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Monday, August 07, 2000

Denverton was once known as Nurse’s Landing

Jerry Bowen


Every day thousands of travelers and strung-out commuters zoom past a road sign on Highway 12 that points to Denverton Road not far from the Western Railroad Museum. Should you choose to leave Highway 12 here, a fading and dusty street sign on this quiet road greets you declaring this to be the “Rio Vista-Denverton Road.” An old ranch, a couple of newer structures and a bridge over a swampy waterway are all that occupy the quiet lane.

This quick detour into history ends in less than a mile at a stop sign just before you fling your vehicle back onto busy Highway 12 and the harsh reality of today. It is hard to believe now, but you just passed through the sprawling and once thriving community of Denverton.

This patch of almost forgotten real estate was first known as Nurse’s Landing, then renamed Denverton in 1858 to honor a member of Congress from the district, J. W. Denver. The dubious honor was for his part in supporting the land squatters by opposing a bill in Congress to confirm all existing land grants under ten leagues.

The Denverton site lies about nine miles east of Fairfield at what was once the head of navigation of Nurse’s slough. The 1878 Thompson and West map shows “Nurse’s Slough” passing through the center of town with a bridge crossing it. On today’s maps the tributary has since been designated as “Denverton Slough.”

Perhaps the most interesting account of Denverton is about its industrious founder, S. K. Nurse who was born in New York in 1820. He taught school in Michigan and New York from 1839 to 1840, then in Ohio for two years where he also worked as a farmhand.

In 1842 he studied medicine and dentistry and worked as a traveling dentist until 1847, when he moved to Springfield, Illinois where he was employed as a telegraph operator. In 1848 he left for California via the Panama Canal arriving in San Francisco during the gold rush.

From 1849 to 1852, he mined for gold, ran a stage line for L. B. Mizner and worked in South America as a surveyor for a railroad company.

After returning from South America he lived in Benicia for a short time and finally settled in Montezuma Township, where he built a 144 square foot house, the first building in what would become known as Nurse’s Landing.

In 1855 he was elected to the first Solano County Board of Supervisors. He was also a member of the Masonic Order and was a member and Master of Benicia Lodge, No. 5; one of the oldest in the State.

A post office was established at Denverton in 1858 with Dr. Nurse serving as postmaster for the next 21 years. The post office closed in 1911.

S. K. Nurse’s brother, D. A. Nurse, who had also been living in Denverton was killed in 1862 when the steamship Golden Gate burned and sank off the coast of Mexico while he and his wife were making a trip to the East. Mrs. Nurse was rescued and returned to Denverton. In the following year she and S. K. Nurse were married.

Nurse erected a brick store in 1866, followed by a 100 foot-long wharf, later increasing it to 300 feet. In 1867 he attempted to establish a grain shipping port by erecting a large hay warehouse and a 60 by 160 foot brick warehouse near the wharf with a storage capacity of 2,500 tons of grain. With some of the best farmland for growing grain, the town’s prospects for growth appeared firmly established. But, as was the case in so many other rising Solano communities, changes in transportation routes and methods would spell disaster for the town’s future prospects.

The coming of the California Pacific Railroad signaled the long slow decline of Denverton. It was far more economical to ship by rail than by water. In addition, nearby Collinsville had better river access for shipping, a factor which also contributed heavily to the demise of the community.

In 1875, Dr. Nurse constructed a telegraph line from Denverton to Suisun for his own convenience. In the following year the line was merged into the Montezuma Telegraph Co. Later, the line was extended from Rio Vista to Suisun via Collinsville, Birds Landing, and Denverton. It was 35 miles in length, and had six offices with Dr. Nurse as president, and Dr. M. Pietrzycki, of Rio Vista as vice-president.

In 1878 the town had a store and a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright, a meat market, a hotel, a school-house, and a Good Templars Hall.

Religious services, the mainstay of all the early communities, had its beginning with Sunday school in 1864. In 1870, the Cumberland Presbyterians erected a church about halfway between Denverton and Birds Landing. It was destroyed by fire in 1875 and rebuilt a year later. Today, the Shiloh Church, stands as a silent sentinel over the prairie as a testament to the past. Its well maintained cemetery serves as the final resting place for many of the area’s early pioneers. In 1955 the church was restored and designated as a historic landmark and is maintained by members of the Montezuma 4H Club.

When Highway 40 (now I-80) was being built, Denverton was bypassed by a secondary road, today’s Highway 12.

As you cross the bridge on the Denverton road, pause from your daily routine, look down the waterway and imagine what it was like to see the shallow-draft boats pulling alongside Nurse’s wharf a few hundred yards upstream. Just below are the decaying pilings that once supported the old wooden bridge in the center of town. To your right on the Highway 12 side of the road was the school and hotel and across the street a store and several residences. On the left was the Good Templars Hall where the seeds of Temperance were sown in these early days. Today it is all just a another memory of Solano County’s past, a past filled with the frail building blocks of a community that was doomed to failure from the start.

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It’s a small world. I had just returned from a trip to eastern Nevada when I received a call from Mrs. Florence McDougal of Lovelock, Nevada. Once a resident of Birds Landing, she corrected the date of operation of the Blackwelder shop from the 1930s to 1940s (See article dated 7/9/00). During a very enjoyable conversation she also told me that Leona Benjamin is a descendant of the Blackwelders.

Even though the McDougals do not live in the area any more, their pride in their old home town was easy to detect. Thanks for the info and great conversation Florence.

I also received an E-mail from MaryBell O’Connell at the Rio Vista Museum. She corrected the item in the Rio Vista story about the ferry that went from Rio Vista to “Sherman’s Island.” It should have been “Ryer Island.” Thank you MaryBell.

For you folks that haven’t visited the fabulous Rio Vista Museum, you should put it on your “must-do” list. It is open on weekends from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and is located at 16 North Front Street.