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
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
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
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
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
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
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
World. Yet no one could best New World and her erstwhile
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.
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
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,
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
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 <Mokelume
Riverwere never established.
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
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.
Index To Delta History:
5 Historic Movies of The Delta