December 26, 2011

Kings County Museum

Then: The bustling trade center of Kingston circa 1873, the year the town was raided by outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang.

Almost nothing remains of ghost town of Kingston, but it lives on in history largely because of an event that broke the a quiet of a Christmas season evening, nearly 140 years ago.

The settlement, on the south bank of the Kings River near present-day Laton, was founded around 1855 by pioneer L.A. Whitmore, who set up the river’s first toll ferry — a flat-bottomed scow, guided across the river by ropes run through pulleys attached to trees on either bank.

With the increasing settlement of the area, and freight traffic to destinations such as Visalia, Whitmore’s ferry grew in importance. When the Butterfield Overland Stage opened its line from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1858, a station was placed at the crossing, signaling a boom for the settlement.

Unfortunately, Whitmore didn’t live to see his little town grow. In early 1859, he was shot and killed while defending his Yokut Indian wife from abduction by white settlers who were rounding up local natives to place on reservations. Later that year his ferry operation was sold at auction.

The settlement was given a new name: Kingston.Oliver Bliss took over the ferry business, and built a temporary bridge out of two ferry boats and planking. A permanent bridge was completed in 1873. Until 1872, Kingston was the only commercial center between Fort Miller and Visalia. Early merchants Elias Jacob and Louis Einstein opened their Pioneer Store, which featured a private telegraph line — a high-tech innovation at the time. In its heyday the town had a hotel, two stores, livery stable, blacksmith shop, a pair of saloons, doctor’s office and even a one-mile race track.

All was well until December 26, 1873, when outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang paid a visit to the town just after sundown. A career criminal, Vasquez had terrorized the central part of the state, including numerous robberies and stage holdups. He and his gang of about 10 men split in to three groups, posted guards at the stores and hotel, and proceeded to pillage the town at gunpoint. In about 5 minutes, around 35 townsfolk were tied and robbed of money, jewelry, with safes and money drawers emptied.

As the gang finished up with their take of about $2,500, a shot rang out. In Spanish, one of the bandits cried, “I am shot!” Rancher John Sutherland, who was alerted of the raid, shot him in the thigh. Sutherland and others gave chase to the gang, which fled across the bridge. A posse was formed the next morning. All but one of Vasquez’s men escaped.

News of the raid sent the state into high alert. Governor Newton Booth offered a $3,000 reward on Vasquez alive, or $2,000 dead. After a few more robberies, Vasquez’s luck ran out. On May 14, 1874, he was severely wounded in a fierce gun battle with Los Angeles County sheriff deputies. He survived, but he was hung for his crimes on May 18, 1875.

Kingston languished after the raid, lasting only a few short years until the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad that bypassed Kingston. The site of Kingston, on Douglas Avenue, south of Laton, rests in a now closed Kings County park, where a historical landmark sits, and nearby farmland.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: A peach orchard grows on the site of the ghost town of Kingston in Kings County, south of Laton.