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Sunday, April 23, 1995

Becoming port of call put Rio Vista on map

Kristin Delaplane

Furious storms wash town away in early 1860s

Information for this story came from Fairfield Library, Vacaville Heritage Council & Rio Vista Museum.
First of two parts
The first Caucasian to see this area was probably Sir Francis Drake, when he explored the region on his trips up the Sacramento River in 1578.

A following exploration wasn’t until 1817 when a Spanish party passed this way. The next mention of the area is in 1844 when Gen. Bidwell sailed up to Sacramento in a schooner and pursued acquiring the Los Ulpinos Land Grant of 17,726 acres.

This tract of land is northeast of the current Rio Vista starting at the Cache Slough and going south 12 miles. Bidwell became an naturalized Mexican citizen to be eligible for the land grant. At that time he erected an adobe with the help of some Indian labor and left an Englishman, P.B. Reading, and the Indians in charge over the winter. The next season a bit of the land was cultivated. These things were done according to terms dictated in acquiring the land.

This was all taking place at a time when small ports and towns were developing along and near the river to take advantage of the growing dependence on river transportation. Travel by road was long and hazardous. One of the hazards being muggings, which were a frequent occurrence along horse and coach trails. The weather was another factor: rain often made roads impassable. On the other hand, river travel was safer and more predictable.

In 1846, while up in the Sacramento area, Capt. Bidwell induced a group of emigrants to settle on his land. They had just arrived from crossing the plains and were seeking good agricultural land. That winter, 1846-47, proved to be particularly severe. Food supplies ran short and starvation was imminent. Bidwell’s Patwin Indians, who remained with the settlers, took to lamenting, “Hale-che-muck,” which translated into “nothing to eat.” A number of Indians died. Thereafter, this ill-fated settlement became known as Hale-che-muck. Spring arrived and the emigrants made a hasty departure.

Bidwell, uncertain about the status of his land as the Americans were taking over, started selling pieces of the land grant. When he went to the court to gain legal rights to the land, the paperwork, due to these sales, was a shambles. Nevertheless, in 1866, Bidwell was granted a legal patent to the land.

One of those to buy a piece of Bidwell’s grant was a Robert Beasley. Beasley established a primitive ferry service for the locals using a flatboat and chain. Settling in, he ordered a house from back east. It was shipped around the Horn for reassembling. Beasley had no idea the style of the house and was surprised to find as he constructed it that it was framed as a double house (a duplex). Whatever happened to Beasley and his house is lost in time.

This area of the river gradually became famous for its excellent salmon fishing. Thousands of salmon could be caught in nets and the fresh fish rushed to the markets in Sacramento and San Francisco. In 1857, Col. N.H. Davis bought a section of Bidwell’s land with the intention of forming a town. He immediately set about to convince J.M. Sidwell to move his thriving general store-house building from Grand Island to take advantage of the growing fisherman trade. Sidwell had been in general merchandise business for several years. Originally from Ohio and Illinois, he had made his way to California in 1852. After working on a ranch for five months, he opened a store on a farm near Sacramento. In 1854 he moved to Grand Island.

Davis named his new settlement of one store “Brazos del Rio,” (Arms of the River). In 1858, Sidwell’s Store was the polling place as the 3rd precinct for the Montezuma Township. Soon other businesses sprang up: a butcher shop, blacksmith shop, tin shop, another store, a drug store and a livery stable.

Of course, private residences were also being built. Sidwell built a hotel. He then expanded his entrepreneurial activities to contracting out to build levees and flood gates.

Naturally, putting a boat landing in place was a priority. A wharf, 24 by 75 feet, was fashioned. But it did not fulfill the expectation that the steamers, who already stopped at Benicia, would also make Brazos del Rio a port of call. Undeterred, Davis petitioned for a post office, which would force the steamer New World, which carried mail, to stop. A post office was approved with the proviso that the name of the settlement be changed. “Vista del Rio” was agreed upon, but in short order that was clipped to “Rio Vista.”

In 1859 the California Steam Navigation Co. took over the wharf and made it twice the size, 48 by 150 feet. This was an era of prosperity. Steamers pulled in regularly and hundreds of fishermen fished the river.

Then Mother Nature struck with a fury. The winter of 1861 brought torrential rains. It rained day and night, days on end. This resulted in flooding a portion of the town so badly that some buildings simply washed away. But the worst was yet to come!

On Jan. 9, 1862, the rain came down in massive torrents. The flooding escalated reaching 12 feet. These waters crested in the raging storm, producing waves that pounded the remaining buildings, knocking them down. The wharf could not withstand the onslaught and it also washed away. The town’s pioneers quickly gathered what they could and made a hasty flight to the nearest knoll. Here they waited, three to four days in the pounding rain, to be rescued by the next steamer.

Next week: Rio Vista starts anew to become a shipping hub, earning it the title “the Capital of the Netherlands.”