The rich history of the Stockton Delta water system plays a leading role in past, present and future development of the Central Valley. The system, created by the intersection of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, boasts a diverse and thriving ecosystem. Early inhabitants of this area utilized the waterways’ many resources, living, traveling and hunting along the river. Settlers used tule, a giant species of sedge in the plant family Cyperaceae, which grows abundantly in freshwater marsh, for everything from clothing to nets. Early European immigrants also took advantage of our prosperous waterway, using it for similar purposes. John Marsh, one of the first European Americans to settle in the Central Valley, built California’s first inland port along the San Joaquin River. Appropriately, John named the port Marsh Landing. Today, the site is home to the PG&E plant in Antioch. In the early days, the best mode of transportation was by waterway, with the first steam ship in the area carrying none other than John Sutter. As the story goes, Sutter attempted to make his way north, taking the San Joaquin River, but quickly became lost. Luckily, Sutter tied ribbons along the tules as he traveled, and followed the ribbons back to the Delta! Sutter eventually made his way up the American River and founded a small settlement known as Sutter’s Fort. It is here that gold was discovered in 1848, quickly changing the course of California and the Delta region.
The Age of the Riverboat
San Joaquin County quickly flourished with industries catering to the influx of gold seekers. In addition to numerous stores and saloons, riverboat transportation became a prominent industry. The riverboats carried the miners, functioned as main transportation for everyday supplies like mail and news, and had the very important task of transporting gold from the mines. At this time, the task of transporting gold belonged to the recently established banking institution, Wells Fargo, and specifically, Chip Hodgkins. Hodgkin’s first trip transported $27,289 in gold from the Stockton Wells Fargo to the main San Francisco office on May 15, 1857. The popular riverboat route took eight hours and cost passengers $8.00. Despite being the preferred means of transportation, riverboats continually faced delays, not only due to weather, but also the arrival and departure of massive Panama Steams. These two-thousand ton ships connected the east to the west, carrying mail, news, important business documents and freight; thus possessing priority in the San Francisco Bay. The Stockton Wells Fargo office was well aware of these delays and kept vigilant watch for the expected riverboats. When the ships came into view, the office crew would raise a large flag, alerting the public of the incoming steamer.
Perhaps the biggest disruption of riverboat travel occurred in the winter of 1861-1862. Northern California was hit hard with what came to be known as the Great California Flood. Particularly impacted was Sacramento, resulting in the temporary move of the State Capitol to San Francisco. Stockton became very isolated during this period. The rains destroyed the dirt roads which interrupted stagecoach travel, and water rose so high that the dedication of the newly built Saint Mary’s church was canceled. Communication was re-established by the use of single-men horse riders, and it was not until the end of January 1862 that the San Joaquin River’s water receded enough to reinstate the shipping channel. Flooding of this nature occurred throughout Delta history, significantly impacting landscape and populations. One such flooding caused the San Joaquin River to divide, forming Lairds Slough and a new channel in the southern portion of the county. This divide prevented riverboats from navigating portions of the river and ended the prominence of a community called San Joaquin City. In its hey-day, this trading and communication epicenter rivaled Stockton.
Travel along the river was no easy task, with numerous twists, turns and a characteristic overabundance of tules that easily chocked waterways. In addition, seasonal snow melt from the Sierra’s changed the tide and caused flooding. For these reasons, a ship captain’s knowledge of the river system was vital for the success of the trip, and many ships created wooden boards along the river banks to create an echo of the steam ship’s whistle. This system allowed the crew to position themselves on the river. However, even with this system, it was not uncommon for riverboats to become grounded. For example, Wells Fargo’s go-to transporter, Hodgkins, experienced 15 groundings between 1859-1867. In once such incident, the ship became stranded so close to Stockton that Hogkins literally rowed himself and the mail he carried to land, where he then sent a crew to help the vessel. Besides these incidents, other accidents occurred on the river, including the explosion of boilers, fires and most notorious of all, rivalries between the river boat companies. River travel was a booming business, and it wasn’t long before many companies discovered their potential. “The golden era of steam ships on the San Joaquin Delta,” lasting from 1892-1914, saw fierce competition between two companies, the California Navigation Company and the Union Transportation Company. The two competed for both ultimate speed and comfort. One big difference between the two lines was a controlling partner of the Union Transportation Company, a devout Christian women and stout believer in the popular temperance (the anti-liquor movement). As such, this line did not serve liquor.
Each line attempted to draw customers with special events like ladies night and discounted day trips. The rivalry was so intense and bitter that many battles were decided in the courtroom, typically due to the companies docking disagreements. All the while, rumors of sabotage circulated, with stories of captains intentionally ramming their boats into rival companies. Perhaps due to the rivalry, riverboat travel was very luxurious. The boats possessed the most up-to-date technology including electricity and featured entertainment like piano players and even libraries. By 1892 the California Navigation Company ran two ships daily, carrying both passengers and cargo. After leaving Stockton, the boats would travel as close to the levees as possible, throwing out wooden planks for the awaiting individuals to either board or load their agricultural products. These passengers traveled to San Francisco not only for business, but big city entertainment and sight-seeing. Upon arrival, the boat docked at Pier 27 to unload and then move on to Pier 3 where the passengers would disembark. The original riverboats, enjoyed by countless citizens of San Joaquin County’s past, were built on the east coast and transported to the Delta. With the industry boom came many new, more advanced boats that were constructed locally, including the Delta King and Queen, built by the California Transportation Company. Each cost one million dollars to build and were completed in the dying days of the riverboat era, resulting in little profit. However, they became important symbols for Stockton. After use in the Delta water system, the Delta Queen was sold for use on the Mississippi River; while the King was used for mining purposes in British Columbia. Nevertheless, you can experience this relic of yesteryears in Old Sacramento where the Delta King was renovated and now operates as a restaurant situated on the Sacramento River.
From the Waterways to the Roads
Ferries also played an essential role in Delta transportation and history, acting as a popular mode of crossing the Delta’s labyrinth of waterways. Though early on, they were little more than homemade rafts and rowboats, extremely vulnerable to weather conditions. The early ferries show their significant impact on our county, even today. Just look at Durham Ferry Road in Tracy; earning its name, because at one time, it led to a ferry operated by the Durham family. These commuter boats quickly became more advanced with the establishment of cable-controlled ferries, showing face all over the waterways. By 1870 the industry slowed, except for the construction of the Naglee’s Ferry on Old River Road, established on the newly reclaimed area of Robert and Union Islands. Naglee’s was the first of many built up on the islands, but by the 1900s, except for the newly reclaimed land in the Delta, most of the ferries had been abandoned or replaced by bridges. A main reason for the abandonment was the increased affordability and availability of automobiles, and the construction of bridges. As people began owning their own vehicles, they no longer depended on river transportation modes. The exception to this trend is in the Delta islands, which saw a flurry of ferries at the beginning of the new century. This was due to the fact that the ferries could carry four cars or two trucks. Many of the numerous ferries in operation on the Delta were also not open to the public, but were private property used to transport products. In addition to the steamships, ferries and waterfront warehouses, dredging became a prominent industry. Dredging, by definition, is the cleaning out of a harbor’s bed, river or other area of water; by scooping out the mud, weeds and rubbish. Dredging of the Delta began in the mid-1850s, initially by Reuben Kerchevel, who stacked blocks of peat soil to build a levee on Grand Island. The peat was not very effective; as it would shrink when dry, leading to cracks and leaks. After the initial levee, they became larger and more effective, with the use of hand tools and assistance of horse-drawn scrapers to reclaim the land. From this method the original workers, mostly Chinese immigrants, were able to reclaim more than 100,000 acres of land, forming new islands in the Delta. The new land was made available to individuals for purchase, from the state. The 64,000-acre local area known as Roberts Island was born from dredging and reclaimed by a worker. The worker created a nine-foot high levee system to protect the island from the San Joaquin River. As with many dredged islands, the land is made of peat soil and valued for agriculture production.
If hand dredging wasn’t difficult enough, hydraulic mining in the gold pits caused an excess of sediment to fill the Delta waterways. This caused an increase in flooding, and additional mud for the workers to move. New advances in technology soon made dredging of the Delta much easier. It began with floating steam shovels. However, this weakened the riverbanks and did not have the necessary height capability. This method quickly became out-of-date in 1875 with the invention of clamshell dredges. Dredgers are very heavy and difficult to navigate, and as such, tugboats or ferry’s used cables to tow the dredger to the appropriate location. Even with new technology, levees were not fail-proof. It wasn’t uncommon for the dredgers to place rocks and sandbags in cracks. At their height, over 100 tools were operating in California. Of the 100, most machines were operating in the Delta water system. By 1920 the majority of Delta dredging was complete. In total, about 700,000 acres were reclaimed; including 55 islands in addition to the California levee system. The dredges that worked here were also used for the construction of the Stockton Deep Water Port, the Panama Canal and the Pearl Harbor Port in Hawaii. The Dutra Family completed most of the Delta’s dredging. The family currently operates the Dutra Museum of Dredging in
The Delta’s Many Industries
To keep the waterways from reclaiming the new land, many Delta islands contained massive pumps. These pumps would work to move water from the land to the water in order to keep the properties as dry islands. The numerous new islands in the Delta, as well as those settlements along its banks, utilized the rich soil for agricultural production. Many landowners also constructed their own wharf, used to load their produce onto the numerous riverboats headed to Stockton, Sacramento or San Francisco, and even further to various international ports. With the rich peat, Delta farmers grew a wide variety of crops and continue to this day. It is in this area that many minority groups came together to form their own communities; one such example is the city of Locke, formed by the Chinese in 1916. The Chinese settled here after fire destroyed previous settlements. Other such settlements include; Japanese, Portuguese, Italians and Filipinos. In addition to contributing to the diversity and future of the region, these individual communities helped lay the rich foundation that provides a significant amount of America’s food supply.
Complimenting agriculture, the Delta waterways proved to be an excellent source of fishing both for individual fun and industry. By the 1880s, the waterway was home to over 1,200 industrial fishing vessels employing 3,000 people. Around this time the fishing industry focused on salmon, gathering six million pounds per year. In one day, a boat crewed by only two men could reportedly catch around 700 pounds. With such an abundance of fishing opportunities, it is easy to see how many people were drawn to it! The salmon industry lasted longer than the riverboats, ending in 1934, after being banned from the Delta waters. Nevertheless salmon was not the only fishing revenue in these waters. Various species of bass, sturgeon and catfish created revenue, but the industry died down when fishing on the Delta was limited to recreational use.
A Formidable Force
Perhaps the largest man-made change to the Delta water system is the construction and subsequent expansions of the Stockton Deep Water Port. The movement to construct the Port consisted of 50 years of campaigns, peaking and lasting a decade in the 1920s. Stocktonians knew the Port would welcome increased imports and exports of local industries by providing shipping straight to San Francisco and the ocean. Citizens of the community wrote numerous letters to petition the government and appealed to engineers to come to Stockton and complete reports on the project, including Colonel U.S. Grant III, with the Army Engineers. Locally, Walter Hogan worked very hard in his capacity as the City Manager and as the City Engineer on the Deep Water Port. He championed the cause of the Deep Water Port and appealed to the citizens of the city to support the project. In the early 1900s he gave a recommendation for the Deep Water Port, which was not revised until 1924. The cost for the project was estimated to cost $6,000,000 with the bill being split between Stockton, the federal government and California paying $419,000. The 1924 revision gave Stockton such optimism that the citizens approved a $3,000,000 bond to cover their portion of the cost. In 1927 Congress added another $2,230,000 to fund construction.
Originally, the ship’s channel was completed to extend 50 miles into Stockton, at 300 feet wide and 26 feet deep. This was the appropriate depth for the majority of ships in the San Francisco Bay. Additionally, the original plan consisted of 1,200 feet of warehouses with an expansion of 14,000 feet of wharves, characterized by waterfront business necessary for loading and unloading cargo. It also included 10,000 acres with 18 miles of waterfront on the main channel and 24 miles on the side channel. To increase effectiveness of the port, it was planned that the three major railroads in Stockton be connected by way of a belt line to the Port. This allowed for the transportation of products for disbursement or loading. This became very important in the upcoming Great Depression and World War II. San Joaquin County greatly contributed war time supplies and food to the entire world. The channels were also used, on a massive scale, to produce war ships. The U.S. Military leased Rough and Ready Island, a portion of reclaimed land, for many years after World War II. One of the most difficult aspects in the completion of the port was not the railroad or the waterfront, but the dredging. That alone made up half the cost of the Delta and required not only the raising and strengthening of existing levees but also the construction of new levees.
Because of the twists and turns of the San Joaquin River, it was required to not only deepen the riverbed but also expand its banks. This consisted of a 14-mile stretch, but the numerous sections of the river dwarfed the project because the many bends required engineers to “straighten” the river. This required dredging four new miles of the channel. To complete sections of the dredging, the San Francisco Bridge Company utilized power from PG&E running it at a rate of 350 cubic yards an hour. At that time, it required enough electricity to light 20,000 homes. To accommodate this extreme use of power, a new special power line was built in Stockton, which connected to an underwater cable. As the dredger would move on to new sections the power line would be extended to reach the new location. The Port was supported and encouraged by all major Stockton organizations, but it took five years to award the dredging contacts and three more years of construction for the ports completion. On Tuesday, February 2nd 1933, the Daisy Grey was first to enter the newly completed Deep Water Port of Stockton. Poetically, this ship symbolized progress and growth, carrying lumber – a product with the same potential.
The Delta waterways, as in the past, are the lifeblood of San Joaquin County. In early days of the region’s settlement, the riverboats and shipments from San Francisco allowed early settlers to communicate and receive basic supplies. It was also essential for the very dangerous transportation of gold from the mines to established banks and buyers. These rivers, which brought life and news, also made a formidable force. The waterways were very vulnerable to flooding, dense fog and difficult to navigate due to the twists and turns. Despite dangerous conditions, industry in the Delta boomed. From ferries and riverboats to fishing, the waterways were focal points of many early residents’ ever growing dreams of riches. Men quickly tried to tame this wild waterway, from handmade levees to the use of dredging; residents created new islands and even changed the course of the extension water system. Through the collaboration of the local, state and federal government, residents created the largest inland Deep Water Port right here in the heart of Stockton. This port remains a symbol of past industry and of future prosperity of San Joaquin County, all thanks to the deepening and extension of the majestic water system right in our backyard.