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Steamboat Travel on San Francisco Bay and Beyond

Entry Author: Stan Garvey

Paddle Wheels on San Francisco's Waterfront: The gentle splash of a paddle wheel - the deep tones of a steam whistle - black smoke billowing from a riverboat's stack. Is this a scene from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi?" Or is it a scene from bygone days in San Francisco?

Though cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge symbolize today's San Francisco, years ago this city boasted another colorful phenomenon. Old-time residents still remember a nearly-forgotten time when they could walk down to the waterfront and catch an overnight steamer to Sacramento.

With a paddle-wheel heritage dating back to the Gold Rush, steamboat travel between San Francisco and Sacramento reached its zenith of luxury and comfort when, in 1927, the Delta King and Delta Queen departed on their maiden voyages from San Francisco. These vessels were maritime masterpieces of their day.

Delta Queen 1944
Photo SF National Maritime Museum

On June 1, 1927, the forecast of "fair and mild with moderate westerly winds" promised seasonal weather, typical for the city by the Golden Gate. But on the waterfront, it was not going to be just another typical day. At 6:30 p.m. that evening, the Delta King - loaded with passengers anticipating dinner, dancing, and the excitement of the boat's inaugural cruise - departed San Francisco's Pier 3 and headed for Sacramento. The next evening, the Delta Queen left Pier 3 on her maiden voyage.

The California Transportation Company, a highly regarded firm engaged in the river trade since 1875, had just finished building these identical paddle-wheel steamboats at Stockton. They were the finest built anywhere and would be based at company headquarters in San Francisco. The two boats would cover the "Delta Route," alternating each night with one leaving San Francisco, the other departing Sacramento. For the next 13 years, these majestic twin vessels passed each other nightly on the Sacramento River near Rio Vista, the midpoint between the two cities.

Although freight produced more revenue for the company than passengers did, the vessels are best remembered for their grand style and passenger comforts. For many, the memory is of friends and family enjoying the cruise and the sights along the way. For some, the memory is of wild overnight trips that get wilder with each telling. Former crew members recall the boats with fondness; one says, "Those were the most exciting years of my life."

Departing San Francisco, passengers strolling the outer decks were treated to a world-class view. Out beyond the rolling wake of the sternwheel lay the Ferry Building, the city's skyline, Alcatraz Island, and the Golden Gate. Soon Angel Island, Mt. Tamalpais, Red Rock, and The Brothers came into view. Other sights might have included a glimpse of a steamship headed for the Pacific or a bay ferryboat under way, such as the Eureka on its Sausalito-to- San Francisco run. Occasionally, a ferry would come so close that passengers could hear its bells and whistles.

After dark, those walking the decks could observe the new Carquinez Bridge as the boat passed under. With great fanfare, this span had opened for traffic just ten days before the maiden voyages. For the King and Queen, however, the bridge meant added competition from cars and trucks.

Before retiring for the night, many passengers would enjoy the sparkling lights of towns along the way - Vallejo, Benicia, Martinez, Pittsburg, and Antioch. True night owls might stay up all night to view the opening of five drawbridges upstream: at Rio Vista, Isleton, Walnut Grove, Courtland, and Freeport. All these bridges are still in operation. In the morning, passengers would awaken in their staterooms with the vessel already docked at the M Street wharf in Sacramento. It was time for breakfast in the boat's dining room.

A different experience awaited those departing Sacramento. In the summer, passengers would feel the valley's warm, dry air - a major shift from the cool marine climate of San Francisco. Also, instead of whitecaps and distant shores as on the Bay, those leaving from Sacramento saw smooth, flowing water and lush riverbank foliage so close it almost seemed to touch the boat's railing. And, always, there was the unmistakable scent of the river: dampness, mud, and tules. Often, a car on the levee road would slow down and, for a moment, hold its speed to that of the boat. To those on the bank, the large paddlewheeler steaming down the river with lights ablaze made an unforgettable sight.

With their distinctive architecture and fine furnishings, the King and Queen offered a treasure trove of delights. Coming aboard, passengers immediately noticed the polished brass and colorful stained-glass panels above the windows. Just inside the lobby door on each boat, the grand staircase rose to the deck above. With its ornate bronze filigree and its large, curving Honduran- mahogany handrails flaring out into the lobby, the staircase made an elegant centerpiece. Graceful wicker chairs, Old English oak paneling with mahogany trim, and gleaming brass chandeliers added to the ambience.

Aft, beyond the lobby, a spacious dining room displayed fresh flowers on linen-covered tables. Large windows, port and starboard, assured passengers a full view of the bay or river when dining. Near the stern, the social hall featured comfortable overstuffed leather chairs, a grand piano, and two large curved skylights of stained glass. Imported tapestries graced the walls.

Aft, beyond the lobby, a spacious dining room displayed fresh flowers on linen-covered tables. Large windows, port and starboard, assured passengers a full view of the bay or river when dining. Near the stern, the social hall featured comfortable overstuffed leather chairs, a grand piano, and two large curved skylights of stained glass. Imported tapestries graced the walls.

Passengers had a choice of stateroom size and amenities, with or without private bath. But all rooms had washbowls with hot and cold running water. Cabins ranged from $1 to $5; meals and fare were extra. During the Great Depression, fare dropped to $1.50 one way and $1.95 round trip.

At dinnertime, passengers chose from a menu that offered a five-course meal - featuring pork chops, chicken, ham, and roast beef - for just 75 cents. Filipino stewards in crisp white jackets waited table. After dinner, tables and chairs were moved to the side to make room for dancing. On weekends live bands would play - on week nights, there was recorded music. Dancers did the two-step, waltz, fox trot, and Charleston.

Despite stories to the contrary, until the end of Prohibition in December 1933, the King and Queen did not serve alcoholic beverages. Those who wanted to imbibe brought their own. The crew would look the other way, perhaps - but serve it, never. After repeal, the company installed cocktail bars. Humorist and writer Irvin S. Cobb came aboard, pulled out a $20 bill, and said, "Drinks for everyone!"

Big-time gamblers may be a colorful image, but the reality aboard these boats was less daring: gambling consisted only of slot machines. For several years in the 1930s, the boats carried machines of the nickel, dime, and two-bit variety. But eventually they were shut down by state Attorney General Earl Warren.

The freight deck held diverse cargo, including passengers' cars. Coming downstream, large shipments on pallets were mainly agricultural commodities, such as rice and canned peaches. On the upriver trip, the cargo was mostly manufactured goods.

That these were night boats shaped their lives profoundly. For passengers, it meant a certain romance and excitement that only an overnight vessel could bring. For shippers, it meant cargo dropped at the dock by late afternoon would be delivered early the next morning. For the river pilot, it often meant hours of tension in the darkness as he dealt with tule fog, rain, or high winds. And coming downsteam with a heavy load of freight, the pilot faced five drawbridges that had to open in time. Day trips were easier but were offered only on special occasions.

In spite of the dangers of night travel, the Delta King and Delta Queen had an exemplary safety record. They ran every night of the year, regardless of weather and visibility. In their more than 13 years of commercial service, each made almost 4,500 voyages on bay and river for a total of nearly 9,000 trips in all. That represents roughly a million miles of water travel, comparable in distance to four trips to the moon. They did it all by steam and paddle wheel - without radar, depth finders, or other sophisticated navigational aids - and without one serious accident.

In the mid-1930s, passengers and crew departing San Francisco on the King and Queen witnessed a stunning trio of engineering projects under way. First, they saw construction of two of the largest bridges in the world - the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Then they viewed creation of what was billed as the biggest man-made island on earth, Treasure Island, site for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition.

As it turned out, the future of the vessels was closely linked with all three projects. The new bridges would bring more highway competition - bad news for the boats. On the other hand, Treasure Island would mean added revenue from fair-bound passengers - good news for the boats. The one and only steamboat race between the King and Queen took place in 1939, the first year of the fair, with the King winning in a close finish at Treasure Island.

The Decline of Steamboat Travel: The Great Depression caught the California Transportation Company at a time when it was already feeling financial stress from increased car and truck ownership, new bridges, and improved highways.

In an effort to survive these difficult times, in 1932 the C.T. Co. joined two other firms to form an operating service called The River Lines. Initially, the new plan helped. But circumstances worked against the company and its vessels. Major strikes on the San Francisco waterfront in the mid-1930s, although not directed at the paddle-wheel boats, nearly finished their careers. In the fall of 1935, the C.T. Co. declared bankruptcy, and it was two years before the firm would emerge from that shadow.

Click here for the continuation of a story, Part 2.


Delta King & Delta Queen Construction, 1924-1927
Regular service: San Francisco-Sacramento, 1927-1940
Their final voyages between San Francisco and Sacramento, September 29, 1940




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