Your  Interactive  Guide  To  The  San  Joaquin  Delta

History of The Delta

Though the Delta is most commonly enjoyed for its waterways and related activities, it can also be appreciated for its historical value, having many fine, old houses and buildings. The river Mansion (on Grand Island Rd.), Rosebud Ranch (just north of Hood), and the old Bank of Cortland (located in Courtland), are just a few of these.

The waterways between San Francisco and Sacramento hold legends, fables and folklore that began with the birth of California.

American RiverOn August 1, 1839, John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss immigrant, along with three German carpenters, two mechanics, and eight Hawaiians, began his journey in the labyrinth that is the DELTA in search of land for other migrating Europeans. Departing Yerba Buena (San Francisco) he outfitted three boats and set sail through an area populated only by Indians and mosquitoes. Journeying closer to what is now Sacramento, it took Sutter twelve days to find the entrance to the American River, landing at what would become the Capitol City.

California, at that period of time, was a sleepy, languid land until that fateful January day in 1848. A simple carpenter, James Marshall, set off the most frenzied gold rush in the history of the world and the greatest mass migration of human beings ever known by his discovery of the valuable metal. The name "California" soon became a household word throughout the world and remains so today.

The entire nation became delirious with gold fever. Thousands upon thousands of agonauts dropped everything and headed for the West. Many engaged passage on whatever ships were available, and set off on a tedious, sometimes harrowing, voyage that would take six months to reach San Francisco. If they survived frequent outbursts of yellow-fever, they would sail on anything that would float to Sacramento.

The first steam vessel on the Sacramento River was the "Sitka", leaving San Francisco on November 28, 1847 and arriving in Sacramento on December 4th. This paved the way for the hundreds of paddlewheels to follow after the discovery of gold. Staggering under as much fuel as the could carry, one steamer after another would start from New York of Boston on down to Rio, braving the winds of the Pacific, and slowly claw their way North. By the end of 1850 there were 28 steamers on the Sacramento River, 23 barks, 19 brigs, and 21 brigantines. Voyage prices between San Francisco and Sacramento ranged from $10.00, which included only the fare with cabin. Meals and liquor were additional and freight went for $8.00 a ton.

There were many unique riverboats plying the Delta Area, but one of the most interesting was the "New World". Completed in 1850 on the Eastern coast, her red-plush upholstery, marble-topped tables and glittering chandeliers were the latest and best obtainable. Just as the vessel was to embark, the owner’s creditors attached the ship. Outwitting the creditors, however, the owner retrieved his ship, and three months later landed in San Francisco. For years the "New World" was a favorite on the Delta, making her way to Sacramento in record time five hours, 35 minutes. Probably the most luxurious vessel was the "Chrysopolis". Build in June of 1860 and running the Delta until 1865. Another speedy favorite was the "Antelope" that had the honor of carrying to San Francisco the first mail to be delivered by Pony Express in Sacramento.

Steamboat Slough was the favored route of travel for the steamboats as it was shorter and deeper”.

History and legends are intermingled throughout the Delta today and many can be experienced in Sacramento’s attractions. Adjacent to the Sacramento River, the 28-acre Old Sacrament Historic Area holds monuments of the 19th Century that have been authentically restored. The romance of the riverboats, the transcontinental railroad, the Gold Rush and the Pony Express are still alive in this area. John Sutter’s fort, which dates from 1839, is just 27 blocks away from Old Sacramento.

The development of today's Delta began in late 1850 when the Swamp and Overlfow Land Act conveyed ownership of all swamp and overflow land, including Delta marshes, from the federal government to the State of California. Proceeds from the sale of swampland by the State were to go toward reclaiming the swamplands. In 1861, the State Legislature created the Board of Swamp and Overflowed Land Commissioners to manage reclamation projects. In 1866, the Board's authority was transferred to county boards of supervisors. In 1868, the Legislature removed acreage ownership limitations and by 1871 most of California's swampland was in private ownership.

Developers first thought levees 4 feet high and 12 feet at the base would protect Delta lands from tides and river overflow, but that proved inadequate fro Delta peat soils. By 1869, substantial levees had been constructed on Sherman Island and Twitchell Island by Chinese laborers, and in 1870 and 1871 the owners reaped bountiful harvests of grain and row crops. Small-scale reclamationprojects were started on Rough and Ready Island and Roberts Island in the 1870s, but the peat soils showed their weakness as levees. The peat soils would sink, blow away when dry, and develop deep cracks and fissures throughout the levee system. Sherman and Twitchell Islands flooded annually in the early 1870s.

By 1874, reclamation and preservation costs for Sherman Island's levees had totaled $500,000. This is equivalent to $6.2 million today.

In the late 1870s, the developers had begun to realize that hand- and horse-powered labor could not maintain the reclaimed Delta islands. Steam-powered dredges began to be used to move the large volume of alluvial soils from the river channels to construct the large levees. These dredges were capable of moving material at about half the cost of hand labor.

The peak of Delta land reclamation was reached with the clamshell-type dredge, still commonly used. Advantages of this machine over its predecessors were versatility, ease of operation, and modest capital and operating costs.

After World War I, the number of operating dredges decreased greatly, as nearly all Delta marshland had been reclaimed. By this time, the Delta had been transformed from a large tidal marsh to the series of improved channels and leveed islands we know today.

The Delta covers 738,000 acres interlaced with hundreds of miles of wateways. Muchh of the land is below sea level and relies on more than 1,000 miiles of levees for protection against flooding. Its land and waterways support communities, agriculture, and recreation, and provide essential habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Atlas provides information for readers who wish to understand the complex interrelationships within the Delta and grasp its significance to the State.

There are over 50 bridges spanning navigable waterways of the Delta. Generally, bridges in heavily used channels can be opened for large craft or sailboats with high masts during peak boating hours by horn signal or radio contact. All radio equipped bridges having drawtenders monitor Channel 16 (156.800 MHz). Some bridges on minor tributaries may require as much as 24 hours advance notice to open. Boatmen planning Delta trips that require bridge passage should consult navigation charts to determine the minimum vertical clearance allowed by all bridges to be encountered.

Information on individual bridge opening requirements, proper horn signals and hours of operation can be found in the, "Bridge Regulations in Northern California". This should be available fron the Federal Regulations (CFR) (use “drawbridge” for the key word search). You can also write to Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, 2100 Second Street, SW, Washington, DC 20593.

Old Sacramento

When most folks think of Old Sacramento around here they think of Candy Apples, Shirts, Knick-Knack Stores, and some fine eateries and restaurants. But if you stop and look carefully there is an underlying theme in Old Sacramento and it's all about moving from point A to point B.

In 1839, John Sutter settled in what is now Old Sacramento. After gold was discovered in 1848, the area drew influential parties from all over the country. A group of men known as the Big Four set up shop and later planned the first transcontinental railroad, establishing the town's roots in railroad history.

The California State Railroad Museum is visited by over half a million people each year. Most of them aren't historians or conductors, they're fourth-grade history students. The museum is the largest of its kind in the Western States and home to many antiques not in existence any more. Many volunteer their time to help with restorations and other projects that are constantly in progress.

The Delta King is the only Hotel in Old Sacramento. The Delta King made some long trips before resting here on the shores of the Sacramento River. The Delta King ran between Sacramento and San Francisco from 1927 to 1930, a 10 hour trip each way. After it was retired they shipped the Delta King between Canada and California trying to find a permanent home. The Delta King even sunk once in 1984. Finally in 1989 the Delta King made it's home in Old Sacramento on the restored water front. The Delta King serves as a hotel with a saloon, restaurant, and a theater.

Last but not least of these different modes of transportation of yesteryear is the horse drawn carriage, a favorite of all visitors. The sound of horses clanking up and down Old Sacramento's cobblestone streets can be heard from early morning till late in the evening hour. A fifteen minute ride is $10. Excursions to the State Capital and back will run you around $50. There are small carriages and covered wagons. Most drivers will even give a guided tour as they drive around the town.

Now remember there is more to Old Sacramento than Boats, Trains and Horses. They continue to restore some of the old buildings. Recently a public market was opened up. The market serves as a place to get fresh fruits, vegetables, bakery items, flowers, and other items unique to the Sacramento Valley.

So the next time you want to look at a train, go for a carriage ride, or dine on the river, Old Sacramento is the place to find it all.

More History More Delta Information
  • Chamber of commerce - List of, in the Delta area.
  • The Delta Wetlands - Once a vast, trackless marsh, the California Delta has been transformed by more than 130 years of levee building into a maze of interconnected waterways and dry reclaimed islands. Today, it is still an important habitat for migratory waterfowl and more than a hundred species of fish. It is also farmland, a popular recreation area and a source of drinking water for two-thirds of California's population.
  • Bay-Delta and Special Water Projects Division, Department of Fish and Game.
  • Delta Atlas provides information for readers who wish to understand the complex interrelationships within the Delta and grasp its significance to the State.
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