STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
One of the most interesting of the olden day settlements of Stanislaus was the town of Hill's Ferry which was situated on the southwest bank of the San Joaquin river, in this county, near the Merced line. In early days this place became noted for its tough characters, its stories of robberies, ruffianism, and crime. Mexican horse thieves and white outlaws, finding it the most convenient crossing place to their rendezvous in the mountains, used it after their raids among the settlers in the valleys. They always tarried long enough to hold up Hill's barroom at the points of their pistols and to clean out his bottles and jugs with their mouths. The town grew apace but as settlers were few the growth was not of a healthy nature. Thousands of sheep were sheared here annually and shearing time brought the horde of gamblers, light fingered gentry and “toughs” to this locality. The crack of the pistol was a familiar sound and the cry of agony and despair of some poor victim was an almost nightly occurrence. The up-turned face, cold and white, of a shearer or a wood-chopper or some other person who happened to be possessed of money, would frequently startle the man who stepped aside from the beaten track known as the street, and in the grass or brush stumble across the victim of revenge or avarice, stiff in death. Thus it was that Hill's Ferry became known as one of the hardest places in the state.
The origin of Hill's Ferry is now almost lost in the mists of antiquity. It was in the fall of 1849 that Judge D. D. Dickenson of Stockton sent a boat up the San Joaquin river to establish a ferry and trading post near the mouth of the Merced river. The site of Hill's Ferry was chosen. Two men by the name of Watts and Boyce opened a store there. It was then a crossing place for immigrants from Mexico, coming through Pacheco Pass, on their way to the mines.
One day these two men were found murdered. It was known that they possessed considerable money and that they kept $2000 buried in a pickle jar. It was believed at the time that the robbers did not get this money. It may still be in the place of concealment into which Watts and Boyce consigned it. The ferry and the place then passed into the possession of Jesse Hill and John De Hart. De Hart died in Hill's Ferry and Hill finally became the sole owner, managing the saloon and ferry for a number of years thereafter. Among the earliest settlers around Hill's Ferry were Guy Kilburne, R. M. Wilson, W. F. Draper, A. W. South, C. C. Eastin, R. B. Fenton, S. A., W. T. and R. C. Moorehead, Thomas Keaton, Henry Klehn, A. G. Stonesifer, Herbert Rose, John Gambling, Andrew Ewing, A. F. Pfitzer, J. P. Allen, C. G. Hubner, G. C. Green, Simon Newman, John P. Newsom, and a number of other well known pioneers of the county. Most of them became substantial farmers, and participated fully in the active affairs of the county.
In the earliest period of the career of Hill's Ferry, the prevailing industry surrounding the town was that of grazing. During this ear, sheep, cattle and wool were the principal products. The ranges were extensive in the foothills and the country was prosperous. It was the day of the cowboy and the rough vaquero. The shooting up of the town was not an infrequent occurrence. The entire community was a wide open area. Saloons and bawdy houses flourished in season. About 1865, C. G. Hubner acquired ownership of practically the entire town. It was in this year that wheat raising became important. Warehouses were erected. Hill's Ferry then became a settlement of nearly two hundred and fifty people, possessing two general stores, hotels and many saloons. The pioneer merchants were Simon Newman and Kahn Brothers. Hubner always leased premises to these firms. The population surrounding the town was approximately twenty-five hundred people on the ranches and on the ranges. The nearest railroad station was at Banta, fifty miles distant. Navigation was possible only during the melting snow period, about four months in the year. It was thus impossible to move the grain except during this period, from April until July. Consequently the July crop was stored until the following year, the merchants always being prepared to lend money on the stored grain to the farmers to put in the next year's crop.
About two out of three seasons were profitable. Mail was received weekly from 1865 till 1883 by stage from Banta. It occupied a full day to make this trip. In 1887 a semi-weekly service was inaugurated from Modesto. There was neither telegraph or telephonic communication with the outside world. Hill's Ferry was thus an isolated community. The barges with the familiar names of Clara Crow, Ceres, Empire City, owned by the California Navigation Company of Stockton, and the most famous of all of them, the Lizzie Patterson, carried the wheat to Port Costa to be transported to the markets of the world. The Miller and Eaton boat line from San Francisco undertook at varying intervals to furnish transportation but failed because of inadequacy of equipment. A massive amount of wheat was shipped from Hill's Ferry. It became one of the most noted agricultural localities of the county, and during the wheat growing era of this county, when it was known throughout the state as a wonderfully productive grain growing territory, the laurels that it wore and the glory of this reputation were largely due to the production of the country about Hill's Ferry.
While wheat growing became ascendent as an industry, wool raising was still continued. A. G. Stonesifer, Andrew Ewing and A. F. Pfitzer were most prominent in this industry. The sheep raising was followed in the foothills. The French sheep herders came into the foothills from the various localities about twenty miles from Hill's Ferry for the winter and moved onto the stubble fields in the summer.
Until 1886, when the railroad came to the West Side, Hill's Ferry continued to possess its peculiar reputation as an open town. There was much gambling and many shooting scrapes in the town. Political feeling always ran high at this point, and many a disastrous argument was held in the stores. The saloons were under no control. The “Oasis” was one of the most disreputable. It was owned by a man named Gardner who was known as a hard character. It was the favorite dance hall of the town during the harvest from May to September. It contained fifty women during the height of its career. This place was located on the banks of the San Joaquin river.
It is said that many men disappeared after having been seen to enter this joint. Gardner frequently shot up the town. While he was on the war path, the constables were conveniently absent from the town. The “Jeanette” was another saloon, in which John Henchy killed a man in 1883. On Sundays, the cowboys from the surrounding territory would frequently meet in town. Upon these occasions, the town was run by them without molestation. They would madly dash down the main street, shooting in every direction. On one occasion twelve of them rode into the Kahn store demanding their mail.
The life of the manager of the Newman store, John McNish, had been frequently threatened by a man named Hubbel. Meeting Hubbel one Monday morning, McNish immediately shot Hubbel to death. The body lay all day in front of the premises until the coroner from Modesto arrived. The verdict of the jury was justifiable homicide. The remains were buried in a field near the town. The next day the parents of the deceased appeared, disinterred the body and took it to San Francisco for interment. Three of the young sports of the town sought to follow the footsteps of the rancheros by running out of the town a respectable citizen named Vandergraw who was a justice of the peace. Conceiving the idea that he was unfavorably inclined to them, they made his life unbearable by constantly shooting pistols in front of his house at night and by hanging him in effigy. In this manner, there being no police protection, they forced Vandergraw, an honorable man, to leave the community. It is said that Joaquin Murieta, the famous bandit, was a frequent visitor to Hill's Ferry in the very early days, when he would make a social call on the proprietor of one of the stores. The coming of the railroad to the West Side brought civilization to Hills' Ferry and caused its roughness to subside. The San Joaquin Valley Regulators in 1884 also produced a salutory effect on this community.
In July 1880, the following description of Hill's Ferry was communicated in a letter to the Stanislaus County Weekly News by John M. Newsom, then justice of the peace at that town:
“The town is situated on the southwest bank of San Joaquin river in this county, near the Merced line, and is surrounded by a fine agricultural and stock-raising country.
The town contains 20 residences, 19 Chinese houses, 2 very large stores, one kept by Kahn Brothers, the other by S. Newman, both running a large general assortment of dry goods, clothing, groceries, hardware, agricultural implements, etc. There are also large warehouses connected with the stores. Kahn Brothers' warehouse has a storage capacity of 6,000 tons, and their annual shipments aggregate 10,000 tons. Mr. Newman's warehouse contains a storage capacity of 4000 tons, and his shipments average about 15,000 tons. Two lines of river steamers make that point their terminus, one line connected with San Francisco, the other with Stockton. Two lines of stages also connect with the Central Pacific Railroad at Banta. A ferryboat connects the town with the country on the east side of the fast developing and being rapidly improved. As an evidence of that fact, we notice that one landowner, Mr. Timothy Paige, has this year shipped to that point over a quarter of a million feet of lumber, with which to build houses for his tenants. The town property is owned largely by Hon. C. G. Hubner, who also is the fortunate possessor of 1000 acres of irrigated lands. The extension of the canal has given such a stimulus to farming that under it lands have increased from 10 to 40 per cent. The town contains 2 hotels; 1 restaurant; 7 saloons; 1 tin shop; 2 blacksmith shops; 1 wagon maker; 2 carpenter shops; 1 paint shop; 3 livery stables; 2 apothecaries; 2 Justices of the Peace; a constable; 1 watchmaker; 1 lumber yard; 2 barber shops; 1 photograph gallery; 1 shoemaker; 2 notary publics; 1 attorney-at-law; a fine schoolhouse and a Masonic Hall.”
Among the latter day prominent residents of Hill's Ferry were Charles T. Miller, druggist, C. P. Harris, Lumberman, John Gorman, constable, Sig Newman, merchant, Alfred Cahen, merchant, Russ Brothers, hotelmen, Henry Ahren, Joseph Barnes, Pat Manning, B. A. Fisher, saloonmen. Manning was once a formidable candidate for the democratic nomination for sheriff. John P. Allen was at one time a justice of the peace at Hill's Ferry, but subsequently moving to Modesto and engaging in the contracting business.
In the early days the average size of the farm in the vicinity of Hill's Ferry was two thousand acres. In the absence of adequate banking facilities, the stores acted as the receptacle for the funds of the farmers. In 1878 the Miller & Lux canal reached the vicinity of Hill's Ferry and changed the complexion of the country, lands under the canal being thereafter devoted to alfalfa raising. In 1898, the farmers began to realize the value of dairying, and this industry became paramount in the irrigated area. The ranges in the early days were noted for their extent of territory, the most important of them being the Santa Rita and the San Louis ranges, the Crain & J. B. Haggin ranges, the Miller & Lux estates, and the one in Little Pinoche Valley owned by A. G. Stonesifer. The Cocanour range was a very large sheep grazing estate.
Dutch Corners was a half way house two miles south of Hill's Ferry. It was started by Herman Widman and Ernest Voight about the year 1870. It contained a hotel, and butcher shop and a sumptuous bar. Afterwards a race track was added. It was a stopping place for teamsters and cowboys. It was a hangout for sports and gamblers. Dover was another little town on the Merced river in the vicinity of Hill's Ferry.
In 1887 the new railroad of the West Side running from Banta to Fresno, passing within a few miles of Hill's Ferry to the south, caused the birth of Newman, named after that sterling pioneer, Simon Newman. The residents of Hill's Ferry and Dutch Corners moved to Newman, which was built on land donated to the railroad company by Mr. Newman. In a short time, Hill's Ferry became a memory.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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