Monday, November 2, 2020

A Bridge Too Far - The Bumpy Journey to Knight's Ferry, California

(Please read our Covid 19 Statement first - Ed) The narrow track could barely be called paved. The potholes and countless patches make for a lot more than fifty shades of gray. It is PINO - paved in name only.

Our big Ford van feels every one of them. It's hard to go more than ten miles per hour as I worry about Tim bouncing around in his chair in the back. Yes, he's strapped to the floor very securely but that just tends to amplify every sideways lurch when the car hits a bump or a tire drops into a hole.

One hundred and sixty years ago, horse drawn wagons worked this road to bring supplies to the giant Gwin Mine that worked a vein of gold-studded quartz by the Mokelumne River. Those ingots would be brought back up the same way.

This road became the first link of Amador County's road network, snaking its way down from the road that would become today's highway 49 to Middle Bar on the Moke River.

For us, this unmaintained road takes us an hour to make that same three mile trek. My main concern on this little road is someone coming up the other way. It's mostly not an issue on this lonely stretch of road except for one little Prius coming the other way at an alarming rate of speed. Luckily, he brakes in the nick of time and we just squeeze by each other.

Finally, we reach the Mokelumne River, where there's a handicapped parking spot right next to an accessible pit restroom.

We're here to see an old bridge, the Middle Bar Bridge. A bridge has been at this and on...since 1851. The first two were washed away in flood. The current steel structure was built in 1912.

It was in sore shape until it was restored in 1999. Lucky for us because we don't want to go back the way we came in.

Now, there is one lane for vehicles to cross on a wooden deck. Fishermen in their folding chairs have to get up so we can drive through where they're seated. I ask how they're doing as I go along..."not so well but Tom, over there, has already caught his limit."

On the other side, the road is much the same for another three miles or so until we finally get to the smooth pavement of Paloma Road and highway 26.

About another 40 minutes of rolling hills takes us to our final destination of Knight's Ferry.

Here, at the Stanislaus River in the spring of 1849, Dr. William Knight and his partner Jim Vantine brought an old whaling boat and set up a toll crossing for the many miners in the area. It was quite a success, bringing in the equivalent of $12,000 in today's money but those profits would be short lived as the good doctor was murdered before the year was out.

David Locke built a flour mill alongside the river. Locke eventually bought out Vantine and his new partner, a Mr. Dent, and replaced the ferry with a bridge in 1857. That bridge was brought down when another bridge upstream was washed away and crashed into it. A new, covered bridge was built in 1863 which still stands across the river today. At 330 feet long, it's the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi.

We'll check that all out but, first, we've been on the road awhile. I think it's time for a bit of lunch.

There's not a lot of parking in front of the River's Edge, one of a small handful of places to eat in town, so we park about a hundred yards away in a dirt lot across the street. 

Letty and Tim enjoy their lunch of salmon and a burger. My French dip was a bit too sweet and sticky with the barbecue sauce they put on it.

Still, it's filling enough so we head to the other end of town where the Knight's Ferry Recreation Area sits. Run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, you can use your National Park Service pass...such as the Access Pass...for free parking here (leave the pass on your dashboard), or pay a five dollar fee.

The recreation area covers both sides of the river. The visitor's center and mill ruins on are the north side. We park here and spend a few minutes in the visitor's center , checking out displays about the local wildlife. The ranger tells us she can give us a pass to park in the drop off zone, near the end of the bridge, but that the other side of the bridge is more accessible. We decide to see what we can of the ruins and then we'll drive to the more accessible side to see the bridge.

The flower mill is on a short, dirt, packed path east of the visitor's center. It's accessible enough and gets us a close-up look inside the walls of the former mill. Heavy concrete and stone foundations mark where the wheel used to be.

When electricity came to the area, the mill was shut down and converted into a water-powered generating station in 1899. A flume was built to bring water up the hillside from the plant.  Then, it was channeled into a steep penstock that would generate a lot of pressure to turn the turbine in the plant below.

A scar on the hillside behind the ruins mark where the penstock used to be.

On the other side of the river, there's a paved path that runs from the handicapped parking spaces in the parking lot, through a nice picnic area that also has nice, accessible picnic tables, over to a road next to the caretaker's camp.

The road...which used to be the main road to Knight's Ferry...leads to the old bridge.

Until 1981, the bridge was still open to automobile traffic. Now, roped off areas limit you to a walking path down the middle of the bridge...large groups are not allowed to cross together to protect the structure, they must break into smaller groups before crossing. The three of us are well under the limit so we go ahead.

Once we get in, we can hear pigeons up in the rafters cooing. Carved graffiti on the walls makes it obvious why they roped it off to only a one lane passage down the middle.

At a few points, square windows in the sides let us see the river and surrounding areas. We can see the water of the rivers between the planks of boards under our feet.

At the other end, we're back at the ruins. There's also quite a bump at the end and we can see why the other end of the bridge is chosen as the accessible end.

Just to the east, we can see the supports of the original bridge and how much higher this surviving bridge is then we head back to the car.

Since we're not going back the same way, it's only about 45 minutes back to where we started in Amador County after this very pleasant outing to Knight's Ferry.

Darryl Musick
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