By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article about the California Delta is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Fighting discrimination at every turn, some Chinese formed their own town, Locke, in the Delta, a thousand-mile waterway of sloughs and rivers south and west of Sacramento. Today you can browse Locke and learn about the Chinese (and Japanese) heritage of the Delta. The quiet Delta drive on both sides of the Sacramento River, via Highway 160, preserves an earlier era of small-town California, with its rural base.
The Historic Story
The gold era that started in 1848 was brief, only a few years of picking nuggets out of streams. Then came a few decades for blasting gold-bearing quartz below ground. The former was a democratic chance for any man to strike it rich. Some did. However a hundred died of pneumonia in the cold mountain streams for every one who earned riches. The latter phase required vast capitalization, leaving the little man out.
Those who didn’t strike it rich turned to agriculture to sustain themselves. In California’s farming abundance lay a wealth exponentially beyond the dollar value of gold. Nowhere is this more apparent than during a leisurely drive possible on the Delta levees, where pear orchards and vineyards stretch before you.
The remarkable reality of the Delta is that levees have been built to create 55 man-made “islands.” These “dry” ponds impound some 550,000 acres of arable land against the expected seasonal high water of the Sacramento River. The Delta levee construction began in the 1850s and accelerated in the 1870s with the invention of the clamshell dredge. A dredge could scoop up river-bottom materials and deposit them ashore. By the 1930s the full pattern of Delta levees had been completed.
Role of the Chinese in California
The Chinese made a major contribution in California. First they mined for gold. Then they helped build the railroad across the Sierra. Finally they helped to construct the Delta levees and settled in as farmers.
Many lived in the Chinatown area of the town of Walnut Grove. However, it was destroyed in a fire in 1916. The burned-out Chinese leased nearby land from George and Clay Locke and set out to create houses and shops. Thus, the town of Locke was founded entirely by Chinese.
Locke is now a ghost of its former flourishing life, with only a small population. The town once boasted a theater and six restaurants. However, Locke began a new phase in its history when the Locke Boarding House became a California State Historic Park. Visit the Boarding House is at 13916 Main Street. The Locke Boarding House Museum (https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24343) is a welcoming place with exhibits describing the Japanese and Chinese contribution to agriculture and railroad building in California. Make this your first stop in Locke, for brochures and info. Parking and restrooms are nearby.
The Boarding House saga is partly a sad story about an energetic Japanese family that owned the place. They lost everything when they were removed to Arizona in the hysteria after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII.
Beyond the Boarding House
Today you can walk down the Main Street in Locke and visit the Dai Loy Chinese Museum. Once a gambling hall, you can now see photos and artifacts about the everyday life of the Chinese here.
Several art galleries show a range of artists who live and create in the Delta. Prominent local artist Ning Hou has his studio and gallery on a corner of the single street, at 13964 Main Street. He welcomes visitors dropping in to chat, perhaps as he gives an art school class to some of his followers.
Al The Wop’s Place, a rough-hewn saloon and restaurant, serves up adult beverages and steaks. At Al’s Place the ceiling is littered with fading dollar bills. Locke Garden is a Chinese restaurant that specializes in ample and economical dishes, such as Cashew or Almond Chicken over rice.
The buildings of Locke linger in a state of arrested decay, narrowly resisting the urge to collapse.
Highway 160 Up and Down the River
Beyond wandering the streets of Locke, the appropriate excursion here is driving up and down the roads on both banks of the Sacramento River around Locke. Highway 160 is the main roadway.
The Delta is a labyrinth of navigable waterways. In the Delta the Sacramento, Mokelumne, and San Joaquin Rivers converge and then flow into San Francisco Bay. The word delta refers to the alluvial flatlands created over eons by these three great rivers.
The Delta is the northwest end of the Great Central Valley of California. The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth, contributing to the reality that California alone is perhaps the sixth largest economy on the planet. The Central Valley reaches from Bakersfield and Fresno in the south to Stockton and Redding in the north. Astonishing amounts of fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown. You will see fields of tomatoes, cotton, grapes, and asparagus. Orchards abound with walnuts, almonds, and apricots. The Delta currently specializes in pears and grapes.
Stockton is on the east side of the Delta. However, Stockton is a large city, and for the traveler the charm of the Delta lies in the small towns along the river.
The Town of Rio Vista
The town of Rio Vista, for example, has a concentration of wealth from its early days as a shipping center and its present role in farming and natural gas production. Residents here focus on sober pursuits such as raising food crops, running resorts, and tending shops. But Delta people also possess a streak of eccentricity. For example, Foster’s Bighorn Cafe in Rio Vista displays a famous collection of mounted big game.
One interesting Delta trip is the 20-mile Tyler Loop out of Walnut Grove, which you can make by car, bicycle, or boat. You’ll pass Georgiana Slough, one of the most beautiful Delta waterways, lined with willow, poplar, and oak. Agricultural fields stretch in every direction.
The Delta’s Movable Bridges
The Delta displays a unique collection of movable bridges. If you have to build a movable bridge to allow ships and tall sailboats to pass, what are your options?
There are three engineering possibilities: the bascule bridge (or drawbridge, usually two halves), the vertical lift bridge (a central section going straight up), and the swing bridge (pivoting on its own pedestal).
The Delta presents all three options, which you see while driving up and down Highway 160 along the Sacramento River.
This parade of elegant bridges starts with the lovely, yellow bascule bridge at Isleton. There is a vertical lift bridge example near Rio Vista.
Locke is along Highway 160, running along the banks of the Sacramento River. The drive is an hour northeast from San Francisco.
Be Sure to See
Locke would be the main stop, but other Delta towns on either side of the river are of interest. The pear and grape fields along the river celebrate the agricultural bounty of California.
Best Time of Year
The Delta is good any time of the year. Isleton hosts a popular Crawdad Festival in June.
The Ryde Hotel outside Walnut Grove would be the fancy and historic place to stay. Originally built in 1927 as a way-stop for the riverboats, the Ryde Hotel is now a bright spot in the Delta scene. Contact the Ryde Hotel (14340 Highway 160; 916/776-1318; http://rydehotel.com/).
A comfy downhome alternative would be a cabin at Vieira’s Resort, a complex near Isleton, along the river, where RVers and fishermen congregate. The Resort Store shows photos of the salmon, striped bass, and sturgeon caught in the adjacent Sacramento River. An on-premises Rivers Edge Bar & Grill is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. See Vieira’s Resort (15476 Highway 160, Isleton; 916/777-6661; https://vieirasresort.com/).
Rivers Edge Bar and Grill at Vieira’s Resort (916/777-7778) is a friendly place.
In Locke, the Chinese restaurant Locke Garden (916/776-2100) serves large and economical plates, such as Vegetables with Chicken over rice.
The Ryde Hotel dining room is open on Sunday for a champagne brunch.
For Further Information
Contact the California Delta Chambers & Visitors Bureaus in Rio Vista for info on Locke and other Delta attractions (916/777-4041; https://californiadelta.org).