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.
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.
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.