By LANCE ARMSTRONG
Editor’s Note: This is part 12 in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
The history of steamers of the Sacramento River is an extensive one that covers a romantic period in the city’s past.
And with the Sacramento Valley’s extensive agriculture operations, steamers were also used to transport agricultural products along the river.
During the 19th century, vessels of small steamboat companies stopped at landings, so that the goods of farmers could be loaded onto those steamers.
A major event in the story of the river’s steamers, of which there were many, was the March 31, 1871 transfer of all property of the California Steam Navigation Co. to the California Pacific Railroad Co.
Five months later, the Central Pacific Railroad, en route to becoming a railroad monopoly, acquired the California Pacific. And with that transaction, the Central Pacific continued the operation of steamers that were once run by the California Steam Navigation Co.
As part of this monopoly, the owners of the Central Pacific also acquired the Southern Pacific. And gradually the Southern Pacific name became the dominant name for all of the railroad holdings.
In 1873, 22 steamboats were registered for regular operation on the river, with the largest of these boats being the 864-ton Amador.
River and harbor statistics for 1873 note that 231 sailing vessels arrived in the capital city during the same year, with the greatest number of these arrivals being 30 during the month of June.
A ferry bay and river steamers report that was printed in June 1878 refers to eight steamers that were then running on the Sacramento River.
These vessels were: Amelia, Chin du Wan, Enterprise and Julia of the San Francisco-Sacramento route and Dover, Flora, Gov. Dana and Red Bluff of the upper Sacramento River.
The sister ships, Modoc and Apache, were the main railroad steamers during the 1880s. These vessels made regular trips to and from Sacramento and San Francisco.
As older steamships in 1912 and for several years more, the Modoc and the Apache abandoned the common night travel along the river for morning departures to and from Sacramento and San Francisco.
During the same era, two of the river’s most famous steamboats, the California Transportation Co.’s Capital City and Fort Sutter, began plying the waters of the Sacramento.
These elegant stern-wheelers, which included staterooms and private baths, were both running on the river by 1912.
The four-deck Capital City was mostly built in 1910, two years prior to the construction of the nearly identical steamer Fort Sutter. This trivial information is odd in a historical timeline fashion, considering that Sutter’s Fort was built a decade before the founding of Sacramento City, which became California’s capital city for the first time in 1852.
Prior to the maiden voyage of the 1,142-ton, 220-foot-long Capital City, a dilemma was being faced.
Although the city wharf near the foot of M Street (now Capitol Mall) was sufficient for smaller sized vessels, it was not built to accommodate a steamer the size of the Capital City.
The specific problem was that in the event of the Capital City’s use of the wharf’s north elevator, her stern would overlap the elevator at the wharf’s southern end, thus causing delays for other vessels.
Upon the suggestion of Mayor Marshall R. Beard, and following official examinations of the wharf, the wharf’s south elevator was moved further south of its original location, at a cost of about $400.
The Capital City, which was christened in San Francisco in a special Aug. 27, 1910 ceremony that was attended Beard, Lt. Gov. Warren R. Porter and many others, was described in the Aug. 25, 1910 edition of The San Francisco Call.
Included in that description were the following words: “The vessel, built for service between here and Sacramento, will set a new mark in river transportation. Roomy and fast, the Capital City will be provided with all the comforts of a great ocean liner or first-class hotel. Every state room will be served with hot and old running water and there will be a number of private suites with private bathrooms adjoining. The interior woodwork is all mahogany. There are wide stretches of promenade decks and on the top side is a large observation room protected on all sides from inclement weather by large plateglass (sic) windows. The hull is divided into nine watertight compartments, these compartments being separated by cross steel bulkheads. An elaborate fire sprinkling system has been installed. This all means that the Capital City will be practically unsinkable and fireproof.”
The then-new steamer was put in operation between Sacramento and San Francisco in about October 1910.
In 1927, the Capital City was decommissioned due to the introduction of the California Transportation Co.’s (later River Lines’) steamers, Delta King and Delta Queen.
The Capital City was relocated to the San Joaquin River and renamed the Port of Stockton.
The vessel continued to work the river until 1942, when it was purchased by the Army for use as floating barracks.
Following the war, theatrical manager Barney Gould purchased the old riverboat, which he planned to convert into a floating entertainment center with a restaurant and nightclub.
The Capital City, according to the March 15, 1952 edition of The Sacramento Bee, was eventually renamed the City of San Francisco.
On March 14, 1952, the steamer partially sunk during a storm in the San Francisco harbor channel, China Basin.
The old stern-wheeler had recently been painted red, white and blue in preparation for its intended relocation to the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
The Bee reported on Sept. 11, 1958 that the Sherman Crane Service of Oakland had been paid $9,477 for the wrecking and removal of the old vessel from China Basin.
As previously mentioned, the four-deck steamer Fort Sutter, which was built by Sacramento Bay Shipbuilders, was constructed two years following the building of the Capital City.
In a well attended event held in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 1912, the Capital City left its shore while Eva Lowry, winner of a Sacramento High School contest for the best essay about John A. Sutter, broke a Sacramento Valley Winery champagne bottle over the steamer’s bow.
Prior to breaking the bottle, Lowry raised it above her head and said, “I christen thee Fort Sutter.”
Since the Fort Sutter would not begin its Sacramento-San Francisco route until the following month, about 60 Sacramentans, who had attended the event, returned home aboard the Capital City.
In an early report about the Fort Sutter, The Bee described the vessel, as follows: “The Fort Sutter will cost approximately a quarter of a million dollars and will be one of the best boats of her type afloat. The (steamer) will have accommodations for 260 passengers in (66) staterooms and suites. There will be four three-room suites on the boats with bathrooms. In every room there will be electric lights, running hot and colt (sic) water an (sic) telephone connection with all parts of the boat.”
The Fort Sutter also included three decks for passengers, a dining room with a capacity of 70, a large social hall, an observation room, a barber shop, a newsstand, a candy store, a barroom/card room, smoking rooms and washstands with hot and cold water in each of the staterooms.
The social room included a dome of colored glass that both lighted and beautified the room. The glass was valued at more than $2,000.
Inside the staterooms was mahogany and birch woodwork and doors of teak.
Fort Sutter’s original officers of the were Capt. G.H. Goodell, chief engineer William L. Ely, pilots Andrew Carlson and A.R. Paul, first mate Albert Johnson and purser F.E. Greenbaum.
It was business as usual for Fort Sutter until 1927, when it was also decommissioned with the introduction of the Delta King and Delta Queen.
During World War II, the Navy acquired Fort Sutter and used the riverboat to house and feed sailors near Mare Island in the Carquinez Straits.
After the war, M.O. Mason, a Sacramento automobile salesman and owner of the Capital City Yacht Club, purchased the vessel from the Navy, and had it returned to the capital city in January 1947.
J.H. McGee of 1712 N St., J.A. Peterson of 1744 Sherwood Ave., and his brother L.A. Peterson of 2430 V St. purchased the boat a year later for the purpose of converting it into a fishing club on the south side of the Three Mile Slough Bridge.
As part of their project, these men planned to open a restaurant on the boat’s second deck, as well as club and cocktail rooms.
Under the old steamer’s new ownership, the San Francisco tugs, Antioch and Paul Martin, pulled it down the river toward Rio Vista on Oct. 10, 1949.
Gould later acquired Fort Sutter, which began to deteriorate in San Francisco Bay under his ownership, and was destroyed by fire in 1959.