The Sacramento River Delta: Sacramento to Walnut Grove…historic marine highway!


The Delta King, built in Stockton in 1927, was the zenith of luxury passenger travel from San Francisco to Sacramento, operating from 1927 to 1941. It's moored beside Old Sacramento on the Sacramento River, open as a floating hotel, restaurant and theater.

The Old Sugar Mill is home to a dozen wineries and gourmet shops; it is the former Chrystal Sugar Refinery, dating to the 1930s, located on the north edge of Clarksburg.
Elk Slough is a typical Delta waterway, and leads you to Bogle Vineyards and a most scenic drive. Huck Finn should round the bend any minute!
The Steamboat Bridge crosses Steamboat Slough and dates back to 1924, when steamboats often required the drawbridge to be raised!
Al’s Place, better known as Al the Wops, anchors the historic Main Street of the Locke Historic District!

Last week, we explored Old Sacramento and the town’s growth as a port city in the Gold Rush.  Today, we trek down the Sacramento River, exploring the river and its delta to Walnut Grove.  It’s a good day-trip, with waterways, steamboat history, verdant scenery, quaint river towns  and agricultural bounty present at every turn!

Until the 1940s, the main avenues for shipping passengers and freight from San Francisco to the cities of Stockton and Sacramento were, respectively, the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers.  These two marine highways were the main road to the gold fields and to the agricultural bounty of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Deltas.  By river miles, San Francisco to Sacramento was 125 miles, to Stockton, 127.  Steamboats could ply the Sacramento all the way to Red Bluff, 395 miles, or up the San Joaquin to Sycamore Point, well above Fresno, 399 miles.

Steamboats plied both rivers and their tributaries beginning in the 1850s, and continued with passenger service to Sacramento right up to 1941, when the mighty Delta Queen and Delta King were retired as luxury Delta ferries.  With steel hulls built in Scotland and finished up in Stockton in 1927, the King and Queen were the zenith of luxury passenger liners, 250’ long, a spacious dining room with a profusion of wood trim and stained glass dome, luxurious staterooms.  Each would depart San Francisco at 6:30 PM on alternate days, traveling overnight to Sacramento, 125 miles by river. 

We start our tour with the Delta King, now a floating hotel, restaurant and theater moored beside Old Sacramento.  For the flavor of high-class travel from the ship’s christening in 1927 to its retirement in 1941, tour the old luxury liner and marvel at its grand dining room with wood inlays and stately cabins. 

Steamboats like the Delta King would stop at river towns such as Freeport, Courtland, Clarksburg, Locke and Walnut Grove – all just south of Sacramento and the focus of our tour in this feature.  If heading south from Old Sacramento on I-5, take the exit to Freeport/Hwy. 160 and continue south along River Road.  Two miles takes you to Freeport, compact in about four blocks.  Points of interest are the old Freeport Market for a quick stop and bite; the New Moon River Inn, an upscale dining and lodging option and the Freeport Inn, offering all-American dining, a long-time favorite of river travelers.

Just south of Freeport, take the Freeport Bridge (imagine this old draw bridge raising to allow the Delta King to pass) across the Sacramento River to S. River Rd, turn left and it’s only four mikes to the Old Sugar Mill and Clarksburg.  The Old Sugar Mill (formerly the Crystal Sugar refinery from the days in the 1930s when sugar beets were a big Delta crop) has been repurposed as the modern home of almost a dozen wineries and specialty shops, a lovely visitor center and shady grounds.  It’s a marvelous stop on a sunny afternoon.   Just south is Clarskburg, home to the quaint Husick Hardware and General Store and the Holland Market, a favored stop by bicyclists who tour these quiet Delta backroads. 

From Clarksburg, go south on River Road and take an immediate right on Elk Slough Road/Hwy. 144.  The slough is very scenic (you’ll expect to see Huck Finn round the next bend on a raft) and you will soon reach Bogle Vineyards, shady, photogenic and a favorite stop for wine tasting.  Return to S. River Road, go south to the Paintersville Bridge and recross the Sacramento to River Road, where you can either turn north a mile to Courtland, or, go south to Locke and Walnut Grove.

Courtland is the center of the regional pear growers and home to the annual Pear Festival in the fall.  It’s home to the Courtland Market and La Posada Restaurant, both good places to stop and refuel.

Heading south again on River Road, a few scenic miles takes you to unincorporated town of Locke, just above Walnut Grove.  It began as the town of Lockeport in 1912 when Chinese businessmen from nearby towns constructed three buildings, including a dry goods store, beer parlor, gambling hall and the Lockeport Hotel.  In October, 1915, the Chinatown of Walnut Grove, just south, burned to the ground, displacing hundreds of Chinese residents – Locke was a natural choice for relocation. 

The land was leased from George Locke – at the time California law prohibited selling of farmland to Asian immigrants.  Hence, Locke became a town built by the Chinese, for Chinese, and offered a Chinese-language school and businesses and restaurants with direct appeal to the Chinese.  Nearby canneries also offered jobs, and a lively town developed.

By the 1950s, many of the town residents, now better educated, began moving on to larger cities and the town fell into disuse.  Today, it is part of the Locke Historic District, which preserves many of the buildings and way of life from the 1920s.  Visitors would be wise to stop first at the north end of Main Street, where the former boarding house is now the Locke Boarding House Visitors’ Center, offering historic overview and free of charge. 

Other attractions include the Chinese Association Museum, former home of the Jan Ying Benevolent Association, the Locke Chinese School, a language school that opened in 1926, Locke Memorial Park and Monument (which honors the Chinese who labored in agriculture and helped build the levees and railroads early in the century) and the Dai Loy Museum (showcasing gambling paraphernalia). 

Just south is Walnut Grove, one of the early thriving port cities on the river, home to a large number of historic buildings and homes.  It is also home to Tony’s Place and the Pizza Factory restaurants and a number of shops and several art galleries.  Guisti’s Place restaurant, 14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road, Walnut Grove, is probably the best known among local gourmands.   From Walnut Grove, take the Walnut Grove-Thornton Road to I-5, then south back to Stockton.

As a sidebar, the north boundary of San Joaquin County is the Mokelumne River, just two miles north of Thornton.  The Mokelumne once vied for freight supremacy with the San Joaquin and Sacramento routes.  The town of Mokelumne City, at the intersection of the Mokelumne and Consumnes River, was in the 1850s the second largest city in San Joaquin County.  The great flood of 1861-62 wiped it out; Woodbridge and Lockeford would then vie for freight leadership on the twisty Mokelumne River.

Next week, we will continue our tour of the scenic Delta to Ryde, Isleton, Rio Vista and show you the way to two free auto ferries that cross Delta waterways!

How to get there: From Stockton, it’s 45 minutes to Freeport; take I-5 north 38 miles to Sacramento, exit on Pocket Road, and go right to Hwy. 160, then south to Freeport.

When to go: Just about anytime, though some main attractions are open only on weekends.  Check; most of the cities profiled stage annual celebrations and other festivities (like Isleton’s Cajun and Blues Fest in June, Courtland’s July Pear Fair). 

What to see while there: The Delta and its many meandering waterways, the bounty of Delta agriculture (some of the most verdant land in America), scores of classic drawbridges, historic old towns and delightful eateries! 

What’s nearby:  To the north, Old Sacramento (and the Delta King steamboat) and the State Capitol; to the south are Isleton and Rio Vista (and seemingly endless Delta waterways and quiet backroads).

What to take: Good walking shoes, a good map or GPS unit and your camera!

For more info: The Discover the Delta Foundation, 2510 Hwy. 12, Isleton, CA 94561, 916.777.4442,

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me,  Happy travels in the west!

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