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O'Byrne's Ferry Bridge (No. 281 California Historical Landmark)

Historic Site or District
O'Byrne's Ferry Bridge rebuilt again after the flood of 1862. – Coke Wood

California Historical Landmarks Program

Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:

1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region

2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California

3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.

California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.

In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.

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O’Byrne’s Ferry Bridge started out as a simple old toll bridge between two counties, and ended its legacy by making a splash! Patrick O. Byrne started construction of a chain cable bridge in 1852 across the Stanislaus River on the line between Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. It soon became a bustling toll bridge since it was on the primary road between Stockton and Sonora.

Unfortunately, the bridge had a short first life. Heavy rain weakened the structure and one of the chains gave way as a six-ox team and two men were crossing it! The men were able to swim to safety, but the oxen and wagon were swept away. The bridge was mended and continued to serve as a toll bridge for years until the devastating flood of 1862 washed it away along with almost every bridge on the rivers in the Sierra foothills.

There are conflicting accounts about whether or not the bridge was ever restored after its first incident. Some say a ferry served those wishing to cross until the Union Bridge was built in 1862, while others say it was restored right away. Either way, the bridge sustained as a toll bridge until 1902 when it was purchased by the neighboring counties; Calaveras and Tuolumne for $4000. A local cattleman convinced the counties to split the cost and make it a free bridge for the reason that he disapproved of paying the toll when the bridge was in poor condition and was dangerous for horses.

O’Byrne’s Ferry Bridge is also known for being an escape route for bandits from the local sheriff. At the nearby Funk Hill, the notorious Black Bartacted out his last hold-up ever, since he was later caught and sent to San Quentin for five years!

Decades later, the Tri-Dam Project was approved which meant that the creation of the Tulloch Reservoir would drown the bridge. Numerous historical groups, as well as the general public, were concerned for the demise of the bridge and wanted to preserve it somehow. Many plans were drawn up, some wanted to float it and turn it into a tourist stop but unfortunately, time was not on their side. The Irrigation Districts had closed the flood gates and the water was rising fast!

It was rumored that there was a box filled with gold coins and other valuables buried in one of the pilings, but its remains have never been found. After much effort and even the use of dynamite, the bridge was eventually detached from the shores and made a splash as is was drug to its final resting place. Locals began scavenging for nails, washers and even wood planks to take as souvenirs. Slowly, day by day, workers took apart what was left of the bridge and it was sold to various parties planning on using parts at other recreational areas around the reservoir. There are supposedly benches in Copperopolis made from salvaged wood too! If you’re in town, try to locate them!

The historical marker is located 7 miles south of Copperopolis on O’Byrne’s Ferry Road. Be sure to check out the other historical landmarks in the area while you’re here such as the Congregational Church, Copperopolis, The Old Corner Saloon, Green Springs and many more!

Calaveras County

Along with Mark Twain’s famous "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" story that spun into an annual fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, Calaveras County is rich with Gold Rush history and folklore. Remnants of the railroads and Hispanic culture add to the charm of the county located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a preserve of Giant Sequoia trees, and the uncommon gold telluride mineral Calaverite was discovered in the county in 1861, and is named for it.

Time Period Represented

Late 1800s

Nearby Places