For 44 years now, it’s been there, big and bold, on a concrete column rising from the Colorado River. The column is one of several holding up a railroad bridge that links the states of California and Arizona by train in Parker, AZ. It reads: “KEN, TUFF RIVER RATZ”. You can’t miss it. For over four decades, this inscription has greeted visitors making the long drive out from metro Southern California to spend weekends playing in the cool river water, and, for about that long, people have been wondering who on earth Ken Tuff is.
Now, Parker Live has the whole story. Meet Tuff! He and his friend Ken drove down to the bridge on a dune buggy with three other friends and propped an eight-foot ladder up there in the late summer of 1972. They were just teenagers at the time.
“We were lifelong friends,” Tuff, 61, told Parker Live. “We met when I was 10, at the river. I grew up in Inglewood and he grew up in Orange.”
“When we first met we were really into motorcycles,” he said. “And when we got a little bit older, our parents let us race. So me and Ken were really, really close. That’s why we put ‘River Ratz’ [on the bridge], we had ‘River Ratz’ on our helmets and stuff.”
What followed was that rarest kind of friendship that lasted through all of life’s big changes: moving houses, getting new jobs, getting married, having kids. Ken and Tuff got together frequently as they each went through their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
“We always stayed in touch,” Tuff said. “We even kept going to the river together off and on. Unfortunately we lost him in 2012 to prostate cancer.”
As Jayne Smith told Parker Live, “Ken was my husband for 35 years. We have three children, Melissa, Ryan and Eric. Ken passed away from prostate cancer at 58 on April 19th, 2012. He is missed by many and I hope [the inscription] stays there forever.”
Many others beside his wife wrote messages to say that Ken was a beloved family member, friend and ‘river rat’ throughout his life. Many talked about knowing Tuff and made similar comments about him. As for painting the bridge, Tuff remembers the night it happened.
“I remember it was a Saturday night and it might have been 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “Ken painted ‘Ken’ and ‘Tuff’ and then I painted the ‘River Ratz’ [underneath]”.
There were two other names written near the end of the column, for a total of 4 names. “There was a fifth guy, one of our neighbors, but he didn’t put his name on the bridge.”
Tuff got his nickname as early as 2 years old, when he would have a scowl on his face walking across hot sand at the river. Today, people often want to meet him because of the bridge inscription, he said, telling the story of a bartender who wanted to take pictures with him when she found out he was the person whose name was so famously on the bridge. “She lived in Big River so she passed it every day.”
He added: “I’d get friends, family members, work people, acquaintances and they’d drive by and see it and call and just ask if that was me.”
Tuff stays in touch with Ken’s wife to this day, and continues to visit the Parker area often.
Listen to our interview on the Parker Livecast at the top of this article. Our original post asking who Ken Tuff is can be found HERE. Thanks to Tuff, Jayne and Tuff’s daughter-in-law Ashley for getting in touch.