In the 1860s and ’70s many immigrant families were looking for locations to settle and make a good living. Stage roads were established and many small communities were started.
Dickenson Ferry/Bridge/Chester were one of these communities. Dickenson Ferry had several names over time, once known as Cottonwood Ford and later called Chester. It was located on the San Joaquin River about 3.5 miles north of the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center. The visitor’s center is located on Wolfsen Road about 2.6 miles off of Highway 165 (Mercy Springs Road), Wolfsen Road is 6.4 miles north of Pacheco Blvd. The beautiful visitor’s center will be on your left. Staying on the main tour route, on the refuge, going past the visitor’s center and the elk enclosure, you will come to a sign that will guide you to the Chester Marsh Trail. (Trail is open from Feb. 15 through Sept. 15) From the parking lot it is a short walk to where the town and ferry service was located. The location is on the eastern side of the refuge and a couple of miles north of the elk enclosure. This area was once part of Rancho San Luis Gonzaga.
George Winchester Dickenson established a ferry service there in 1878 that crossed the San Joaquin River. During that period, the river carried much more water than it does currently. Crossing the river was done on a barge attached to a cable. This crossing was one of the more important transportation services in the area. There also existed a flourishing steamship freight and passenger service that utilized this site. Smaller, shallow draft, steamboats passed through on their way up the river to pick up and deliver freight some as far south as the Fresno area. This site was very important as it served as a connector between the west side of the valley, Los Banos, and the east side, Merced creating a means of crossing the San Joaquin River. The ferry had a steady flow of travelers in the first couple of years but by 1880 the town name was changed to Chester and Dickenson Ferry came to an end.
Chester had an express office, hotel, store and a stable. The hotel and stable were moved from the little town of Dover, six miles downstream, in 1880. The Chester Hotel was established on the east bank and became a site for many social gatherings drawing guests from all over the valley. In 1884, a wooded turnstile bridge was built to replace the ferry service. When a steamboat approached the bridge was turned by hand using a long metal bar. When the river is low the old bridge pilings can be seen from the river bank. George Dickenson remained as operator of the bridge and also was the first postmaster. The post office continued until 1886 when it merged with Los Banos.
There was always an access problem with this location because of annual flooding. Roads were impassable many years during spring time runoff. Henry Miller offered to raise the level of the roads, at his expense but the offer was rejected by the county. With the construction of better alternative routes the importance of the Chester Bridge became less important and the town soon faded. The Dickenson Ferry/Chester site were abandoned in the early 1900s. The bridge was removed in 1902 and all that remains are the old pilings.
There are many wonderful old stories about the many small communities that were, at one time, in our area. There are many more to write about, and we hope you all enjoy them as much as we enjoy gathering the information about these places and getting images of the old locations. If you know of any places you want us to research and write about please let us know. You can send information to Jim Cunningham at [email protected].
Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.