Meet Tuff! The real story behind the names on the Parker bridge

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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.”

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“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.”

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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.

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26 comments

  1. Melissa Mears

    Ken Tuff!!! Kyle Mears Janine Bancroft-Saunders Jason Saunders Brian Ofcacek Ryan Neally

  2. Crystal Turley

    This is an awesome story. Thanks for writing it. I have always wondered about who Ken and Tuff were.

  3. Chad Agredano

    Jon have you ever noticed?

  4. Thank you so much for this article! Miss my dad very much! Love Tuff, he reminds me so much of my dad!

  5. William F. Diekmann

    Very cool, so glad I finally got to hear the story. And see the ol river rat himself. I guess only a true river rat would know that story now. Lol..

  6. Lyn Landgren

    Love this!! Always wondered about the people who put that there…
    Laurie Holt Dickey

  7. Thanks Keith, Juanita & John for sharing. I have only wondered for about 26 years!

  8. Don "Dinker" Martin

    I came to Parker as a 10 day old baby in May of 1940. I’ve seen many things and wonder about more. I’ve heard so many stories about the signs on the bridge. I glad this 44 year mystery is solved. Thanks for the story.

  9. Ryan Neally

    Awesome story! Mystery solved

  10. Marchie Biggs

    Love these stories from Parker. My old stompin grounds. Thanks for sharing

  11. Melanie Archer

    Great story mystery solved in my old home town!

  12. Cheech Pittner

    Yep, that’s him. RIP Ken.

  13. Marlena Baurmann Fredenburg

    Interesting! Love this story. Margaret Baurmann Michelle Baurmann Heidi Baurmann Lund Fred Baurmann Kyle Fredenburg Kodey Fredenburg

  14. Emmy Lopez

    Tami Sambrano look at this thats my uncle, Tuff!

  15. Tuff, I’m living at the River full time now. So is Sandy. Let’s get together! Love to see you. I miss your dad so much. He meant so much to me. Your Pal, Peter

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