Jeff Jardine

March 19, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Knight Ferry’s historic landmark designation set in bronze come Saturday

It was a fuss was over a truss – not the longevity of the 151-year-old Knights Ferry covered bridge – that led to it being recognized as a National Historic Landmark. A ceremony Saturday, just before the first of the annual Civil War re-enactment battles, will dedicate the bridge and unveil a plaque marking its status.

It’s not good enough just to be old – exactly two decades older than Modesto’s 1883 McHenry Mansion, which we consider ancient in these parts.

Nor is it good enough simply to span the Stanislaus River for the past, oh, 151 years, including the decades before New Melones began controlling the water level. Or to be strong enough to piggyback cars from one bank to the other until 1981, and then find new life as the area’s chief tourist attraction and photo op.

No, convincing the U.S. Department of the Interior and its National Parks Service to recognize Knights Ferry’s covered bridge as a National Historic Landmark required a real feat of ingenuity, as in engineering. It took the so-called Howe truss design – which combines crisscrossed timbers with the use of iron tension rods to give the crossing its staying power – to convince the feds the Civil War-era bridge is worth preserving. Interior officials made that determination in October 2012, but took awhile to produce a bronze plaque denoting the designation. The plaque arrived in Knights Ferry several months ago. But between a number of the Army Corps of Engineers officials at Knights Ferry being enrolled in training courses, and then the government shutdown that, well, shut down a portion of the government last year, installing the plaque and celebrating the status was back-burnered.

The waiting is over. At 12:15 p.m. Saturday, just before the first of the annual Civil War re-enactment battles, officials will dedicate the bridge and unveil the plaque, which in part will read:

“This property possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America. Knights Ferry Bridge, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is an exceptionally fine display of 19th-century covered bridge construction and an outstanding example of a timber Howe truss, one of the most significant American timber truss types.”

See? I told you. The fuss was over the truss – not so much the longevity of the 330-foot-long bridge. It really didn’t impress them that the Knights Ferry bridge is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi and ninth-longest in the nation. It didn’t matter that craftsmen built the existing bridge in 1863, the same year President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, Samuel Clemens first wrote under the name Mark Twain and Central Pacific broke ground in Sacramento on its share of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The bridge also was born the same year as Henry Ford; William Randolph Hearst; Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 began World War I; Sears & Roebuck co-founder Richard Sears; and Ernest Thayer, the guy who wrote “Casey at the Bat.” The bridge, in fact, outlived Ferdie and Sears by a century and counting.

None of those factoids mattered as much as the fact(oid) that it is an old Howe truss structure. OK, fine. Even so, why did it take so long for the bridge to receive National Historic Landmark status? It’s been a Howe truss special since 18-freaking-63.

“That’s a good question,” said Duane Johnson, the Army Corps’ chief ranger in Knights Ferry. “It had to go to the National Register of Historic Places and then someone had to nominate it for landmark status. They had to determine whether it was of national significance. Being old alone doesn’t do it.”

Perhaps now, the federal government will put its money where its plaque is to strengthen the bridge and keep it intact for future generations to enjoy. A few years ago, officials determined the bridge needs a “tune up.” An inspection confirmed it, but the Army Corps lacks the funding to make the repairs, which require bringing in an East Coast firm with expertise in repairing Howe truss bridges. So it closed the bridge to any kind of vehicle traffic and limited pedestrians to only small groups on it at any one time.

The tune-up, Johnson said, could cost around $1 million.

“We’re hoping Congress will appropriate some money for it,” he said.

The 18-by-18-inch plaque being placed Saturday will inform visitors only of the national landmark status. It’s not supposed to keep the bridge patched together until Congress opens the checkbook. Even so, Johnson said, “it’s not in any danger of collapsing.”

In fact, with a little TLC, the old covered bridge could last another century or longer, as it was built to do.

You might even say, in Howe we trussed.

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