THE CALIFORNIA DELTA
1,000 MILES OF NAVIGABLE WATERWAYS
The California Delta – The Last Frontier
With a thousand miles of waterways, the California Delta provides endless recreational opportunities - fishing, boating, skiing, PWC, swimming, camping and exploring hidden sloughs and lost islands.
A rich history precedes today’s explorers.
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.
While most small craft prefer the secluded and scenic sloughs, fishing boats, jet skis, cigar boats, sail boats and yachts can be seen in the same deep water channels with barges and cargo ships.