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Sacramento rediscovers its river.

Sacramento rediscovers its river From the city's infancy, Sacramento's namesake river has proved both a blessing and a curse. The town's founding father John Sutter saw its potential in 1839, when he built a wharf on the waterway near its junction with the American River to supply his famous fort.

A decade later, the wharf became the jumpoff point for gold miners striking out for the Mother Lode. Enterprising merchants threw up shops, hotels, theaters, and saloons to take advantage of the human stampede. But the same river that delivered fools and their money to these entrepreneurs also inundated their businesses with rain-swollen waters in particularly wet winters.

The riverfront began a slow but steady decline in the 1870s, prompted by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, which soon threw riverboat travel into obsolescence. Silt from hydraulic mining upstream also barred passage of the big steamboats that had plied the waters between Sacramento and San Francisco Bay.

By the 1950s, Sacramento's downtown riverfront had degenerated into a notorious skid row. If you had braved the perils of the area and strolled down to Front Street, it would have been difficult to find the once-proud river, hidden as it was by a bleak concrete floodwall, built by Southern Pacific in 1914.

Lately, however, the city has made great strides to reclaim its riverfront heritage and open up new access to the water. You can walk along a re-created wharf or down to the river's edge; picnic in a waterfront park or dine dockside at a new marina; tour the river or spend the night in a stern-wheeler; or ride in a steam train or bike along a levee.

On torrid summer days, just being within sight of the water can make you feel cooler. Excellent museums near the riverfront add to the incentives for planning a detour if you're passing through town on Interstate 5 or 80.

On the historic waterfront

The capital's riverfront revitalization is particularly apparent in Old Sacramento, between I Street and Capitol Mall. A rough-planked wharf has replaced the floodwall that stood between the river and California's largest remaining collection of gold rush buildings. Cranes replicating ones placed here in the 1860s to lift cargo from ships to freight cars enhance the illusion of a working waterfront, as do the wooden re-creations of buildings that served the transportation industries of this vital crossroads.

The original California Steam Navigation Company depot, near K and Front streets, was the embarkation point for steamboat passengers and freight traveling downstream or upriver; the rebuilt version now houses a bakery and a visitor information center (stop in for walking-tour maps and suggestions on other Old Sacramento attractions not mentioned here). Overlooking the river, replicas of the C.S.N.C. warehouse and its two-story Italianate office are being converted into a seafood restaurant and take-out cafe.

Near the site where ground was broken for the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific Railroad freight depot now shades passengers waiting to board a steam-powered excursion train operated by the nearby California State Railroad Museum. From 10 to 5 on weekends and holidays through Labor Day, trains with both open and closed coaches leave on the hour for 7-mile, 45-minute rides south along the river; fare is $4 for adults, $2 for ages 6 through 17.

On the river below the wharf floats a replica of the Globe. The original was an 1833 packet brig that sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco in 1849. The following year, it wound up docked in Sacramento, converted into a roofed storeship selling goods to miners. The replica was constructed using shipbuilding methods of that period, and it's now stocked with blasting powder cases and other goods, as well as an interactive exhibit and displays on Sacramento River history. You can usually get inside for a free look from 9 to 5 Thursdays through Mondays.

Dine or sleep aboard

a moored paddle boat ...

Old Sacramento's most prominent new waterfront fixture, the Delta King, is a more recent example of a vessel converted to dockside use. A five-decked riverboat nearly a football field long, it's now a floating hotel and restaurant moored permanently at the foot of K Street. The Delta King's saga (which has earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places) parallels the rise, fall, and rebirth of the waterfront itself.

The elegant stern-wheeler and its mate, the Delta Queen, were built in Scotland and Stockton in the 1920s, the last of their breed. They carried Prohibition-era bon vivants, who could drink and gamble legally as soon as the boats shoved off on overnight runs between San Francisco and Sacramento. But the repeal of Prohibition and the Great Depression brought an end to the nightly runs in 1939. During World War II, the boats were painted battleship gray and pressed into duty as troop transports, hospital ships, and navy barracks.

After the war, the Delta Queen was shipped off to the Mississippi, where it still carries passengers on river cruises. The King, however, was shuttled ignominiously from one port to another until it sank up to its third deck in San Francisco Bay. The boat's luck changed in 1984, when developer Ed Coyne and architect Walt Harvey had her raised and towed to Sacramento for renovation.

With five years of painstaking work now completed, the Delta King is once again ready for nights on the river. Rates of $100 and $125 for its 44 staterooms (each with private bath) are considerably higher than the original $3.50, but the rooms are also twice as large (though still small in comparison to most modern hotels). Hotel guests or those simply interested in a good meal can enjoy innovative dishes for lunch or dinner in the Pilothouse Restaurant, or snack on lighter fare with drinks in either the Paddlewheel Saloon or Delta Lounge.

A theater on the cargo deck hosts performances by Mark Twain impersonator Jim Pulsifer (tickets cost $14), as well as a free multimedia presentation on the history of Delta riverboating. Dixieland jazz bands also strike up the music of this country's other great delta on the landing deck or in the Paddlewheel Saloon. For room or dining reservations and information, call (916) 444-5464.

... or take a riverboat cruise

Although the Delta King no longer plies the river, two smaller riverboats patterned after old stern-wheelers allow passengers to tour the river at a relaxed pace. (Both diesel-powered, their paddle wheels are ornamental.)

The Matthew McKinley departs from the L Street Landing at least twice daily for cruises in either direction from Old Sacramento. One-hour narrated cruises ($10 adults, $5 ages 12 and under) cover some of the historical and contemporary sights along the river; on longer 2-1/2- to 3-1/2-hour cruises, you can have brunch ($25), lunch ($20), or dinner ($17.50 plus food and beverage charges) in an enclosed dining salon. For cruise times and reservations, call 552-2933.

The River City Queen, berthed at the Riverbank Marina (see next section) also offers dinner cruises ($28) and brunch cruises ($18.50 for adults, $16.50 seniors, $12 ages 12 and under). On 2-hour narrated cruises ($12, $10, and $6), you can see not only what's above the water but also, on TV monitors connected to a sonar depth finder, what's under it. For times and reservations, call 921-1111.

Riverside dining at new marina

Developments along the Sacramento are not all intent on bringing back the good old days. If carried out, plans for major hotel and marina projects currently under consideration would bring a whole new level of vitality to the still-lazy riverfront.

When Riverbank Marina was completed north of Old Sacramento in 1981, it represented a radical departure from the city's typically rickety older marinas, and offers a prototype for the bigger projects now on the boards. Traditional nautical elements were incorporated into a decidedly contemporary design for the marina and the buildings on the bank above it.

You can get a dockside table overlooking the river at any of the marina's three lively and informal restaurants, all open for lunch and dinner. Crawdad's, which sits just above the water line on the outside dock of the marina, serves steaks and seafood. Two other eateries are perched higher above the river: Chevy's specializes in fajitas and other Mexican dishes, while Rocky Bottoms dishes up hamburgers, salads, pastas, and grilled fish and meat entrees.

River access for strolling, cycling,

picnicking, swimming, or boating

Whether you're looking for a place to sit calmly and watch the river flow or a bicycle path for an invigorating ride, plenty of spots offer recreational access to the Sacramento.

The newest is State Riverfront Park, a small pocket of greenery just north of the Old Sacramento wharf. Partial removal of the floodwall now allows a path to dip down to where the river laps against the bank, and concrete benches afford a good view of trains crossing the I Street Bridge.

A bike trail that heads north along the river from here crosses the American River on a steel bridge to join the Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail, which winds through the American River Parkway for 23 miles to Folsom Lake.

At Miller Park, south of Old Sacramento, tables and barbecue grills invite picnickers to concoct their own riverside repasts. From here, another paved bike trail leads south along the levee for about 2 miles.

The only beach on the Sacramento River within the city's limits, Tiscornia Beach is at the American River confluence. Jammed with sunbathers on hot weekends, it has no lifeguard, so keep a vigilant eye on children wading in the slow current. You can see a demarcation here between the clear water of the American and the Sacramento's silt-laden flow.

Unfortunately, none of Sacramento's marinas rent boats. However, if you have one of your own, you can launch it at any of the public ramps shown on our map.

Museums highlight trains, the

city's history, and cars

Three fascinating and unusual museums right by the river are each well worth a visit for anyone interested in the history of Sacramento or of transportation.

California State Railroad Museum. If you don't enter as a train buff, its immensity and drama might turn you into one by the time you leave. The finest railroad museum on the continent, it contains whole trains of historic rolling stock, as well as noteworthy individual locomotives. An example is the Central Pacific Railroad's first locomotive, displayed in a diorama illustrating the construction of the transcontinental railroad. You'll find more equipment is on view in the nearby re-creation of the 1876 Central Pacific Passenger Depot.

The museum, at Second and I Streets, is open from 10 to 5 daily; admission is $3 adults, $1 ages 6 through 17.

The Sacramento History Museum. Just down I Street from the railroad museum, the history museum resides in a replica of the first city hall and waterworks building. It employs high-tech video and interactive exhibits as well as historic artifacts to explain the Sacramento Valley's past. Hours are 10 to 5 daily; admission is $2.50 adults, $1.50 seniors, $1 ages 6 through 17.

Towe Ford Museum. Four years ago, almost a hundred antique Fords were transported to the city's newest museum from their former home of Deer Lodge, Montana. Now 185 automobiles are on display, including almost every year and model of Ford produced between 1903 and 1953 (and some more contemporary models, too), making this the world's most comprehensive collection of Ford vehicles. On weekends, you can catch a shuttle bus to the museum from the Old Sacramento visitors center. Hours are 10 to 6 daily; admission is $5 adults, $2.50 high-school students, $1 grade-school students.
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Date:Aug 1, 1990
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