold mines along the Stanislaus River, and for commerce to and from California’s Central Valley.
The Stockton-Sonora road through here grew in importance with the ferry. A sawmill started up here in 1854, then came a grist mill. (Their buildings still stand.) Eventually, a bridge beached the ferry business. But a second bridge, built upstream, wiped out that first bridge when the second bridge was torn from its foundations in a flood and came crashing down river. Undaunted entrepreneurs set out to build another bridge to replace the other two — this one covered, and higher by 8 feet. That bridge is the celebrity attraction here today. Opened for traffic in 1863, it is one of only 10 remaining covered bridges in California and, at 360 feet, is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi. Covering a bridge is done to give it permanence. Wood can survive a long time submerged in water, but alternate wetting and drying in the weather weakens it.
Put a roof and siding on it and it will theoretically last indefinitely. With Rusty on a leash, we walked toward the bridge through a setting that could be a poster for the ideal picnic. Huge trees give much shade, yet the grass prospers as if in full sun. Seated at a picnic table, the one closest to the river and the bridge towering over it, was an elderly couple with two dogs — a sociable dalmatian and a wound-up, flat-nosed pekinese. Whether I intended to or not, I was going to get to know these folks; dogs have a way of determining those things. Ralph and Dee told me that they lived here once, but now live far away. They used to picnic here with their kids, always at this table by the river. This place was obviously important in their lives.
Today they were back, doubting that they would ever have this chance again. “Our friends are dying off,” Ralph said. “You’ve got to take notice of those things. They’re telling us somethin’. Don’t want to get caught by surprise.” “Haven’t thought much about that,” I replied. “Given a choice, I think I’ll wait to be surprised.” Dee said, “Me too.” “Good luck with that,” Ralph said. “Not me. I’ve even got my funeral planned. It’ll be a party. I’m going to hate to miss it, but the timing will be close. I’ll probably only miss it by a couple days.” We laughed. Still, I think he was quite serious. “I rode horses over that bridge lots of times,” Dee said. The sound of the hooves clumping inside the bridge would resound off the walls. I can still hear it.” Ralph continued, “They closed the bridge to everything except foot traffic in 1981. It was a toll bridge originally, but the county bought it more than a hundred years ago and made it free.
They used to charge two cents for hogs or sheep, and up to five bucks for a team of horses. When the circus came through here, camels were two bucks, elephants were three.” “How do know all that?” I asked. “Ya pick that stuff up when ya live around here,” Ralph replied. “Must be written somewhere.” Rusty and I walked across the bridge and around the park. We got back to the RV about a half hour later. The bench by the river was empty.
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