Lots of folks flock to Knights Ferry to stroll across the historic covered bridge, enjoy dinner on the veranda of the River’s Edge restaurant, drop a paddle in the water or take a summer swim in the ever-chilly waters of the Stanislaus River.
But many folks have no idea that Ulysses S. Grant, future Civil War general and president of the United States, fell in love with the quaint town as well.
Grant was drawn to Knights Ferry three times from 1852 to 1854 because of his wife’s brothers – who realized there was money to be made in accommodating all of those flocking from Stockton to the gold fields around Sonora – moved there. Three brothers of Julia Dent Grant, whom Grant married on Aug. 22, 1848, arrived in town not long after William Knight established it in 1848. It was an important stop at the Stanislaus River during the height of the Gold Rush of 1849. When Knight was killed in a Nov. 9, 1849 shooting, his business enterprises were left to partner Captain James Vantine. John Dent and Lewis Dent later partnered up with Vantine to add a restaurant, store and boarding house to capture more business. Eventually Vantine left town, leaving the Dents in charge of the ferry.
George Dent joined his brothers as they became the most prominent people in the village. At one time the Dents tried to rename the town “Dentville,” an idea that failed to gain traction.
In 1852 Grant, then 30, sailing aboard the “Golden Gate” from Panama to San Francisco. He was stationed in nearby Benicia as a brevet captain with the 4th Infantry Regiment. In the nine years since he had graduated West Point, Grant had served frontier duty in Texas and fought in 10 battles during the Mexican-American War which earned him decoration for gallantry in action.
When ordered to California, Grant left pregnant Julia and their first son with his parents in Illinois. The voyage to Panama in a cramped ship was hellish with a seventh of the troops and family members dying of malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, cholera and dysentery.
During his short stay in Benicia, Grant was quartered at a wooden set of buildings where the present-day AMPORTS parking lot is today. They burned in 1922.
Grant wasted no time in visiting his brothers-in-law. His stays were for a week at a time. In those days, traveling from Benicia to Knights Ferry required boarding a steamer to Stockton, disembarking and riding overland. It’s believed that Grant rode on the back of a mule by way of Sonora Road, traveling through Farmington and Eugene. Grant stayed with Lewis and Annie Dent in their house, built in 1851, which still stands at the corner of Ellen and Dean streets.
Grant, who was miserable about being separated from his young family, was awestruck by the Dents’ businesses in Knights Ferry. He wrote in his diary that he had dreams of quitting the Army – which offered meager pay for his rank – and either joining the Dents or setting up business enterprises of his own.
In May 1854 he visited Knights Ferry for the last time. He boarded a ship from San Francisco on June 1 for New York City, passing overland through Nicaragua and arriving on June 25. He spent time farming in Missouri before leading the Union to victory during the Civil War. Grant was elected president in 1868 and served two terms.
Contrary to often-repeated claim, there is no evidence that Grant designed the covered bridge or its predecessor, the Locke bridge.
The first bridge was erected over the river in 1857 because the ferry no longer suited the heavy demands of travel. Because the Stanislaus River had no flood controls back then and could swell to uncontrollable proportions in winter, the first bridge was wiped out in virtually the same weather conditions that hit California in 1997 – heavy snowpack melted rapidly by warm Pineapple Express winds from the south. In mid-January 1862 flood waters not only damaged Knights Ferry, the Valley was covered from Stockton to Merced. The same torrent of water dislodged the bridge at Two Mile Bar upstream, sweeping large
timbers into the first Knights Ferry Bridge leaving it battered and splintered. Until the present covered bridge was completed in 1863, the old ferry had been placed back into service.
It’s said the Dents built the first dam on the Stanislaus River in August 1853 for the purposes of a grist and saw mill.
In the spring of 1854, Grant was transferred from Benicia to Fort Humboldt, another cold, wet, windy and isolated frontier outpost. He became more morose and continued to drink. Grant and several companies from the 4th Infantry sailed to the Columbia River in Oregon. He eventually returned to San Francisco twice.
Because he missed his family and his pay was inadequate to bring them to join him, a profoundly depressed Grant resigned from the Army on July 31, 1854. He returned to New York via San Francisco and the Horn of South America on a sailing ship, never returning to Benicia.
In his autobiography, Grant wrote: “I left the Pacific coast very much attached to it, and with the full expectation of making it my future home. That expectation and that hope remains uppermost in my mind until the Lieutenant-Generalcy bill was introduced into Congress the winter of 1863-64. The passage of that bill, and my promotion, blasted my last hope of ever becoming a citizen of the further West.”
The Dents sold off their enterprises and left Knights Ferry for good in 1856. David Locke purchased the Dent ferry and replaced it with a wooden bridge.
Lewis T. Dent was part of the Mormon Battalion in 1847 and had lived in San Diego and Monterey where he was a judge and one of the writers of the California State Constitution. He served as postmaster in Knights Ferry and moved to Stockton in 1858 to practice law. After the Civil War, he raised cotton in Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1869 Lewis Dent was nominated for governor of Mississippi. He moved to Washington D.C. to practice law until he died in 1874. He is buried in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. It’s there you’ll also find the grave of John Cromwell Dent who passed away in 1889.
George Wrenshall Dent came to California’s Calaveras County in 1851 to mine for gold. It was reported that he served in the state Senate in 1858, representing San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties and may have gone to Tuolumne County after leaving Knights Ferry. For 16 years George Dent was appraiser of customs in San Francisco, an appointment he received from brother-in-law President Grant. He died in 1899 in Berkeley and is buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.