Valley steamboats

October 4, 2010

BEE FILE PHOTO

Then: Citizens gather in July 1911 on the steamer J.R. McDonald to hear a dignitary speak on its barge while docked on the San Joaquin River.

Imagine steamboats chugging along the San Joaquin River across the vast plains of the Central Valley.

In the mid-1800s, paddle-wheelers were vital in opening the Valley for settlement and farming.

During the Gold Rush, river steamboats carried miners and goods to the gold fields and new communities such as Sacramento in the north.

As the hunt for gold moved south, settlements such as Millerton and Visalia followed.

Travel by wagon was arduous and expensive. When wagons bogged down in rainy months, speculators and steamboat captains turned to the river. Boats ran from early spring to late summer, peaking in what old riverboat men called the “June Rise.”

Rivers were the super highways of the day, with little paddle-wheelers, 100 feet long or less, towing barges loaded with up to 150 tons of cargo. The largest freight wagons carried 7 tons.

The barges carried seed, livestock feed, farm machinery and supplies to the Valley, and returned to Stockton and San Francisco with grain, hides, lumber, livestock and produce. They ferried people and mail, too.

With names like Empire City, Little Fawn, Visalia, Tulare, Clara Belle and Harriet, they needed two feet of water to navigate. They stopped at such landings as Sycamore Bend (near Skaggs Bridge) and Fresno City (on the Fresno Slough near Tranquillity).

Steamboat travel ended with the advent of the railroad in the early 1870s and the use of irrigation, which lowered the river.

In an a last-ditch effort to revive riverboats, the J.R. McDonald was chartered to bring cargo to a dock near Skaggs Bridge in 1911, to show it still could be done. Thousands came to watch.

But the old steamer was stranded in low water near Firebaugh. After lengthy negotiations, irrigation officials released enough water for her hasty retreat back to the Bay.

JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE

Now: Near the spot where the steamboat J.R.McDonald paid its last visit to the area in 1911, Maria Bravo plays with sons, Alex, 2, and Juan, 3, in the San Joaquin River at the Skaggs Bridge Park. (boys have same last: Bravo)