The King Lives On – 90 years on

Awakening to the strident cries of sea gulls and the honking of Canada Geese seemed odd. And as the fog of sleep cleared, the eyes revealed we were awakening in a museum.

Then it all came back: we were in Sacramento and lodged at the Delta King Hotel, an authentic and classy riverboat with memorable ties to our community of Kitimat.

The opportunity to visit the California capital came early in March of 2017. For us coming from Kitimat where the iconic Delta King had been so much in the life of the infant Aluminum City, the idea of revisiting the Delta King was a priority.

The King, now in its 90th year, is a remarkable boat with a stellar history of ups and downs and which is now a recognized National Historic Site in the USA.

It and sister vessel the Delta Queen were launched in Stockton, California in 1927. Each million-dollar boat was considered decadent – they were the most refined and expensive riverboats ever made.

The hulls were manufactured in sections in Dumbarton, Scotland and welded into full and fancy ships in California. Building both five-decked ships up from the waterline took more than a year at the Stockton shipyards.

No expense was spared in building the fanciest old time riverboats ever to ply the rivers of North America.

The royal pair were 285 feet long with a 58-foot beam and both had two engines capable of a 2,000 horsepower output which could propel the vessels with their massive 26-foot paddle wheels at a respectable 14 knots.

The boats were designed to supply the lucrative Sacramento to San Francisco market and were largely overnight boats traversing the Sacramento River with its half a dozen uplift draw bridges while the passengers slept or danced the night away.

It was a relaxing and glamorous way to travel during the Roaring Twenties. The cost of a round trip to San Francisco on the King was three dollars, quite a lot for 1927.

The King and Queen had to be quite robust ships as they would encounter Pacific waves and tides in the more open San Francisco Bay area.

But following the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930s, the King and Queen’s futures were in doubt.

Other factors contributing to the demise of riverboats on the Sacramento River were the development of quality road and rail infrastructure which made much of the King’s freight carrying ability redundant.

The competition and profit margins had all had an impact by 1940 – and then along came World War II.

It was the Delta King’s finest hour.

For the duration of the war the paddle wheelers King and Queen were seconded by the navy. The King became a navy yard boat ferry for the sailors from the various ships and bases throughout the extensive Bay area.

It became a well- loved amenity for tens of thousands of soldiers.

The boat which normally had carried a thousand or fewer passengers was known to pack in up to 3,000 servicemen at a time. Most would be standing or taking in the action from the four main decks, all with wide ship side railed walkways.

In its first year as a navy boat the Delta King had the dubious honour of receiving the first casualties from Pearl Harbour – the King had to transfer the wounded from warships to land based hospitals.

Following the war California’s most famous riverboats were put up for sale.

In 1952 the Delta King was purchased by Kitimat Constructors and for the next seven years it became a storied part of the life of Kitimat, serving primarily as a floating bunkhouse.

But by 1959 the fading gem of a riverboat had served its purpose on the Douglas Channel.

Its blistered balconies, rusting hull, and peeling paint were much in evidence as it was towed home under Frisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to Stockton, its birthplace.

For two more decades the boat declined despite numerous

resurrection plans.

The boat flooded at least three times, the crowning and near fatal blow coming in the early 1980s when the King completely sank at its moorings at Stockton.

But even after 15 months awash and barnacle and muscle encrusted, this was not the King’s watery demise.

Eventually Vancouver businessman and promoter Robert Taylor came to the rescue with a successful half million dollar refloating scheme to salvage the vessel. From there counter plans developed as there was a lot of animosity between Stockton and Sacramento over which site should moor the historic ship.

By 1989 the issue was settled. Sacramento would be its new home.