This Thursday I took a ride up the river on 160 thru the Sacramento Delta, even though California teems with more than 34 million people, it's remarkable how remote the heart of the Sacramento Delta, centered on Highway 160, still feels. Drive south from Sacramento and soon freeways, shopping centers, and housing developments seem a million miles away. You start to see flocks of migrating birds darkening the sky, and you notice oak trees reflected in water and the ghostly diffusion of early morning light through an orchard. The pace of life slows—you're on Delta time now—as you enter a world where houseboats laze along shady sloughs and fishermen endlessly angle for striped bass or sturgeon. From fall through spring, the Delta is a quiet place to getaway for people in search of back-road adventures and towns that haven't changed in 50 years. In summer, the waters call and the Delta hums with water-skiers, windsurfers, and boaters.
The first stop I make is just past the little town of Freeport at the bridge crossing the Sacramento. This bridge is a place my father worked as a bridge tender until the county retired him at the young age of 72. He only worked there a few years after his surgery for cancer caused him to give up his job as a mechanic limiting him to light duty work "no more heavy lifting". Took a picture there and spent some time thinking about my dad who passed away in 1975.
Next stop was in Clarksburg at the old Crystal Sugar Plant that was put out to pasture in 1993. Between 1906 and 1963 a total of 14 factories were built in California by various sugar companies. Spreckels and Holly each owned four of those facilities. Five of the other factories were closed or dismantled between 1919-1925 except for Clarksburg, owned by American Crystal that closed in 1993.
The main reason I pulled off the levee to check out the old sugar plant was my recalling an old friend from the past "Rex Foss". Rex was a truck driver that hauled lumber for a number of years for Frank Brown trucking and in 1950, I hitched a ride with him in Sacramento at a truck stop on Stockton Blvd and Fruitridge Rd. This was highway 99 the main road that I-5 has now replaced. Then it was mostly a two lane road all the way to LA where I was headed to buy an almost new Pontiac. I had a pocket full of money and a strong desire to buy, so Rex said you got a ride as long as you share in the driving. As it turned out, I went south in a Peterbilt and returned to Grass Valley in a 1949 Pontiac that was my main means of transportation from then until I got out of the army.
Not long after that ride, Rex quit driving for Frank Brown and went to work for American Crystal Sugar in Clarksburg driving one of their trucks. I haven’t thought about him in many years but he sure came home to roost Thursday….He has been gone now for several years but I am in a very reflective mood at this time due to the death of my niece Rhonda.
She just passed away and my mind has been recalling bits and pieces of her birth in Delano, California and she was my oldest sisters daughter where I was visiting at the time and at the age of 10 I was told I was now an uncle. Kinda haughty being an uncle that young in life.
Rhonda was an only child and the first grandchild for my parents and that made her pretty special for all of us to pet and spoil. I still have hundreds of feet of 8 millimeter movie film of her from the time I got my movie camera in 1948 and took pictures of her building a snowman in her front yard in Los Angeles in 1948. Yes we did get snow in LA that year.
The old sugar plant is now a wine tasting adventure called Old Sugar Mill and it hosts 5 wineries, art, music and events in phase 1 and much more to come in phase 2.
History runs deep in the Sacramento Delta. Originally it was flood-prone swampland occupied during the drier months by the Miwok Indians. Out-of-luck gold miners, looking to raise food, settled in the early 1850s. They reclaimed the first parcels of land, but after the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, the backbreaking job of digging channels and building levees was turned over to thousands of Chinese railroad laborers working in "wheelbarrow brigades." A huge leap forward in reclaiming land for agriculture occurred with the 1879 introduction of the steam-driven, barge-mounted clamshell dredge.
From there I ride along the river passing the barges on the west side of the river shoring up the levee with the use of cranes and various types of rock, gravel, sand and dirt. Drifting around the Delta to stop at the Grand Island Mansion where Rhonda and Curtis Caseys daughter Jennifer got married to Christian Whitty a few years back. It was a beautiful wedding with the river as a backdrop to exchange their wedding vows and that was topped off with an amazing meal in the mansion after the ceremony.
The rise of agriculture in the Delta led to a rise in river commerce, with hundreds of paddle wheel steamboats eventually hauling passengers and goods. People made fortunes and built beautiful homes, many of which still stand amid their vintage palms. Among the most impressive is the Grand Island Mansion. Built in 1917 for Louis Meyers, an orchard magnate, the four-story, 58-room Italian Renaissance villa entertained in its early days such luminaries as actress Jean Harlow and author Erle Stanley Gardner. The property, restored down to its parquet floors and gilt mirrors, is now used mainly for weddings and other private functions, though it is occasionally open to the public for Sunday brunch from March through December.
For a casual visitor, the riverfront towns along Highway 160—Isleton, Rio Vista, Locke, Walnut Grove, Ryde—provide the best places to get a sense of the region's past and its sometimes colorful characters. At the restored Ryde Hotel, a peach-colored 1928 landmark a few miles south of Walnut Grove, you can still see the peephole in the door through which Prohibition-era party hounds were scrutinized when the Ryde was a speakeasy, a casino, and even a reputed bordello. Revelers arrived by paddle wheeler, and the big-name guests reportedly included Dashiell Hammett and Al Jolson.
Another spot with a colorful history is Foster's Bighorn, a bar and café on Rio Vista's Main Street. Opened in 1931 by Bill Foster, a bootlegger on the run from the law, its walls are filled with heads: a full-grown African elephant, a walrus, and a giraffe, as well as some 250 other stuffed and mounted wild game trophies, most of them shot or trapped by Foster. Rio Vista—the Delta's biggest town, with a population of approximately 5,000—swells every October when the Bass Festival reels in more than 35,000 people.
One of the most evocative towns along the Delta is Locke, built in 1915 by and for Chinese agricultural workers. Known in its heyday for worldly attractions like gambling, hooch, and opium, Locke was also a vibrant Chinese community with its own grocery stores and school. When the town was conceived, the Chinese workers, because of antialien laws, could own buildings but not the land on which they stood. Even after the laws were found unconstitutional in 1952, the land remained in the hands of the original owner and, later, a development company. Though for many years Locke has felt like a ghost town, change may finally be in the offing. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency recently bought the town site and intends to sell the lots to the buildings' owners, allowing them to obtain bank loans for restoration work.
The Sacramento Delta is known for its water-related recreation, such as sailing, fishing, waterskiing, and windsurfing. Scores of small resorts, including a few that have seen better days, offer amenities ranging from campsites and a boat ramp to comfortable cabins, full-service marinas, and sit-down restaurants. Houseboat rentals are popular, as is "gunk holing," the practice of tying up to a tree or some other unofficial anchorage and settling in for a spell. Motorboats often ignore the no wake zone signs as they happily plow up the wide river.
Though the soil, the history, and the people of the Delta have played important roles in forming its unique character, in the end you always come back to the water. It is a fact of life here as much as the big valley sky. For many years, before the bridge-building days of the early 1900s, dozens of ferries worked the rivers and sloughs. Today, two public ferries remain, both free. The Real McCoy chugs approximately 325 yards across Cache Slough, while the J-Mack pulls itself along a 450-foot cable anchored to opposite banks of Steamboat Slough. Neither takes more than eight cars, and there's no schedule. The ferries run when the pilots spot vehicles to be carried.
The Real McCoy and the J-Mack are evocative holdouts from the Delta's past, but the two small vessels also remind you to take life a little slower. As hurried as you might be, you sometimes have to wait five minutes for the boat to get you to the other side. They're precious minutes, a gift from the Delta, allowing you to take a few breaths, look at the water and trees, and realize you're on Delta time.
Riding on these two ferries is truly a pleasant break to just kick back a few minutes and drink in the beauty of the Delta donated by God for all of us that will take the time to enjoy the moment………What say you friend……..wanta take a ride thru the Delta?………..Ken