History of El Dorado County bridges

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California, from El Dorado Co. birth, marriage, death and land records and often from interviews.

A couple weeks ago, I took a ride over to Lotus and Coloma. Mainly because I have a deep appreciation and natural curiosity for what everyday life was like for our ancestors, my internal antenna is always on sensory alert for story ideas when I'm out and about and this day was no exception.

As Lotus Road leads into Coloma, it crosses the south fork of the American River. As I approached the bridge, I thought about the fact that hundreds of motor vehicles pass over it every day. The occupants of those vehicles give no thought to their painless and silent crossing of this non-descript structure.

I began to imagine what an obstacle that river must have been in the mid-1800s. The river, along with the many other streams in the county, having their source high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, must have at one time been difficult to ford during a good part of the year.

Before 1851, a ferry was the only alternative to wading or swimming across. I found out that as near as anyone can figure, the ferry crossing that particular section of the American River was probably the first in the county.

In those days, the construction of a ferry was done by mostly catch-as-catch-can means and was accomplished using primitive materials and clumsy construction. Using whatever lent itself to the task was the rule. Ferry operators had to be ingenious, using whatever materials they could find. Old ships and boats of all sizes were used as well as the beds of cast-off emigrants' wagons that had come to the end of their transcontinental journey. Often, a simple raft was lashed together and a cable strung across the waterway for steering.

Although it sounds like a crude and inexpensive setup, the actual costs were high to the ferry owner. The water conveyance itself was probably the least of his worries. He had to grade a road on both sides of the river. He had to build enough road so that it connected to other roads, thereby laying out the invitation to use his ferry. It was truly a business and the ferry owner conducted it as such, charging fees that were often considerable.

As for that particular ferry probably being the first in the county, the argument in favor figures that it must have been the connecting link in one of the oldest and heaviest-traveled roads in the region - Sacramento, Coloma and Georgetown, by way of Alabama Flat and Johntown.

In February 1851, that first ferry was replaced by the county's first bridge, which crossed from Coloma to the village of North Coloma. John T. Little, who would later make his home in San Francisco, was the proprietor of the old ferry. When E.T. Raun came along wanting to erect a bridge, Little sold him his interest and the rights to that spot.

Raun immediately went to work, constructing a common truss structure, measuring three spans and 16 feet in breadth. The resulting bridge, though roughly constructed, withstood the common occurrence of flooding for several years before, in the fall of 1855, Raun built a new bridge of the same proportions, set up on a much higher foundation and of stronger and more substantial construction than the old one. He thought it would be safe from any flooding, and while he owned it, he was lucky enough to be correct. But, the following year, he sold out his interest in this and some other bridges he owned to R.A. Pearrris and A.H. Richards, who were the unfortunate owners when the spring flood of 1862 took the bridge out.

In the fall, the two men began construction of another bridge on the same spot. Working to beat the weather, they finished by December.

As if doomed from the beginning, this bridge too, soon went the way of the river's raging currents, drowning any lingering desire to see a crossing at this juncture. By 1880, no further attempt had been made to provide passage across the water for wagons and other conveyances. The simple construction of a frail and narrow wire suspension bridge, for those on foot, was the only method besides wading, for fording the river at this spot.

Today, all memory of those early difficulties are largely forgotten. Most drivers, intent on the scenery or the music pouring out of their car speakers, don't even realize how easy they have it. I can just imagine John Little's ghost chuckling as he watches.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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