The historic paddlewheeler Delta King, as well as another 300 paddlewheelers plied the waters of the California Delta

Also see
Historic Movies of The Delta

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.

Petite Steamers

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 <Mokelume Riverwere never established.

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The End

navajo.jpg (23955 bytes) 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.

    Index To Delta History:
Delta History (General)
The Paddlewheeler Era
Historic Delta Ferries 
Historic Drawbridges
Historic Movies of The Delta

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Date Last Edited = 10/30/98

This Website was created for the California Delta Chambers by Hal Schell. Unless otherwise specified, all the material in this website is copyrighted by Hal Schell, including the photography, and may not be used by others without his specific permission. All rights are reserved. The site is
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