RIVERBANK — In May 1962, the members of the Society of E Clampus Vitus set up a monument at High and First streets in Riverbank to mark the location of the old town of Burneyville.
James Burney was a native of North Carolina and, like many Americans, was drawn to California in the quest for wealth in the state's gold fields. Like most who came here, he didn't find his fortune in the foothills, but he did fill many important government positions in Stanislaus County and Modesto along with his founding of a town on the Stanislaus River that would eventually fail, but in its place would rise the town of Riverbank.
Burney served in Maj. James Savage's Mariposa Battalion that quelled an Indian uprising in the Central Valley in 1851. Along the way, the members of Savage's little army became the first non-natives to see Yosemite Valley. In the same year, Burney served as Mariposa County's first sheriff.
In 1854, he moved to what would become Stanislaus County and went into business.
Modestly naming the new town he founded Burneyville, James Burney opened a ferry service across the Stanislaus River that was, according to the May 6, 1962, Modesto Bee, "about two miles upstream from where the present Burney Bridge spans the river." (That bridge was a short distance from the current bridge that crosses the Stanislaus River near Jacob Myers Park in Riverbank.)
The town slowly began to grow. By 1870, there were several stores, a warehouse, a two-story hotel made of redwood and several saloons. The warehouse served local wheat farmers who could store their products while waiting for their crops to be shipped down the Stanislaus, then north along the San Joaquin River to Stockton. While the town did grow, it never had a post office, and residents of Burneyville had to travel across the river and two miles to Burwood to get mail.
While the town grew, Burney perceived the future was in the new railroad town of Modesto. Pulling up his stakes and eventually selling off his property and businesses in Burneyville, he moved to the new town in 1870.
In November 1871, the railroad came to Oakdale and Burneyville's value disappeared overnight as its reason for existence the ferry was now irrelevant.
In 1895, San Francisco and San Joaquin Railroad built a new line through the valley and over where the now-deserted Burneyville used to be. Pressed for a name for the new town built on the old one, it was thought to name the town Wilbur in honor of an employee of the railroad. That name was turned down by the post office since there was already a Wilbur, Colo. Another two names put into consideration were Stanislaus and Riverbank. Since Riverbank was the easier to spell, it won and on the site of the old Burneyville was founded the new town of Riverbank.
While Burneyville was fading from memory, James Burney became county superintendent of schools, county coroner and a justice of the peace. He lived in Modesto until his death in November 1901.
The Burneyville Hotel that stood at the end of Walker Road housed migrant workers until 1968, when it was condemned. In October 1975, the hotel one of the last remnants of Burneyville burned to the ground, leaving only the plaque in Riverbank as a reminder of the old river town.
Sources: The Modesto Bee, May 6, 1962; March 26, 1972; Oct. 27, 1975; and Oct. 4, 1984.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.