The small town of Dover had a short life but while in existence had a well-deserved reputation as a wild river town.
Dover was founded sometime around 1866 and 1868. It was built to provide freight shipping facilities on the San Joaquin River for the local grain growers and other products. The location of Dover is now on private property about one half mile east of where the San Joaquin River crosses Highway 165 (Lander Avenue). Located on the north side of the river adjacent to a large bend. The nearest shipping point before Dover was at Hill’s Ferry downstream in Stanislaus County.
In 1869, the town was laid out and steamboats began stopping, although the town was not officially surveyed for another year. The shallow draft riverboats could continue upstream as far as Skaggs Bridge, which was about 10 miles west of Fresno. The riverboats were able to operate about 7-8 months out of the year, depending on the water flow.
The dover location was an important and popular stopping point for stage travel on the route from Visalia to Gilroy. With the expected rapid growth of the town several homes were built or moved there some as far away as Snelling. The town also gained a reputation as a rather wild river town. Riverboat crew men were known to be hard drinkers and folks that had the reputation of being on the wild side. Therefore the town was described with the phrase, “Good booze, bad women and fast horses.” By the end of 1868 there were three saloons in town and the justice of the peace, M.B. Jolley had his work cut out for him. Before long though there may have been as many as seven saloons to serve the population.
The town grew rapidly with the establishment of a post office from 1870 thru 1874. There was also Soper’s Hotel, Simpson Store, a dry goods store, a full-service meat market and a livery and feed stable. With at least 20 families living in the community there was a need for a school to educate the children. The Jefferson School was soon built by the residents of Dover.
The steamboats that navigated the river were the shallow draft smaller paddlewheel type mostly no longer than 100 feet. With the water flow
being so variable the river traffic was destined not to last. The establishment of railroads, in 1872, would take much of the business from the riverboats. With the diminished need of the riverboats the town of Dover soon disappeared. The hotel, stable and a one store moved to Dickinson Ferry a short distance upstream. Other buildings were moved to other locations including Bear Creek and Merced. By 1874 very little remained of the one-time boomtown of Dover and totally gone by 1888.
A levee now follows the river protecting the adjacent farm land from flooding. The levee goes through where the town used to be and all that remains are a few concrete remnants. On the opposite side of the river from the old town site is part of the Great Valley Grasslands State Park.
Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.