by Jim Bulls
It’s a challenge not to be repetitious while writing for Kings River Life–in many of the stories I have written before, it is inevitable that Reedley’s history will come up. It is also astonishing to realize that the lifetime I have spent in Reedley spans over half of the City’s existence! That’s right, not just the centennial, not even the incorporation, but since the very inception of a town named Reedley (by one year) in 1888. It’s also hard not to make these stories personal, since I am a part of Reedley and its history–the townspeople had a major role in forming my way of life and my personality.
So bear with me over the next several months, as I embark on a series of Reedley stories celebrating some different historical aspects of our City.
PART ONE: A HISTORY OF TRANSPORTATION
Since playing on my Dad’s John Deere tractor, old Chevy truck, and combine back in Texas, I have had a love for anything mechanical and transportation related. Long before I arrived, numerous modes of transportation existed. Let’s start with early-day transportation westward.
Thomas Jefferson Mayfield was just four years old when his family (father, mother, and two older brothers) headed to California in 1849. Their mode of transportation west began with a wagon train. However, when word reached them on the road of an Indian attack on the wagon train ahead, Mayfield’s father decided to detour to Galveston, Texas and sail to California.
Instead of Indian attacks, the family and their shipmates were assaulted by the less than peaceful Pacific Ocean. The ship almost ran aground at Cape Horn due to the unending storms. By the time they reached Buena Vista (now San Francisco Bay), there were only three sailors well enough to sail the ship.
The family left Buena Vista by horseback, with Tom riding behind his mother and their belongings on pack animals. They traveled across Pacheco Pass and into the San Joaquin Valley. Disenchanted by the people living near the gold fields, the Mayfields headed south to Mariposa County. When they reached the San Joaquin River, a new dilemma presented itself: the older members of the family could ford the river on horseback, but Tom’s mother was afraid he would fall off and drown. One of the local Indian girls volunteered to swim him across the river–which they did successfully, with Tom clinging to her back.
The Mayfields finally settled close to the Indian Rancheria near Scottsburg on the Kings River. When Tom’s mother died, his father left the six year old with the Choinumni Indians, while he and the two older boys were off herding cattle. Mayfield lived with these peaceful people until he was a teenager.
Crossing the Rivers
The only way to cross the many streams and creeks in the San Joaquin Valley was to either ford on horseback or swim. Crossing rivers was more difficult, especially when the river was in flood stage. Several enterprising men built ferries that could haul men, animals and wagons across high water. A large wooden, flat-bottomed barge was tethered to a cable that was attached to both sides of the river. The ferry operator pulled on the rope to move the barge across the river. Some large ferry barges had men with long poles to help keep the barges moving in the right direction.
Poole’s Ferry was built north of present-day Reedley (between Sumner and Adams Avenues). The ferry and its trading post served travelers and miners. It was also the scene of the murder of Major James Savage (the discoverer of Yosemite), a famed Indian trader and peacemaker, by Major Walter Harvey, the first judge of Tulare County.
Mr. and Mrs. James Smith operated Smith’s Ferry and Hotel (near Reed and Olson Avenues) from 1855 through 1874. This ferry outlasted the other Kings River ferries because it was the only one that could be approached during high water. T.L. Reed stayed in the hotel while he was establishing his wheat empire in the Reedley area.
By 1885, Fresno County built the first local bridge across the Kings. It was known simply as the “Wagon Bridge”–remember, the horseless carriage had yet to be invented. The Central Pacific Railroad arrived in 1888 and Reedley was born. In 1897, the Santa Fe Railroad came to Reedley and our little town was served by two trans-continental railroads, delivering local produce across the nation and to ports that would reach out to the world.
New bridges were built across Manning and Olson Avenues in 1908. The bridge on Manning Avenue replaced the wooded Wagon Bridge with steel trestles built on big steel pillars (you can still see these at Kelley’s Beach). The flood of 1914 took out the Olson Avenue bridge and severely damaged the bridge on Manning. A reinforced concrete bridge was built next–it had ornate street lamps on the railings to light one’s way into Reedley. Sadly, the street lamps were vandalized during the Depression for copper wiring (sound familiar?) and were completely removed because of the blackout policies of World War II and never replaced. When the bridge was completed in 1928, Governor Young presided over the grand bridge opening, aided by several other state and local dignitaries.
I arrived in Reedley in 1947, and witnessed the flood of 1950 that took out the Olson bridge. The water was so high, it ran through the portals of the Manning bridge, across the roadbed and out the portals on the other side. National Guard trucks were the only vehicles allowed to cross the bridge. The soldiers were kept busy removing log and debris buildup–the flood has washed most of Piedra down river to accumulate on the north side of the bridge. The washed out Olson bridge ran aground near Kings View Hospital and was used for many years to cross to the island behind their property.
To meet the demands of higher vehicle traffic, two more lanes were added to the existing Manning Avenue bridge on the upriver side in the 1960s, making it the four-lane bridge we know today.
The End of the Railroads
I arrived at the height of the railroad heyday, when both Southern Pacific and Santa Fe serviced the packing companies along their tracks. Switch engines worked throughout the night moving the full box cars from the packing shed spur lines so they would be ready to move the next day. Empty cars were staged on the spur lines of Watoke and Orange Cove. Like today’s disappearing copper, vandals could easily remove boxcar pillow blocks that held the axel for the wheels. The boxcars would then have to be repaired before they could be used, so the railroad companies stopped using the spur lines for this purpose.
The 1970s and 80s brought and end to railroad transportation as it was once known. The Southern Pacific depot was dismantled, along with their trestle over the Kings River. They leased crossing rights from Santa Fe until the SP finally discontinued service. Santa Fe also suffered declining business and it wasn’t long before they suffered the same fate.
Today a private company leases the tracks from Southern Pacific and there are one or two trains that still come through Reedley on a daily basis. Long gone is the two-railroad service, with trains running in and out of Reedley on an hourly basis.
Stay Tuned for Transportation-Part Two. We’ll be heading into the age of the automobile and taking a look at auto dealers, service stations, repair shops and Reedley’s racing heritage.
For more local and California history articles be sure and check out our Hometown History section.