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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

The Delta King, Old Sacramento


On May 21st, 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight to Paris and a new era of travel began. Less than two weeks later, the newspapers acclaimed what was to be the end of an old era of travel.
"Hail To The King Of The Sacramento," read the headline of the Sacramento Bee on June 2nd, 1927. The headline saluted the maiden voyage of the world's grandest paddlewheel steamboat, the Delta King. And the very next day, the Delta King's sister ship, the Delta Queen, completed her maiden voyage. Thus began the journeys of The Delta Queen and King, identical 285-foot riverboats that for more than a decade were to make nightly cruises between San Francisco and Sacramento. These ships were the last of the great riverboats that for a hundred years prior had been the major means of transportation and commerce on our inland waterways.
If you enter the city of Sacramento from the north, from Highway 80, you'll cross Tower Bridge. Old Sacramento sits just at the foot of that drawbridge. The old town has been restored for tourists and sits alongside an unattractive and muddy stretch of the Sacramento River. But here is the exact place where much of California history began. A place where countless boats and ships once docked during California's Gold Rush era after sailing up from San Francisco with miners and adventurers seeking their fortunes, with men and women destined to develop the state of California. And here is where the Delta King, today a floating riverboat hotel, is docked.
In the 1920's the owners of the "Delta King and Queen" dreamt of building the grandest riverboats afloat. But they were dreaming of glories of an era that had already passed. The Delta Queen and King were fabulous boats but they were dinosaurs the day they went into operation. The very day that the Delta King set out on San Francisco Bay for its coast guard trials was the day the Carquinez Bridge opened. That bridge was the first to span the Sacramento River Delta from Vallejo to Crockett. Riverboats became even more of an anachronism in 1937 when the Golden Gate Bridge opened. It was bridges and highways and the ability to get from the state capital to San Francisco without taking a ferry that spelled the doom of riverboats.
From 1927 to 1940, the twin ferryboats left their docks at 6:30 p.m., one from San Francisco, the other from Sacramento. Flags flew from bow and stern. The black single smokestack behind the bridge belched gray smoke. Mid-way in the 10 1/2 hour trip, the King and Queen passed one another in the dark, with the noise of celebration aboard each echoing across the quiet river, and with passengers gazing at a majestic blaze of lights before them.
In 1940 the decision was made to take the King and Queen out of service. Then the war broke out and the navy used the paddlewheelers as troop transports, shuttling recruits from forts along the river to troop ships in San Francisco readying to go abroad.
Today, the King goes nowhere. Her engines were long ago scavenged for spare parts for the Delta Queen, which is still a working steamboat that plies the Mississippi River. The Delta King sits stolidly on the Sacramento River, at a dock alongside a railroad yard museum across from Old Sacramento with its wood plank western sidewalks and touristy stores. But just a few blocks from the river, you can walk through a tunnel that flows into a modern outdoor mall and then into downtown Sacramento with its electric trolley cars, and a little further on to the Capital Mall and the wonderful Capital dome.
The Delta King has been a floating hotel in Sacramento since 1989. There are 43 staterooms and a captain's quarters available for guests. You can dine aboard in the elegant Pilothouse restaurant with river views to starboard and Old Town Sacramento to port. The Pilothouse has a seafood emphasis but also offers steak and chicken. It's open for lunch and dinner and serves a continental breakfast for guests only. During the week, the King mostly accommodates business travelers. During the weekend couples arrive for weekend getaways where they can enjoy live piano music in the Delta's Lounge, a romantic play in her intimate 115-seat theatre, or participate in a murder mystery dinner.
The Delta King is the centerpiece of Old Sacramento. Climb the gangplank and go aboard. She still gleams white outside; and inside, rare woods, mahogany and teak, shine. Her staterooms seem a bit cramped with low ceilings and her furnishings are quite antique. There are no elevators on the King, no high-rise views, no pool, no spa, no room service. But the Delta King is not a Holiday Inn or a Hyatt, she's a riverboat. It you want a "hotel room," there are many in Sacramento. But if you want an experience, a memory, a place close to both Old Sacramento and its modern downtown Capital, a place to stay that still has the heartbeat of history alive within it, make the Delta King your destination. (Reservations: 916-444-KING).