A big rig driver hauling a pressurized propane tank trailer went off a curve Friday night on Wards Ferry Road on a narrow, winding, single-lane section of the former miner-mule trail, and slid 500 feet down a brushy slope toward the Tuolumne River.

It was the latest mishap on a dangerous road with a past — fabled and terrible — that dates back to the earliest days of Tuolumne County.

The driver, Michael P. Rusch, 53, of Bakersfield, sustained minor injuries, climbed back up to the road, walked to a ranch home and called for help, according to California Highway Patrol personnel based in Jamestown.

Authorities, including Tuolumne County environmental health and roads engineers, working with the CHP, have closed Wards Ferry Road indefinitely while they and a cleanup contractor working for the driver’s employer, Transco Logistics, try to figure out how to safely deal with 8,800 gallons of pressurized propane, leaking diesel fuel, and retrieval of the truck-trailer combination. The closure is between Powell Ranch Road on the north side of the Tuolumne River and Thiel Road on the south side of the river.

Investigators have scrambled down to the crash site and ensured the propane tank trailer is unruptured, CHP Sgt. Randy Matyshock, incident commander for the crash and its aftermath, said Wednesday.

Rusch was hospitalized briefly at Adventist Health Sonora, and he was resting Tuesday evening at home in Bakersfield, his wife said in a phone interview. Rusch had multiple appointments with doctors Wednesday. His wife referred questions to a safety manager with Transco Logistics, Tom Davis, who declined to say where Rusch was trying to go when he crashed.

Matyshock said an investigation is ongoing, and it remains to be determined if Rusch will be cited.

Rusch was trying to drive Wards Ferry Road from the East Sonora side south to reach the Big Oak Flat-Groveland area, Matyshock said. He likely drove past a neon yellow road sign on Wards Ferry Road at Richards Ranch Road that warns:


Steep Grades, Narrow One Lane Road

No Turnouts

Autos with Trailer, Buses & Trucks

Not Recommended Next 9 Miles

Use State Highway 120

That sign and similar warning signs have been there on Wards Ferry Road for years, Matyshock said. Including the big rig crash Friday night, there have been 23 collisions on Wards Ferry Road since January 2015, CHP Officer Michael Huddleston said Wednesday.

None of those 23 crashes were fatal, but many people have died on Wards Ferry Road and at Wards Ferry since 1850, the year the ferry was built by Joseph Ward.

Murderers Gulch

Ward and multiple toll collectors were murdered there, historians say, between 1850 and the 1890s. Wards Ferry Road and the deep canyon it traverses was so notorious for cold-blooded bandits, robbers and assassins that many locals, law enforcement officers and newspapers called it simply Murderers Gulch.

The single lane track called Wards Ferry Road remains notorious for its dangers to this day. A Sierra Nevada Geotourism web page devoted to “Wards Ferry Bridge Swimming Hole Tuolumne River” has 14 of 16 comments between March 2014 and December 2018 that describe the road as dangerous, very dangerous, extremely dangerous, terrifying, a frightful drive, a nightmare, and “the most dangerous road I have ever driven on, be it in US, Europe, Australia or India.”

Multiple people who commented on the same thread, including tourists headed for Yosemite National Park, said they ended up on Wards Ferry Road because their GPS or phone map apps directed them to what appeared to be a shortcut between Sonora and Groveland, or vice-versa.

The earliest available accounts of 1850s-era Sonora, Big Oak Flat and Garrote, an early name for Groveland, note the Gold Rush was fierce in these new towns. Miners and traders wanted a more direct route to get from Sonora to the fast-growing diggings on the south side of the Tuolumne River, something faster than the established route through Chinese Camp, Moccasin and up to Big Oak Flat.

Foot trails established by Me-Wuk and other native people predated miners’ and pioneers’ efforts to get across the Tuolumne River at the bottom of this canyon-walled chasm. Joseph Ward built his ferry in 1850 about a quarter-mile downstream from the current bridge, from hand-cut logs, and he ran the ferry himself, according to Lawrence Shepherd’s “Wards Ferry” report for CHISPA, the Tuolumne County Historical Society quarterly.

The pack trail to reach the ferry climbed steeply up slopes on each side of the river. Ward charged 25 cents each for people on foot and 50 cents per horseback passenger. Ward was murdered for his profits in gold dust in 1853, Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann reported in their 1955 book, “The Big Oak Flat Road.”

Escaped murderer

In late 1853, escaped murderer Robert Bruce, convicted of killing a rival at a Sonora fandango house, made it from the county jail near downtown Sonora to Wards Ferry, where a fellow passenger turned out to have been on the jury that convicted Bruce, according to Shepherd. The former juror recognized the escaped felon, a struggle ensued, Bruce was shot in the side, he jumped into the river, swam to shore and hid in the brush. A lawman found Bruce and he was returned to Sonora to face his sentence to death by hanging.

Times were hard for many newcomers to rugged Tuolumne County and the deep canyons blocked their progress. In October 1854, a justice of the peace in the Big Oak Flat area noted the murder of Lorenzo Barba, identified as a Mexican, found dead on the road leading from Deer Flat to Wards Ferry on the Tuolumne River.

“He was murdered in the trail, having been shot in the back of the head, and dragged up a ravine, or gulch, about 50 yards, where he was found, lying on his face, having been dead several days,” a notice in The Union Democrat reported.

A warrant was issued for the arrest of two Californians,who were acquitted of any connection with the murder. A week later, another man identified as a Mexican, Esteban Rivas, was found murdered on the road between First Garrote and Second Garrote, above Wards Ferry. Rivas had just returned from Sonora, where he’d purchased a new revolver and a bowie knife. He left First Garrote alone, and was found dead one mile away.

“No clue could be obtained as to the perpetrators, and the bloody deed remains a mystery,” The Union Democrat reported. “There is evidently a gang of professional cut-throats and robbers, who range between San Antonio, in Calaveras County, and Hornitos and Bear Valley, in Mariposa. It is probably that the deceased was waylaid and murdered by these desperadoes, for the purpose of robbery.”

More toll collectors murdered

By 1854, James Berger and Sam White were running Wards Ferry and a store carrying miners’ supplies. They kept their gold dust profits unpretentiously in a baking powder can, according to Paden and Schlichtmann.

Berger and White were murdered in 1859, and their baking powder can disappeared with the killers. Then a man named Tuttle ran the ferry and collected fares in gold dust, and he, too, was murdered for his toll receipts in the 1860s.

Robbery and violence were common on this new route from Sonora to Garrote. This is when locals first began calling it Murderers Gulch. The new route was shorter than the established route, through Chinese Camp, Moccasin and up to Big Oak Flat, and it was also much more dangerous. Despite its reputation and the very real dangers, more and more people used it.

“Why go clear down to Chinese Camp and climb up again by way of Moccasin Hill when, by means of even a rough and unattractive trail, one could travel more directly?” Paden and Schlichtmann wrote.

Countless miners, afoot and mounted, came by way of Wards Ferry, and Murderers Gulch was infested with highwaymen and bandits. Travelers tried to make this part of their journey in groups, being careful they knew their companions, “but many a lone man left his bones to be scattered by coyotes in the thick growth beside the trail,” Louise Nau noted in a 1970 CHISPA article, “Tuolumne County’s Pioneer Ferries.”

Improving the road

Efforts were made to improve the Murderers Gulch route, for travel and safety. The Wards Ferry trail was still steep and rugged, and not yet suitable for wagons. By January 1879, local entrepreneurs had a wire suspension toll bridge, with stone and mortar abutments, in place at Wards Ferry. The upgraded road was reported to be in fair condition for light travel, and in need of more turnouts and widening in places.

Shepherd notes the 1879 road is almost the exact route the present paved road follows. That means Wards Ferry Road today still descends and ascends blind-curve switchbacks laid out 140 years ago, before the first internal combustion automobiles were built, in Germany in 1885, and in Massachusetts in 1893.

Back in 1879 the new toll bridge fees were 25 cents for those on foot, 50 cents per horse and rider, a dollar for two horses and a wagon, $1.50 for six to eight mule or oxen teams, and $1.75 for 12-animal teams.

Then in February 1891, toll-keeper Charles Pease and a visiting friend, B.N. Lowe, were robbed, shot to death, and burned in the wood toll house next to the bridge. Fire spread to the bridge and the structure was destroyed. A replacement iron bridge was completed in November 1897.

Migrating native salmon remained plentiful in the Tuolumne River at Wards Ferry Bridge into the late 19th century, before downstream dams cut off their return. Shepherd notes each autumn the river was teeming with strong, beautiful fish fighting upstream to their ancestral waters. Salmon were so numerous at Wards Ferry Bridge, locals could spear enough fish with a pitchfork to smoke, dry and last through the winter.

Still Murderers Gulch

The current Wards Ferry Road Bridge at the bottom of the Tuolumne River canyon dates to the 1970s. Today it’s a takeout point for whitewater rafting expeditions and it’s covered with graffiti that includes whimsical platitudes, curse words and racial epithets.

The place is still known to some as Murderers Gulch because in August 2007, David Roy Stanton, 29, of San Andreas allegedly shot his housemate, Jon Flaherty, 29, at a property off Wards Ferry Road, at Old Wards Ferry Road on the north side of the Tuolumne River, put Flaherty in Flaherty’s sister’s pickup, and pushed or drove it off a cliff into the canyon above Wards Ferry, on the south side of the Tuolumne River.

Authorities said Stanton jumped from the moving pickup, took a red kayak from the pickup, and paddled downriver past law enforcement officers approaching in a boat from Moccasin Point Marina on Don Pedro Reservoir. Stanton was eventually arrested, convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 40 years in prison in July 2008. The California Supreme Court rejected his appeal in April 2010. State corrections records show Stanton is currently held at Mule Creek State Prison and he’s eligible for parole in March 2038.

Eric Erhardt is the new assistant administrative officer for Tuolumne County, and he says county environmental health and roads engineers are supporting CHP in their command of the current closure on Wards Ferry Road.

Cooperating agencies on the Friday night propane truck crash and cleanup include the California Highway Patrol-Sonora Area, Tuolumne County Division of Environmental Health, Tuolumne County Engineering and Roads Operations, the Tuolumne County Fire Department,Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, and the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.