Fun insights into our historic and iconic San Joaquin/Sacremento River Delta

The California Gold Rush, and the stream of miners and fortune-seekers to the Mother Lode of the Sierra, took place long before many roads existed and some 60 years before cars and trucks would appear on the scene. While railroads were beginning to make inroads on shipping freight and moving passengers, riverboats were king during much of the last half of the 19th century.

The Dover river steamer, typical of river boats in the last half of the 19th century, towing a barge from her hog post.

Most adventurers came to Sacramento or Stockton, jumping off places for the mines – and hoping to make their quick fortunes – by boat from San Francisco.  By the early 1850s, a steady procession of river steamers and ferry boats were shipping supplies into towns like Stockton, Mokelumne City (never heard to it, I bet, more on that town below), Stockton and French Camp.  The early steamers were a dangerous lot, with boilers that would routinely explode, killing or scalding passengers and crew.

The first Rio Vista bridge across the mighty Sacramento River was not completed until 1919 – until then ferries and steamboats crossed the wide Sacramento and plied about every corner of the Delta. Rio Vista, in days before the bridge, was site of two of the worst steamboat disasters in state history.  The steamer Washoe’s boiler exploded just north of Rio Vista in September, 1864, killing 16 and injuring 36.

Thirteen months later, the huge steamboat Yosemite, 283 feet in length and hauling a ton of gold and silver from the mines, was pulling away from Rio Vista landing when her boiler blew, killing 13 Americans whose names were listed in the Alta newspaper.  Following the racial prejudice of the day, the paper noted, additionally, “there were 29 Chinamen killed by the explosion”.

The Rio Vista Bridge, circa 1960, carries high traffic loads across the wide Sacramento River.

The current Rio Vista steel truss bridge was completed in 1960; the Italian freighter Ilise, navigating in dense tule fog in 1967, struck the bridge’s eastern span, shutting bridge traffic down. The ship suffered only modest damage, though the bridge fared worse. With east-west traffic halted, CalTrans repairs took just 22 days, demonstrating the importance of Highway 12 to the regional economy.

If you have additional time in the area, other nearby historic river towns beckon. Isleton, with a cute historic district and several restaurants, Walnut Grove, Locke, the Ryde Hotel and Grand Island Hotels can make for an additional day of exploring amongst the meandering Delta waterways and picturesque roads that follow them. For really fun exploration, seek out the Delta’s two free auto ferries, the Real McCoy II and the J Mack.

This granite marker on Thornton Road just south of the Mokelumne River commemorates the site of Mokelumne City, a busy shipping port until the huge flood of 1861 (the brass plaque has been stolen, unfortunately).

Mokelumne City: Yes, you probably never heard of it, but in the 1950s it was the second largest town and port in San Joaquin County.  Located on the south bank of the Mokelumne River at the juncture with the Cosumnes River, the former town site is just south of the Cosumnes River Preserve on Thornton Road.  Benson’s Ferry crossed the Mokelumne here, and the town was a busy, growing town and shipping port until early in the 1860s.  Then came the huge storms of 1861 and resulting flood, and many of the town’s wooden buildings were washed downstream.  The city fathers realizes the town’s location was untenable, and the city quickly evaporated – leaving Woodbridge and Lockeford, further up the river, to contend for shipping business and prosperity.

See my previous blog and the Thursday, February 25 Record newspaper, for a full feature on exploring the Delta Loop, Brannan Island State Recreation Area and the historic town of Rio Vista.

The Steamboat Slough Bridge, circa 1927, is typical of scores of historic bridges taking local traffic between the Delta's many islands.

Pack a lunch, or pack a bag, and explore these scenic destinations and historic places, so near to your home.

How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 north, then Hwy. 12 west and watch for the well-marked Delta Loop (turn right on Brannan Island Road); to find Brannan Island State Rec Area and the town of Rio Vista, continue west on Hwy. 12. To find the site of the true “ghost town” of Mokelumne City, travel the stretch of Thornton Road, just south of the Mokelumne River and watch for the granite marker.

What to bring: Plenty of warm clothing should weather be chilly; fishing gear if a fisher-person, binoculars and your camera, of course!

The Real McCoy II is one of two free auto ferries near Rio Vista that connect meandering roads in the Delta area.

For more information: The Delta Loop,, (916) 777.4945; The Discover the Delta Foundation,, (916) 777-4442; for info on operating hours of the two CalTrans free auto ferries, call the ferry update line, (510) 622-0120.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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