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Sunday, August 30, 1981

A Long Line of Ships

Ernest D. Wichels

The column’s title this week comes from Arnie Lott’s excellent book on Mare Island (A Long Line of Ships! Naval Institute, 1954). It names more than a thousand naval, foreign and commercial ships that visited our local channel. during the first century of Mare Island’s existence.

But Solano’s own waterfront, from Carquinez Straits to Cache Slough on the Sacramento and the new streamship canal to the capital, has seen many hundreds.  Some readers still remember the Delta Queen and the Delta King the palatial passenger sternwheelers that plied between San Francisco and Sacramento; the “Queen” does the same today on the Mississippi.  Many remember the world’s largest car ferries, Solano and Carquinez, which carried entire trains between Benicia and Port Costa before the opening of the railway bridge in the 1930s.

We have written about Vallejo and Mare Island shipping in early days via the sternwheelers St. Helena, Napa City, Zinfandel, Donahue, Antelope, etc., and the passenger service by the. Bay City, El Capitan, Napa Valley, Calistoga, Monticello, Sehome and the other Monticello boats.  And local passenger service by the Vallejo, Julia, Benicia, , Issaquah, Lizzie, City of Seattle, Ellen and others.  But, with the advent of the Gold Rush in 1849, the 50-mile channel on Solano’s southern boundary was a veritable parade of sidewheelers, sternwheelers and some sailing vessels.

John Sutter’s “Sacramento” had been the most important river carrier before 1849 going upstream (as far as Red Bluff) and to San Francisco for supplies. Then came the McKim, the Chin-du-Wan and the 37-foot Sitka.  Sam Brannan (the Calistoga founder) who moved his store merchandise to Sacramento aboard his boat, the Eliodora. Another early boat was the Joven Guipuzcoana and the Whiton. Another “Sacramento” then came from the East, and she, together with the Mint, touched Benicia on both in bound and outbound runs.

By 1849 some 30 schooners, brigs and barks were in the business between San Francisco and Sacramento, and the upper river ports of Marysville and Red Bluff. . These included the New England, Washington, Aetna, Firefly, Kanai, Sagadabock, Olivia, Diana, My Darling, Sea Witch and Flame O’Dawn.  By 1850 there was hardly room on the Sacramento waterfront for the growing fleet.  Larger boats were being built in San Francisco, like the Tehama, and the Comanche on the Yolo side of the river.  The “imports” included the Quoddy Belle, this Arcadian, the Chesapeake and Sea Eagle. There was the Gold . Hunter, El Dorado, Hartford, Governor Dana, Linda, Jack Hayes, San Joaquin, St. Lawrence, New World, W.G. Hunt, Confidence, J. Bragdon and Urilda.

There was competition in rates, and in speed. The Free Trade advertised “we carry your children without charge.” In Feburary 1850, the McKim and the Senator, both trying to make the wharf first, in Benicia, collided spectacularly.

By 1854 “big business” appeared on the scene and several outfits tried to control and river business, in stead of “each boat for itself.” The new, and larger, boats included the Confidence, Colusa, Helen Hensley, Sam Soule, and the former “independents” like the Antelope (which always made Vallejo’s Virginia Street wharf a freight stop), New World (which stopped at south Vallejo), and the Governor Dana.  Most of the smaller ones were diverted to such shipments as wheat from Maine Prairie on Cache Slough, now Vallejo’s pumping plant), the Denverton grain shipping wharves on Nurses’ Slough, on the Rio Vista Road, and the freight and passenger business from Suisun City’s Embarcadero.

There was a lot of boat traffic fruit, potatoes and cobble stones from Cordelia; Cordelia’s wharf was pa the town’s main street where only a culvert crosses a muddy branch of Cordelia Slough today.  With the waning of gold mining, grain and fruit became important, especially on the upper river Feather, Yuba and Sacramento. Those were the days before the hydraulic dredging sands clogged up all of our inland channels.

Prominent in the river traffic, most of which eventually flowed to San Francisco via the Solano County channel, were the P.Z. Reading, Butte, William Robinson, Enterprise, Eureka, Latona, Maria, Young America, Peyton, Cornelia, Princess, Victor, Milton S. Latham and Daniel Moore.

Then came the first “queen” of river boats, the beautiful Chrysopolis, which was. billed as “beautiful as any river palace steaming on the Hudson.”  This palatial passenger boat made stops in Benicia and Rio Vista on occasion, and also in Vallejo. Later, in 1875, she was rebuilt and named changed to “Oakland.”

There were casualties, too boilers blowing up, such as the Fawn, the R.K. Page; collisions like the sinking of the Comanche in Suisun Bay when rammed by the J. Bragdon; and the explosion of the Belle near Marysville.  More than a dozen were wrecked by hitting snags in the Sacramento River.  One tragedy occurred as the Yosemite was pulling out of Rio Vista with a merry crowd on board, including the noted William Sharon (Palace Hotel, etc.), when she caught fire, 100 passengers died that October after-noon.

Today the river, and some thousand miles of Delta sloughs, are home to countless watercraft and numerous marinas. Vallejo and Benicia, too, have several large marinas, as does the Contra Costa shore.  But the days of heavy commercial traffic are gone.

That is, except for the parade of oil tankers that ply as far as the Solano and Contra Costa oil refineries, and the ocean steamers, which come to carry wood chips, canned goods, rice, etc., from Sacramento and Stockton to the ports of the world. Remember, the Sacramento River is part of Solano.