The history of bridges spanning the San Joaquin River north of Fresno is long, but also short. There have been only four in 130 years, and two of them have been called Lane’s Bridge.
The discovery of gold on the San Joaquin River around 1850 helped push settlers into the region. The first shantytown thrown up around the mining activity was called Rootville, then Millerton, on the river’s south side upriver from present-day Friant Dam. A military outpost, Fort Miller (for which Millerton was named), was soon established, also on the south side of the river.
Stage and freight routes came south from San Francisco and Sacramento. When they reached the northern banks of the San Joaquin, they encountered a wide river — a far cry from what it’s like today in a post-Friant Dam era, especially during the runoff season. Crossing was easier much farther upriver, as it widened in the flat Valley. But that meant adding many miles to an already difficult journey.
At first, travelers used ferries to reach Rootville and Fort Miller. Usually these were large flat-bottomed, raft-type vessels, even converted whaling boats, that were likely sailed as far south as they could go on the river, then hauled to Millerton. Crossings employed cables tethered at each bank, usually to a large tree or rock outcropping, and a block and tackle to move the crude crafts across the currents.
But the ferries were limited. Moving significant loads or a big herd of livestock meant multiple trips. And they were vulnerable to floods such as the one on Christmas Eve 1867 that wiped out a good part of Millerton including the ferry businesses.
The first bridge across the San Joaquin River was built in 1883 downriver at the village of Hamptonville (later named Friant). It cost $10,000, which its builders expected to recoup in tolls. It was in a rocky canyon named by early day miners for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, a superstar of her day who captivated the nation when she toured the United States in 1850.
The wooden Jenny Lind bridge was only wide enough to allow one wagon at a time to cross and deemed frail and dangerous by the time it was ordered demolished in 1905. The following year, Fresno County’s first reinforced concrete arched bridge was built at the same site. It stood for decades until it fell in a flood.
As commerce and population grew, the locals saw the need for a more substantial bridge to serve growing foothill traffic from the mines, sawmills and ranches and travelers to Yosemite and the redwood groves. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved plans for such a bridge in 1888 and nearly $30,000 was raised in bonds to build an 800-foot truss bridge. It was named the Yosemite Bridge for the main road it served and stood about a mile upriver from today’s modern Yosemite highway, Highway 41.
Completed in 1889, the wide span was constructed of heavy timbers resting on hollow iron cylinders — about 4 feet across — driven into the ancient riverbed and filled with concrete. The roadbed was topped with a series of steel, “truss” triangular load-bearing superstructures.
The eastern approach to the bridge was near the homestead of pioneer rancher Joseph P. Lane, who came to the county in the late 1860s. A son, Ed Lane, went into business on high ground near the bridge in 1894, setting up a general merchandise store, lodging house, feed stable and eating house to accommodate travelers on the Yosemite highway. Because of Lane’s Station, the nearby bridge soon became known as Lane’s Bridge.
The bridge started to show its age after decades of shouldering heavy freight teams loaded with timber, ore and grain, along with normal traffic. In 1917, timbers beneath Dave Jones’ loaded wagon gave way. Miraculously, Jones, his wagon and mules were unharmed, but part of a herd of cattle fell to the river far below. Repairs were made and traffic resumed.
Lanes Bridge survived the flood that began Dec. 11, 1937, when heavy rains melted a heavy snowpack, turning the San Joaquin into a raging torrent. In a matter of hours, the flow rate went from 5,000 feet per second to nearly 38,000 fps. Up and down the region, rivers and streams raged over their banks, flooding 30 towns, leaving thousands homeless, causing damage in the tens of millions of dollars, including the destruction or damage of several bridges. Battered and damaged, Lane’s was repaired again and put back into service.
The death knell for the old span came on July 15, 1940. A truck and trailer loaded with a steam shovel and sand crashed through a 160-foot center section of the bridge into the river below. John Hart, the truck driver, was injured. A truck and a car traveling behind Hart were able to stop in time. About 30 fishermen on the bridge also survived.
Rotting timbers and rusting iron were found, and the call for demolition of the 51-year-old landmark soon followed. That hastened construction of a new, $235,000 bridge — already in the planning stages — downriver about a mile. Traffic was routed to the Friant bridge crossing upriver during construction.
The new bridge, officially named Lane’s Bridge, stands today adjacent to the Highway 41 bridge. At the dedication on Oct. 13, 1941, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Ernest Klette recalled crossing the San Joaquin by ferry as a boy and then hailed the future: “Fresno is one of the most fortunately located cities in the United States for tourist travel, and it is only a matter of time until millions of tourists will travel through here en route to the national parks and the wilderness country.”