The Delta is located in Northern California and is called the “Delta” because it forms a triangle of waterways from Sacramento (North) to Stockton (East) to Benicia (West), and Tracy to the South. Please contact us if you have any questions about getting to points in the Delta. The Google Map below is placed in the approximate center of the Delta. You also can see it on our homepage and see local business and events on the map as well.
Cities and towns such as Old Sacramento, Stockton, Freeport, Locke, Walnut Grove, Isleton, Ryde, Rio Vista and the many others listed cast a certain magical spell upon visitors. It is not difficult to visualize how they were in historical times 130 years ago. Some have changed little. Please come and visit the cities and towns of the California Delta. Stay long enough to get to know them. Yes, hang around for a spell. Click one of the cities below for more information!
Antioch, sits at the juncture of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. It was founded in 1849 by brothers William and Joseph Smith, and at one time boasted large asparagus canneries. In times past, coal was mined in the hills behind Antioch and brought down to its wharf by locomotives. The first Antioch Bridge to Sherman Island, a tower bridge, was built in 1926. Antioch has plenty of marine activity, marinas, boatyards, several yacht clubs and more. There is a public fishing pier in town and another out near the Antioch Bridge. Marinas in the bridge area include Lauritzen Yacht Harbor, run by third-generation family members, members. A neighboring marina is Driftwood Yacht Harbor. Antioch has July 4th fireworks, an annual Rivertown Jamboree, and a lighted boat Christmas Parade. Chamber 925/757-1800.
Bethel Island, a unique island community in the Central Delta. Much of the perimeter of this island is ringed with marinas, resorts, and private waterfront homes. Bethel Island has boatyards, chandleries, bait shops, RV parks, a golf course, waterside restaurants, dry-boat storage, and more. It is a resort community, the most populous of the inner Delta islands. Access is over a single two-lane bridge over Dutch Slough leading to the island. Next to Bethel Island is Franks Tract “Lake,” island farmland that was inundated in 1938 and never has been recovered. The lake now is an undeveloped part of the State Parks system. It provides good fishing and duck hunting. Bethel Island events include the Frozen Bun Run New Year’s morning, an Opening Day Parade (by San Joaquin Yacht Club) in April, the 50s Bash in August, the Thanksgiving Week Fishing Derby in November, and the Lighted Boat Christmas Parade (by San Joaquin YC) in December. Chamber, 925/684-3220.
Bird’s Landing, near Montezuma Slough, is a little fly-speck of a town, the smallest town in the U.S.A. with a post office. Here you will find Mel’s Saloon offers a comfortable respite. The ghost town of Collinsville is a neighbor.
Byron, is a small town in the South Delta established in 1878 as a railroad stop, but that later flourished as an important agricultural town. In earlier times, a nearby resort area was Byron Hot Springs, where during WWII some important Nazi officers were interned and questioned. Nearby Discovery Bay has a Byron address, and its growth in some ways has made Byron a less-quiet (but no less fun) place. There are U-pick farms in the area.
Clarksburg, on the west bank of the Sacramento River, was first settled in 1849 by Judge Robert Clark. It is located on Merrit Island, on which one of the Delta’s earliest levees was built. Later, much of the property in the area was purchased by the Holland Land Company, which introduced its country’s levee-building techniques. Today, Clarksburg is a sleepy agriculture town occupied by folks who have a high regard for the town. Grapes are grown on some of the nearby property along Elkhorn Slough, which dead-ends at the Sacramento River’s stout levee, and there is at least one quality winery in the area. It is fun to prowl the area by automobile.
Courtland, on the east bank of the Sacramento River is a quiet river town, with boating access. This is in the heart of pear orchards that thrive alongside the river. At one time Courtland had a sizeable Chinatown. It has the gala Courtland Pear Fair each year the last Sunday in July.
Discovery Bay, a community (the first new home here was built in 1972) of waterfront homes in the South Delta on Hwy 4. It bears the Byron mailing address. Boating is a way of life here and nearly 4,000 families call it home. Most homes are built next to dug “bays,” have private boat docks at their back yards, with deepwater access to the Delta and beyond. It has a private country club with an 18-hole championship golf course. It boasts a modern marina with about everything you might need (Discovery Bay Yacht Harbor) and it was here that the Delta’s first dry-stack boat storage system was installed. Annual events include the Discovery Bay Boat Show, the first weekend in May, by the local Lions Club.
Freeport, sits on the east bank of the Sacramento River downstream of Sacramento, was founded in 1862 by the Freeport Railroad Company with the plan that it actually would be a “free port” that would avoid the taxes then being levied in Sacramento when passengers and freight were transferred from trains to riverboats (or vice versa). Its grand plans to eclipse Sacramento never materialized, but Freeport remained an important agricultural center anyway. This is a comfortable little town, even though residential and business construction from neighboring Sacramento have marched down the river to its outskirts. Access to Freeport by boat is easy via Freeport Marina. There are restaurants, bait shops and other facilities in town. Just downstream of town is the Freeport Bridge, a bascule-type drawbridge of considerable importance to most everyone living in the area.
French Camp, a growing community south of Stockton, which got its beginning when French trappers came here in 1832. It was named after Hudson Bay Company trapper Michael la Frambois, who came here in 1832 and in many subsequent years. The town predates neighboring Stockton. It sits at the end of French Camp Slough, a marshy slough that feeds into the San Joaquin River above Stockton. Although the slough at one time supported some traffic comprised of small paddlewheel riverboats, it no longer is considered navigable.
Hood, on the east bank of the Sacramento below Freeport, was founded in 1909 by William Hood, a construction engineer for the railroad. Today it is a sleepy town, with a large produce packing shed fronting on the river, but with no access for boaters.
Isleton, a comfortable river town on the east side of Sacramento River, founded in 1874 by Josiah Pool. It was a regular stop for the paddlewheelers, and at one time there were at least five canneries in the area. Isleton’s area of influence is considerable, and the many resorts and marinas on Andrus Island enjoy an Isleton address. Isleton is a fun little town with at least a half-dozen restaurants. Old buildings in its Chinatown are slowly being renovated, and there shops, antique stores, arts & crafts shops and other interesting businesses are being located. Guest docking and a launching ramp (fee) are located in town. Annual Isleton events include the Delta Thunder Boat Races (October) and Isleton Cajun Days over Fathers Day weekend, and Chinese New Year’s Festival, usually in February. Isleton Chamber.
Knightsen, is a sleepy one-time farming community along Hwy 4 in the West Delta, originally established as a stop on the railroad, which even today runs through town. There are some U-pick farms in the area, and Knightsen at one time was known for the walnuts grown in the area.
Lathrop, south of Stockton, is growing in leaps and bounds, even though it does not have a great deal of identity as a town. Its borders extend to the San Joaquin River and beyond. And it is within Lathrop that the ambitious Gold Rush City project is proposed.
Locke, on the east bank of the Sacramento River a mile upstream from Walnut Grove, was built by and for the Chinese in 1915. The town is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the county has done much to help preserve it. It has two restaurants, a store, gift shops, a gambling museum, and Boathouse Marina on the river side. The state has established a rustic park on the “back side” of Locke, along what is informally called Railroad Cut or Locke Slough. At one time, there was a large cannery upstream of Locke.
Lodi, this gentle town of 52,000 sits on the banks of the Mokelumne River at Hwy 12 and Hwy 99. Along with its neighbor, Woodbridge, it has become well known for its vineyards and quality wine. Lodi was founded as a railroad stop in 1869 as Mokelumne Station, but three years later received its present name. In earlier times, several paddlewheeler steamboats made voyages to Woodbridge, but navigation this far up the river never became reliable. Today, a dam at Woodbridge prevents downstream craft from reaching Lodi. But the dam does form Lodi Lake, which includes a park and is a popular recreation area. There is launching, and boaters water ski and run PWCs on this upper portion of the river. Lodi has an active chamber, and its events include boat July 4th fireworks, a Spring Wine Show in March and the popular one-day Lodi Street Faire in May. Chamber 209/367-7840.
Oakley, is a once-sleepy West Delta town founded in 1897 as a railroad stop. It has been rapidly growing in recent years. The marinas along Dutch Slough across from Bethel Island have an Oakley address but identify with Bethel Island. One other marina nearer to town is next to Big Break, farmland that was inundated in 1929 and was never recovered. Many black bass tournaments depart from this area. Note: Oakley just recently gained city status. Chamber 925/625-1035.
Pittsburg, on the Sacramento River just below its juncture with the San Joaquin River, was part of a big land purchase in 1849, and was surveyed by Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman as New York Of The Pacific. It was settled later that year and became known as New York Landing. When coal was discovered in nearby hills, its name was changed to Black Diamond, and then again to Pittsburg in honor of a steel mill located there. Pittsburg has always had a strong Italian heritage. Most of the early Italians there were commercial fishermen, and that became a mainstay of the community, which later supported several canneries. Commercial fishing was over by the 1950s, but Pittsburg survived quite nicely anyway. There are two marinas located downstream in what until recently was known as West Pittsburg but now is Bay Point. The city has a huge marina in town, replete with everything needed by the boater. Big events in Pittsburg are the Pittsburg Seafood Festival in September and the Blues Festival over Memorial Day weekend. Chamber, 925/432-7301.
Rio Vista, a beautiful river town on the west bank of the Sacramento River below Cache Slough. Founded by Colonel N. H. Davis in 1857, Rio Vista originally was located upstream near Cache Slough, but soon was wiped out by floods and moved to its present, more amiable location. No levees sit in front of Rio Vista to spoil the view, and its backdrop is formed by the Montezuma Hills. Its most noted landmark is the beautiful twin towers of the Rio Vista Bridge. This friendly town has a small city guest dock and a downtown launching ramp, although most owners of larger craft prefer to dock just downstream at full-service Delta Marina Yacht Harbor, an easy stroll to town. Rio Vista has shops, restaurants and most anything else you might need, including the nearby Baumann Airport. Fishing is king around here, and this area offers perhaps the best fishing in the Delta. Rio Vista has good bait shops. Rio Vista really got on the world map when it was visited by Humphrey The Wayward Whale in 1982. The town also is noted for its excellent Windsurfing. The big event of the year is the three-day Rio Vista Bass Festival in early October. Chamber, 707/374-2700.
Ryde, population 40, was established in 1891 when W.H. Kessner purchased 40 acres on Grand Island and on it built a small hotel. A settlement grew around it and one of the former land owners was from the Isle of Wight and suggested it be name after a town named Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Although at one time there was a cannery nearby, the 32-room Ryde Hotel hosts most of the action here. It includes a nice guest dock and a small 9-hole golf course. There’s a road that slices across Grand Island, for an easy drive to nearby Hogback Park on Steamboat Slough, with launching and picnic areas. Walnut Grove, Locke and Isleton also are handy to Ryde.
Sacramento, where it all started, traces its humble beginnings to 1839 when Augustus Sutter sailed up the Sacramento River in two small ships and established New Helvetia. The embarcadero that he established at the site of what is now Sacramento, just grew like mushrooms once gold was discovered in 1848 and the rest of the world began to find out about it and head for Sacramento in anything that would float. Sacramento had 150 residents in April of 1849 and over 2,000 by October of that year. Old Sacramento today does not look too much different than it did during those Gold Rush years. You can boat in, enjoy new guest docking, shop or dine in Old Sac, or even tour the state’s fine railroad museum. You’ll find marinas both upstream and downstream of Sacramento, including a beauty run by the city. The biggest annual event here is the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, a four-day musical extravaganza over the Memorial Day holiday.
Stockton, on the San Joaquin River home of the Port of Stockton. Stockton was established in 1847 by Captain Charles Weber. It grew quickly after the discovery of gold, as boats heavy with Argonauts arrived and headed for the Southern Mines. Soon, it also was established as a strong agricultural center for the farming that took place in the nearby reclaimed islands. Stockton also had a lively shipbuilding industry, some of which thrived on through the Korean conflict. During WWII, ten shipyards in Stockton were busy turning out boats for the military. Recreational boating is strong in Stockton today. Two of the finest paddlewheeler steamboats ever built, the Delta King and Delta Queen, were constructed in Stockton. More marinas and yacht clubs are located in the Stockton sphere of influence than in any other part of the Delta. It still is home for the houseboat rental fleets, an activity that got its start back in the 1950s when George Ladd established a fleet of pontoon houseboats at his Buckley Cove marina. Business really got going for Ladd when Sunset Magazine did a favorable write-up on Delta houseboat in the late 1950s. And the long-established River Route mail delivery emanates from the Stockton post office. Andy Smith delivers mail six days a week on a 65-mile water route beginning at Herman & Helen’s Marina. Stockton Chamber, 209/547-2770; Stockton Visitors Bureau, 209/943-1987.
Suisun City, is located at the end of Suisun Slough, where a wonderful new marina occupies the sweeping harbor area. In earlier times, Suisun City was an island, linked to neighboring Fairfield by a causeway. Sailing scows and other commercial traffic called on the port. Suisun means West Wind, originating with the Patwin Indians. The first Americans to sail in were John Baker and Curtis Wilson in 1850. There are plenty of activities in the marina area, including Dixieland Jazz concerts, bathtub races, opening day boat parades, and Christmas lighted boat parades.
Terminous, located at the juncture of Hwy 12, the Mokelumne River’s South Fork, and Little Potato Slough, exists only as a memory these days, although there is considerable evidence of its vibrant past. It virtually was a ghost town in the 1969 when Tower Park Marina was established in the old Western Pacific waterside produce packing sheds that line Little Potato Slough. From here, Delta produce was shipped by rail to all over the nation. Workers lived in a “boxcar” village where Tower Park’s 400-site RV park is located today. Between the marina and the neighboring Tower Park Village, on a warm summer weekend, doubtlessly more people reside here than there ever did during Terminous’ heyday. Two ferries were located at this site, one to Staten Island and the other to Bouldin Island, the latter one being replaced by a swing bridge in 1936. Marine repair, groceries, marine canvas, new and used boat sales, dining, and much more can be found these days in the Terminous area. Tower Park stages its annual DeltaFest, usually the second weekend in May. (The Terminous post office was closed years ago and this area now uses a Lodi address.)
Tracy, in the South Delta, stretching out to include some waterside properties, first established as a railroading town. Tracy might not consider itself a Delta town, but its sphere of influence extends out to many of the Delta waterways, including Grantline Canal, home of Tracy Oasis Marina.
Walnut Grove, on the east bank of the Sacramento River, the only town downstream of Redding situated on both sides of the river. There is definitely a small-town flavor to this wonderful little village. Although agriculture seems to rule here, the Walnut Grove-Locke area is one of the favorite stops for visiting boaters. Marinas and marine facilities abound here, and a new “merchants” guest dock is was completed offering boat docking for visitors. Both Walnut Grove and neighboring Locke, a mile away, have “front doors” facing on the Sacramento River, and “back doors” facing on Snodgrass Slough and other waterways. This back door includes The Meadows anchorage area, as well as Lost Slough and the Mokelumne River, all areas favored by boaters. The two “door” areas are connected by the dug Cross Delta Channel, which has gates that often are closed. When they are open, the channel provides a handy shortcut between the two areas for boats with a height of up to about nine feet. A brochure distributed by the Chamber provides a suggested “Walking Tour of Walnut Grove,” 916/776-1442.
West Sacramento, (formerly Broderick) across the Sacramento River from Sacramento, home of the Port of Sacramento, has been almost like a part of Sacramento from the beginning. By wheeled vehicles, you can flit back and forth across the river via either the handsome Tower Bridge or the venerable double-decker I-Street Bridge. There are plans to build a large marina project (two, as a matter of fact) there on the west side of the river, but not much has happened. There are docks at the old Raley’s Landing, but they are not open to the public.
Indians had lived in the historic California Delta for centuries when the Spaniards first found it in 1772. The region was heavy from spring rains and from their view atop Mount Diablo they thought it to be a huge inland lake. French trappers arrived in 1832, and mountain men like Jedidiah Smith trekked its high ground. But it was the discovery of gold on the American River in Coloma in 1848 that hastened the reclamation and settlement of the Delta. Starting in ’49, paddlewheeler steamboats brought Argonauts to the fledgling waterfront towns of Sacramento and Stockton, who then went overland to the mines. The California Gold Rush was on. History was in the making.
History records that some men disillusioned by their unsuccessful quest for gold, saw gold of another sort if the rich swamplands of the California Delta could be protected from inundation. The first crude levees were built by hand in the early 1850s, but most of them held for no more than a season or two. In the 1870s, the clamshell dredge was developed. It could take solid bottom mud (“slickens”) from the waterway bottoms and deposit it ashore to construct levees of some substance. The California Delta’s reclamation pace soon quickened and by the 1930s it was considered complete. Over 550,000 acres on some 55 man-made islands had been brought to the plow. (But alas, there was no moment in history in which they stopped and looked back at the project and declared, “Boys, reclamation of the Delta is now declared complete.”)
Steamboat service between Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco was convenient and comfortable in that time in history. At one time or another, over 300 paddlewheeler steamboats sloshed their way through Delta waters. During the wet season, it was possible to steam up the San Joaquin River to as far as the outskirts of Fresno, and up the Sacramento River to above Red Bluff. Paddlewheeler pilots would take shortcuts across flooded islands, in what they referred to as “wheatfield navigation.”
The Transcontinental Railroad made history when it was completed in 1869 (the actual final link was the completion of a railroad drawbridge at Mossdale), freeing a work force of some 12,000 persons. Many of them were Chinese who settled in the California Delta to help with levee construction, farming, cannery work, and other chores. Their contribution was great and they left an indelible mark on the history of the California Delta. Chinatowns became an established part of most every river town and city in this area.
By the 1920s, the automobile had arrived. There was a flurry of ferry construction (in one swoop, San Joaquin County installed 18 cable drawn ferries) and bridge-building. Although there had long been ferries in the Delta to take folks on foot or horseback, and horse-drawn wagons and buggies across the waterways, the ferries now also had to be constructed to handle automobiles and trucks. The horse-drawn buggies and wagons were fast being relegated to history. The Lauritzen brothers established what had to be the most exciting of the ferries when they established ferry service from Antioch to Sherman Island. After only a few years, their ferry was replaced by the first Antioch Bridge, a giant lift bridge that in its up position could clear the Stockton bound freighters.
The railroads, which had proven to be tough competition for the steamboats, by the 1930s were finding formidable competition from the refrigerated trucks that could haul Delta produce more conveniently and for less money. By the 1930s, steamboat activity in the Delta was about finished — two of the last of the historic breed, the handsome Stockton built Delta King and Delta Queen (launched in 1927) sternwheelers were taken out of regular service just prior to WWII. The Delta King serves as an elegant restaurant and inn at Old Sacramento, while the Delta Queen sloshes along quite ably in the Mississippi River system.
Fishing and boating had always been a favored pastime for Deltaphiles. After WWII, Californians began to discover the Delta’s recreational possibilities. The regular waterway dredging for levee maintenance, also deepened the waterways, making it possible for deep-draft cruisers to explore the off-beat waterways of the Delta sloughs, rivers and channels. The Stockton Deepwater Channel was completed in 1933, and since then freighters from around the world have been calling on the Port of Stockton. The dug Sacramento Ship Channel was completed in 1963, firmly establishing the Port of Sacramento (located in West Sacramento) in the shipping business. Channels for both of these ports have been further deepened so the ports could handle larger ships.
Pioneers in the California Delta recreation business who made their mark in the history books and still have second- and third-generation family members toiling in the Delta today include Korth’s Pirates Lair, Perry’s Boat Harbor, Vieira’s Resort, and the Andronico family at Frank’s Marina on Bethel Island. Another pioneer family, Bruno Giovannoni (of Bruno’s Yacht Harbor on Andrus Island) has a grandson today who is a windsurfing aficionado and part owner in Windcraft on Sherman Island, and he sells Delta real estate. Vestiges of the California Delta’s vibrant history are not difficult to find today. Museums, large and small are found here and there. Five ferries still exist and may be ridden on free. Drawbridges 50 to 100 years old still function. Beautiful old homes, carefully restored, can be viewed, especially along the Sacramento River.
The Lauritzens — Delta Pioneers.
Lauritzen Yacht Harbor, located in Antioch on the south side of the San Joaquin River downstream of the Antioch Bridge, just celebrated its 40th birthday in 1999. But the Lauritzen family has deep roots in boating in the Delta and the marina is owned and operated by third-generation family members, brother and sister Margaret Lauritzen-Lane and Christian (Chris) Lauritzen III.
In earlier times the Lauritzen Transportation Co. ran a fleet of passenger boats on regular schedules picking up passengers at landings throughout the Delta region. They helped tame the Delta. When the new-fangled automobile became prolific, Lauritzens helped make the Delta accessible by operating a car ferry between Antioch and Sherman Island. The ferry service thrived until in 1926 when it was replaced by the first Antioch Bridge, a lift-type drawbridge. Lauritzens went on to operate tugboats, barges, cranes and other heavy equipment on the river. In fact it was a Lauritzen tugboat that towed the purloined paddlewheeler Delta King from Stockton to Sacramento back in 1969, with Chris II at the wheel and Chris III onboard as a roustabout.
Chris has long been a volunteer reserve member of the Contra Costa Sheriff Water Patrol, and a strong advocate of boating safety. The marina Website, www.lauritzens.com, is heavy with useful information on boating, including the best weather information of any site in the Delta.The marina has open and covered berthing, dry-boat storage, pumpout, launching, fuel (regular and premium), and other facilities. They open early in the morning here to accommodate anglers going out after the big ones.
Delta Farmer Sonny Welser & His B-25 Bomber
The other night I watched the movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” about General Jimmy Doolittle (then a Lt. Colonel) and his men’s daring Apr. 18, 1942 bombing run over Tokyo and other Japanese cities during WWII. They flew sixteen “Mitchell” B-25B bombers off the aircraft carrier Hornet. Fifteen Mitchells ran out of fuel and crashed; one diverted to a safe landing at Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. The movie made me think about the Delta.
First, General Jimmy Doolittle was one of many honored guests over the years at Barron Hilton’s duck club on Venice Island. He enjoyed duck hunting and other activities here.
Second, I remember sitting at the bar at the old Delta Tavern in the hamlet of Holt when farmer Sonny Welser announced he was purchasing a B-25 bomber and having it flown in and parked next to the clubhouse he maintained on his Roberts Island ranch for the Holt Marching and Chowder Society.
This was an invitation-only men’s club. They had great feeds with only the finest foods. They had some high-stakes poker games I am told. They drank a lot of whiskey. I don’t think they ever marched. Sonny liked to declare that they were always available to march in parades in Holt. Holt never had any parades.
I figured the impending bomber purchase was just bar talk. But Sonny built a landing strip out on his ranch, and I expect that it was longer than the deck of an aircraft carrier.
One day at the Delta Tavern bar, Sonny announced the B-25 bomber was arriving the next day. Sure enough, it did. I saw it. I took photos of it. I would judge this to have happened about 1975, give or take a year or two. Although Sonny can remember the bomber’s number (N3438G) he can’t remember just when he bought it or when he sold it.
Surely the club members must have enjoyed it. Although I had been invited, I never did make it to one of the club feeds. I’d judge Sonny owned the aircraft for a couple of years.
(A sidenote: In 1969 eighteen B-25s flew to Guaymas, Mexico to film the movie version of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. Paramount planned to film for six weeks but ended up taking three months to shoot the bomber scenes. The movie opens with a mass takeoff of all eighteen of the B-25s.)
There was always a rumor that Sonny also had a German Panzer tank hidden out on the ranch. Rumor had it that the tank was still fitted with its cannon, and this made it illegal and this is why Sonny had it hidden out. I have talked to people who claim they saw the tank. Sonny would neither confirm nor deny his ownership of such a tank. With Sonny, you could believe this to be a true story. Hal Schell
The Delta waterway labyrinth includes some 1,000 miles of navigable waterways. There are few Deltaphiles who can claim to have traveled every one of those miles by boat. Thus, there always is a bit of the feel of exploration when you set out for a cruise in the Delta, whether it be by boat in the historic waterways, or by car or RV on the “asphalt sloughs” with elegant early style homes as the one on the left tucked comfortably behind the levees.
Today, thousands of boat owners who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond keep boats in the California Delta, and spend as much time as possible on board them — just messing around. If any of our members can help you make your messing around a bit more meaningful, please give them a jingle.
For nearly 100 years paddlewheeler steamboats churned their way through the myriad Delta waters, leaving a heritage that lives on through the present time. It was a colorful era, marked by steamboating characters who were bigger than life. They were adventuresome men who stood at the helm, often taking their vessels into uncharted waters; spirited men who were quick to take the challenge of a race with another steamboat, often to the peril of their passengers who were egging them on. Yes, there were boiler explosions, often at the loss of considerable life.
I estimate that some 300 paddlewheeler steamboats churned Delta waters during that era. The only one of them to live on to operate today is the Delta Queen, busy with excursion service in the Mississippi River system. The Delta Queen and her sister (brother?) riverboat Delta King were bigger-than-life projects, launched in Stockton in 1927 at a time when the heyday of steamboatin’ in the Delta was about over. The two riverboats never operated successfully from a financial standpoint. Their primary runs were between Sacramento and San Francisco — one coming and one going, passing in the night somewhere around Rio Vista. They were pressed into military service during WWII, serving as billets and to transport troops around the Bay Area. The Delta King, engineless and sunk, was rescued from her sad fate by Sacramento entrepreneurs, beautifully restored and transformed into a dockside inn and bistro at the Old Sacramento wharf.
It was a miracle of sorts that there was any steamboating at all in the early Delta. The first steamboat to make an appearance here was the tiny Sitka, 37 feet in length, off-loaded in pieces from the Russian bark Naslednich and reassembled at Yerba Buena ( San Francisco). In November of 1847, the petite sidewheeler made its way up the Sacramento River to John Sutter’s New Helvetia, taking six days and seven hours to make the voyage. The first Eastern steamboat to arrive was the Lady Washington, shipped in to Sutter’s Embarcadero on a sailing ship and there reassembled. She thrashed her way up the American River to Coloma, only to be snagged and sunk on the return voyage.
The grand 226-foot sidewheeler Senator arrived in October of 1849, taking more than seven months to make the run from her home port of New York. “For more than 30 years she was a familiar sight on the San Francisco-Sacramento run, taking time out now and then to make a run down the coast to San Diego. She soon was joined by others from the East Coast, including the Commodore Preble, the General Warren, and many more. Stocktonians were introduced to steamboating when Captain Warren arrived with the John A. Sutter in late 1849. Within three months, it is said that he had pocketed some $300,000 in profits from his steamboat runs.
Soon, both Stockton and Sacramento had more steamboat passenger-carrying capacity than they had passengers. There were fierce price wars, and at times the price of passage was as low as 25 cents rather than the $30 earlier charged by the Senator.
Travel At Your Peril
There was a push for speed too. In June of 1850, that same John A. Sutter that ran out of Stockton so profitably, exploded on a run to Marysville and became a total wreck. On November 1, 1851, the steamer Sagamore had a boiler explosion as it was departing from the wharf at San Francisco, killing or injuring 50 persons. Major John Ebbetts, who discovered Ebbetts Pass, met his maker August 15, 1854 when a boiler exploded on the steamer Secretary. Ten lives were lost when the J. Bragdon ran down and sank Comanche in Suisun Bay in 1853.
One of the Delta’s most beloved steamers was the sidewheeler Yosemite, which also was the major player in perhaps the area’s largest maritime disaster involving riverboats. The 248-foot Yosemite was pulling away from the docks at Rio Vista on the evening of October 12, 1865 when her boilers let go, killing 45 persons. Barely a year earlier, just a few miles upriver from this fine town, a boiler on the steamer Washoe exploded, killing 16 and injuring 36.
Yet these disasters did not deter steamboat travel one whit. Eventually, the occurrence of such disasters diminished, in part probably because builders learned how to make better boilers. As settlements grew along the Delta waterways, the steamboats became a dependable means of transportation. The river towns began to have sentimental feelings about their favorite steamers. At least two generations of Stocktonians could remember the first time they set foot on the sternwheelers T.C. Walker and J.D. Peters. Isleton folks were smitten with the Isleton and Pride Of The River. Sacramentans felt the “Chrissie,” the 245-foot sidewheeler Chrysopolis built in San Francisco in 1860 for the then-staggering sum of $200,000, was the classiest boat on the river. On December 31, 1861 heading downstream from Sacramento, she set a new record of five hours and 19 minutes for the Sac-S.F. run. She could carry 1,000 passengers in comfort.
Chrissie’s time bested by 11 minutes the record time set some 10 years earlier by the renowned Eastern-built steamer New World. Yet no one could best New World and her erstwhile captain Ned Wakeman when it came to courage and sheer guts. While this new 220-foot sidewheeler was still on the ways at New York Harbor, the sheriff had seized her because of a creditor’s lien. Through chicanery and the force of an armed crew, Wakeman had the boat launched with the steam up and a full load of coal on board, and headed off for San Francisco via the only route possible — round the Horn.
It was no easy voyage, and included a yellow fever epidemic in Rio de Janeiro that killed 20 of his crew (as well as 24,000 people in that city), dodging cannon balls fired from a British frigate and from Brazilian Army forces, and warding off vessel confiscation by armed sheriffs in Panama City. On July 11, 1850, New World steamed through the Golden Gate with 250 cash-paying passengers on board and enough money in her safe to pay off creditors. On New World’s first run to Sacramento April 1, 1850, Wakeman halved the best time heretofore made by any other steamer, setting a record that held for a decade.
Well, those big beautiful sidewheelers and sternwheelers garnered most of the glory, but there also was a sizeable fleet of smaller paddlewheelers that hauled freight and a few passengers on the upriver runs, and into the smaller rivers and sloughs, often in water so shallow that passengers were obliged to climb out with shovels and help dig the boats off sandbars or mudbars.
Most of these little guys were less than 100 feet in length, and you might have to dig hard to find their names mentioned in any historical tomes. These were the kind of boats that ventured up the Sacramento River to as far as Redding and Red Bluff, and when the river was heavy enough from spring rains, up the San Joaquin nearly to Fresno. They went up the Tuolume and Stanislaus Rivers, up the American, Feather and Yuba. They parted the tules on French Camp Slough, went into the South Delta to Old River, and slogged their way into Suisun City and up the Petaluma River — and to many waterways in between.
The 106-foot Empire City traveled up the Tuolumne River to its namesake city. In 1911, the 106-foot J.D. McDonald made the last run up the San Joaquin River to Firebaugh on the outskirts of Fresno, with a barge in tow. The return trip downstream was only made possible because some local irrigation districts were coaxed into releasing enough water into the river to float the vessel. Small paddlewheelers such as Esmeralda, Blossom and Islander went upstream on the San Joaquin, also navigating rivers that flowed into it. Blossom and Islander hauled the last loads of river oak wood to leave the now-gone Stanislaus River town of San Joaquin City in 1911, delivering the wood to docks in Stockton. Tiny paddlewheelers Mint, Fairy, and Game Cock made early-day runs to French Camp.
The little steamer Pert was the first to make it up the Mokelumne River to the fledgling settlement of Woodbridge, and soon was followed by the O.K. Yet these were perilous outings and reliable runs up the Mokelumne River were never established.
Although the coming of the railroads took a bite out of riverboat travel in the Delta, as well as offering competition for the hauling of freight, it was not the trains that spelled the demise of riverboating. In fact, the railroads themselves got into the steamboating business too. The automobile became established. Roads, bridges and car-hauling ferries helped make wheeled navigation of the Delta not only possible, but practical. Then the trucking business grew, and with the arrival of refrigerated trucks, these wheeled vehicles began to wrest the freight-hauling business from the railroads. This was especially true for the crops grown in the Delta.
Old-timers can tell us of the sad days when fleets of once-popular paddlewheelers languished along the Stockton waterfront, and across from Sacramento in what now is West Sacramento. Cherokee became a clubhouse for the River View Yacht Club. Fort Sutter for a while was a floating bistro on Threemile Slough, then burned on the beach in San Francisco. The T.C. Walker became the clubhouse for the Poop Deck Gun Club in the Suisun marshes. The J.D. Peters and Navajo became inland bunkhouses on Mandeville Island. Fire struck a mass of paddlewheelers languishing in West Sacramento. Others just disappeared without much notice, without ado.
Only one steamboat remains in Delta service (not including the “recreation” steamboats built by aficionados) and that’s Hal Wilmunder’s 149-foot Elizabeth Louise. The vessel was built in Wilmunder’s back yard by he and his welder pals, a labor of love over which a zillion cases of beer were consumed during production. This is a true paddlewheeler steamer, powered by vintage steam engines Wilumnder found back east. It runs occasional charters in the Sacramento area, and most years leads the Sacramento Yacht Club’s Opening Day Parade the first Sunday in May.
Note: all the material on this page was adapted from Hal Schell’s copyrighted © hardcover book, Cruising California’s Delta and all rights are reserved.
There are numerous small airports around the fringes of the California Delta, but none quite close enough to allow you to fly in and walk a couple hundred yards to your boat berth. In several, boaters keep a second car so they can use it to get to their boat after flying in. Some of the airports located in area cities are: Baumann Field in Rio Vista, Lodi, Byron, Galt, Stockton Metropolitan, Sacramento Executive Airport, and Sacramento International Airport.
Numerous seaplanes land and take-off in the Delta, including a number of pontoon-equipped ultra-light aircraft.
Helicopters are favorites in the Delta and a few are pontoon equipped. Officially designated helipads are few.
A considerable amount of cropdusting is done in the Delta, and there are numerous private landing strips for these aircraft.
There are almost no restrictions on anchoring out, although it would be unwise to anchor in the middle of a narrow channel or in the middle of a heavily trafficked waterway. Use anchor lights at night. Although boaters routinely tie a bow line off a shoreside tree or bush, most of this property is private. If you go ashore on agricultural islands, you would normally be trespassing. If you drop a bow anchor and “swing” on it, be sure you have plenty of room for the swing.
Sandy beaches are not numerous in the California Delta. Some exist only at low tides and are covered at high tides. Some resorts have private beaches (B & W Resort, Snug Harbor, Lost Isle, and Orwood Resort) and a few have swimming pools (Delta Bay Marina, Sugar Barge Marina, Tower Park Marina). Most boaters swim or float on their toys off the stern of the anchored boat — never when the engine is running. Anchorages with sandy beaches are considered premium. Waterskiers often will rise very early in the morning to go out and stake a sandy beach to use as their ski-beach for the day.
Boating and RVing is a year-round activity in the California Delta, although the prime season is from about April through October. Some of the balmiest weather is Sept. 1 through Oct. 15. Tule fog can occur some days from late Oct. through part of the winter. Often it will burn off by mid-mornings. Even in midsummer, hot days will cool off for comfortable sleeping in the evening. Average high and low temperatures for some months (in Stockton) are: Jan. = Hi 52.8, Lo 36.3 deg.; Apr. = Hi 72.4, Lo 44.8 deg.; June = Hi 88.1, Lo 55.4 deg.; Jul. = Hi 94.7, Lo 58.7 deg.; Oct. = Hi 78.1, Lo 48.9 deg. It usually is a few degrees cooler out on the water. Sacramento usually is a few degrees warmer than Stockton.
There are several dozen yacht clubs, boat clubs and waterskiing clubs in the Delta area. Some of them have clubhouses. A few lucky ones have facilities on the smaller (berm) islands that dot the Delta. Membership is available in most of the clubs, and probably is less expensive than you would believe. Several clubs are listed under “Yacht & Boat Clubs” on this Website. You can purchase a copy of Yachting Yearbook to find the names of all of the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association (PICYA) members (there are over two-dozen in the Delta area). Water skiing clubs may have slalom and ski jump facilities and stage some competitive events.
Owners of vessels over six feet in height will need to be cognizant of the bridges along their intended cruising routes. Some open, some don’t. You need to know the clearance of each bridge (this will vary with tide) and the hours of operation for drawbridges (this may vary with the season). Some or all of this information may be found on the Delta maps or charts, or in a free bridge booklet available from the U.S. Coast Guard in Alameda. The signal for asking a drawbridge to open is one long and one short toot of the boat horn. Most Delta drawbridges also are equipped with marine-band VHF radios and may be contacted on channel 9.
The occasional droughts have almost no negative effect on California Delta recreation. Water depths in much of the Delta are controlled by the pressure from the ocean’s tidal action. Except in the higher reaches of some area rivers and sloughs, water depths in the Delta are just about as deep during a drought year as they are during a normal year.
Floods can be devastating. During heavy flood times, it might be wise just to stay away until things settle. But the actual period of danger or inconvenience usually is more brief than the public believes. The high water caused by El Niño in early 1998 curtailed boating in the Delta for less than a couple of weeks, and almost all facilities were open during it. In the event of future floods or droughts, you can look to this website for current information on the status of recreation on the Delta. (http://www.lauritzens.com is another good informational site in the event of floods.)
You may encounter freighters transiting to or from the deepwater ports of Sacramento or Stockton. There is plenty of room for both of you. Freighters don’t have much maneuverability. Generally, they have the right of way. Give them plenty of room. Don’t get in their way. Enjoy them.
Most marinas and waterside resorts that offer public facilities have guest docks. With only a handful of exceptions, there is no charge to use the dock for a few hours during the day while you visit the marina facilities. Most marinas charge a fee for overnighting, which usually includes connection to electrical power if it is available. Reservations usually are not required, except for groups or especially large craft.
Virtually all shoreside buildings, restaurants and other structures at Delta resorts have handicap access. However, because of the considerable tidal action in the Delta, the angle of rampways at some guest docks and berthing areas at times may be steeper than comfortable for easy handicap access. We suggest you inquire in advance, and you may have to plan your arrival or exit at such places with the tides working in your favor.
Excellent launching facilities are abundant in the Delta, including many that are operated by cities, counties or parks at modest fees. Many boaters prefer to launch at private facilities, where security for their tow vehicle and trailer might be better, especially if they are to be left for long stays. Locations of launching facilities are indicated at this website for member marinas under “Marinas” and on the official Delta Chambers Delta Map available online
Most major islands in the Delta are protected by levees. The levees usually are lined with rock (called riprap) on the water side, to protect them from damage from wave or wake action. Some of the smaller islands in the Delta (there are hundreds) often called berm islands or in-channel islands, are lush with growth and unprotected by levees. Portions of them may be under water or swampy, especially at high tides and during the rainy season. Shoreside facilities at most marinas and resorts, are constructed on the levee, behind the levee, or in front of the levee in buildings that either are on pilings or are floating structures. A few resorts have campgrounds or structures at grade level in front of the levee, offering an improved view but less protection during high water times.
There are people who live aboard their boats full-time in the Delta, some of them commuting a considerable distance each weekday to work, figuring the good life is worth the commute. Most marinas (but not all of them) accommodate a few liveaboards. Generally, liveaboards are considered an asset to a marina because their eyes and ears give it better security. Usually there is an extra fee. It may be considerably more difficult to find a marina berth for a floating home, however.
Naturally, there is mosquito activity some evenings in the summer — although most of the regulars do not consider it a problem. If mosquitoes bother you, bring bug repellent when you come to the Delta.
There are none that we know of. We can’t say that there aren’t Delta boaters who prefer to swim in the buff, or perhaps even cook the evening meal onboard meal sans clothes; and we do know that nudist groups on occasion rent houseboats here, but we do not know of any Delta place formally or informally designated for nudists. There is a spirit of live and let live in the Delta. What you do in your space, as long it does not intrude on the rest of us, probably will be deemed acceptable. Be sure to bring your sun screen.
Yes, there are sailboats in the Delta. Some 300 are berthed at Buckley Cove in Stockton, home of the Stockton Sailing Club. Other marinas have predominantly sailboats in their slips, including Boyd’s Harbor, Bruno’s Island, and Owl Harbor. Most marina’s have at least a few open slips or “end ties” that accommodate sailboats, and you find these craft sprinkled around the Delta. Since most Delta waterways are relatively narrow, Delta sailboaters to a lot of tacking, or running under power. Some excellent broadwater sailing is in the San Joaquin River below the Mokelumne, and on the Sacramento River downstream of Rio Vista. Since sailboats are tall, their skippers have to be apprised of the operating hours of the drawbridges. Some sailboats draw a lot of water, and the skippers have to be a bit more careful about the waters they cruise. Sailboaters by the hundreds in the Bay Area head up to the Delta to gunkhole and enjoy the balmy summers. Some stay a few weeks, others stay all summer. Not a bad life.
Tidal action from the Pacific Ocean extends to the Delta, to above Sacramento on the Sacramento River and to above Mossdale on the San Joaquin River. The variation between high and low tides can be as much as 8 feet, but more typically is 4 to 6 feet. Tide tables indicating the times and amounts of change are available for around $1. The Delta is comprised of fresh water. As you cruise toward the Delta from San Francisco, the salt content of the water gradually decreases. Depending on the rainfall for a given year, you will leave the salt water somewhere downstream of Pittsburg.
Tens of thousands of boats cruise Delta waterways, without great difficulty. So we’d assume that many of the waterways have water depths of 3 feet to 10 feet and will accommodate a variety of craft. Shipping channels to the Port of Stockton and the Port of Sacramento are deep and are marked by colored and lighted buoys. Owners of deep-draft vessels will want to use the appropriate NOAA charts, available in most marine stores or in Chart Book form from Bay & Delta Yachtsman.