Benson’s Ferry sparks beginnings of Thornton

Benson’s Ferry, shown at right crossing the Mokelumne River, was one of the earliest ferries in San Joaquin County. The settlement that sprouted around the ferry crossing flourished until a great flood destroyed it. Today’s Thornton community eventually developed to the south on higher ground.

It was a simple river crossing in the Gold Rush years, but the modest crossing known as Benson’s Ferry sparked the initial settlement that eventually became the town known today as Thornton.

As thousands of eager gold-seekers poured into California in 1849, the old pioneer trails through the Valley became roads. At river crossings, it became necessary to have substantial ferries that could accommodate the wagons, livestock and the increased traffic of miners and suppliers heading to the gold mines in the Sierra Nevada.

In 1849, A. M. Woods and Edward Stokes built a ferry that crossed the Mokelumne River just west of where the Cosumnes River joined the channel. This spot is just west of the North Thornton Road bridge that crosses the river today. The ferry crossing was on a well-worn trail linking Stockton and Sacramento and near the heavy river traffic of schooners and steamboats carrying freight and passengers from San Francisco and Stockton. It was a perfect and vital location.

After just one year as operators, Woods and Stokes sold the ferry to John A. Benson. The crossing became known as Benson’s Ferry. Benson built a house on the south side of the river, and in 1850 a settlement began to develop on the north side.

A town was surveyed that summer, and lots were sold for homes and businesses. In one week five schooners arrived and unloaded lumber, hardware and groceries. The new town was called Mokelumne City. Situated on this vital transportation link, Mokelumne City thrived and prospered and was soon the second largest town in the county, according to the “History of San Joaquin County” by George Tinkham.

In 1852, Benson hired a man named Green Palmer to operate the busy ferry and occupy the first house he built on the south side of the river.

As Mokelumne City thrived and competed with the county seat and port city Stockton to the south, an ambitious political effort started. Benson, undoubtedly driven by his own desire for prosperity, sought to form a new county to be called Mokelumne and establish the county seat in Mokelumne City.

In 1858, Benson convinced farmers their land’s value would increase and their taxes would decrease. He got hundreds of signatures and petitioned the state legislature. His petition requested that “the south half of Sacramento County and the north half of San Joaquin, embracing 600 square miles and an agricultural population of between two and three thousand, be formed into a county known as Mokelumne,” according to Tinkham’s “History of San Joaquin County.”

In January 1859, a bill proposing formation of the new county was introduced into the state Assembly. But the next month, on Valentine’s Day, tragedy struck.

Benson, the driving force behind this measure, was shot and killed by his employee Green Palmer.

Benson and his physician friend Dr. Hogaboom met Palmer for a drink in a saloon. After a drink, they went to Palmer’s home south of the ferry crossing. After a visit, Benson and Dr. Hogaboom were walking away when Palmer took out a revolver and shot Benson twice. Benson died while being transported in a wagon.

Palmer believed that Benson had been intimate with his wife. After three trials, Palmer was acquitted but guilt-ridden. He took poison and committed suicide in 1860.

With Benson gone, the movement for a new county was threatened. Eventually, the measure failed in the legislature.

Ed Gayetty, Benson’s son-in-law, operated the ferry after the murder. Despite the failed effort to divide into a new county, Mokelumne City continued to grow and prosper into 1861.

“Schooners were constantly arriving with goods, and the town is increasing in size wonderfully,” according to a writer quoted in Tinkham’s history.

By August 1861, Mokelumne City included 23 houses, a hotel, other businesses and lots selling for $600 to $1,000 each. But in the winter of 1861-62, another tragedy struck.

Relentless rain that winter, including the more than 15 inches of rain that fell in January alone, caused rivers throughout the Valley to break over their banks and flood the entire Valley. Surging floodwaters tore out ferry crossings and ripped houses and businesses from their foundations. Devastation was widespread, and the valley was “an unbroken ocean” according to historical references.

Mokelumne City, at a low point where the Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers met, suffered a fatal blow. Submerged under a reported eight feet of water, the ferry and all of the buildings either floated away or were demolished by the wind and waves.

The Benson home on the south bank was saved by tying it to a tree.

George Housken’s saloon, restaurant and general store building had a colorful adventure. In the flood, the building floated off its foundation and a portion of the structure eventually came to rest on high ground about a mile south of Mokelumne City.

While the Housken building survived the flood and endured, Mokelumne City never recovered.

Perhaps following the Housken building, people sought higher ground and began to rebuild south near where the Mokelumne River and Dry Creek merged. This new location was called, optimistically, New Hope.

The young Scottish immigrant who settled in the area seven years earlier — Arthur Thornton — played a major role in this new community’s future. He was instrumental in obtaining the right-of-way for the Western Pacific Railroad to run through the community, and the railroad named the station stop after Thornton, according to Charlotte Cameron, who is writing a history book about the community.

New Hope was officially re-named Thornton in 1909.

Vintage Lodi is a local history column that appears the first and third Saturday of the month.

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