Sternwheelers Steamed Along The Sacramento, by Margaret Bauer, published 1983 Tehama County Memories.
Steamboats had traveled up the Sacramento to Squaw Hill, Tehama, and Red Bluff since the earliest days of American settlement, and were an exhilarating sight in Tehama County until the turn of this century.
Almost before the ink dried on his Mexican land grant in 1844, Peter Lassen was intrigued by the possibilities of steamboats serving this region. In the gold rush year of 1849, he purchased little Washington, loaded it with goods, and laboriously brought it up to his rancho at the mouth of Deer Creek.
The business was a failure. The enormous price Lassen paid for the little ship and its cargo, the five months it took him and his inexperienced crew to fight Sacramento’s twisted bars, riffles and snags, and cut wood for the furnace , and the fact that she sank almost immediately upon her arrival contributed powerfully to her financial ruin. But the river has been clearly shown to be navigable in these higher reaches.
In May 1850, the small steamer Jack Hayes pushed upstream to Hall’s Crossing, the place that would soon become Tehama, one of the best places to cross the creek. For more than a year, Tehama served as the head of navigation. Then, in November 1851, the Orient went under steam and moored at Reed’s Creek Landing. There was no Red Bluff there yet – just a collection of transport companies until 1853.
Dozens of “paper towns” were planned for instant growth along the course of the river, but only four survived – Colusa, Butte City, Tehama and Red Bluff. All were at one time “head of navigation” and all were really supported by a solid agricultural support. Many other cities never got off the paper they were planned on.
Paddle steamers proved to be the most suitable vessels for traffic on the northern part of the river. The sidewheelers were all fine for unhindered travel in the delta and bay, but the sternwheelers were narrower, of shallower draft, and much more maneuverable for upstream trading. Those who succeeded were called “skimmers”, and it was said that “a skimmer can cross the earth if there is a heavy dew!” (Jerry McMullen, California Waterwheel Days). The ability of these boats to operate in very shallow water was a valuable asset, especially during the massive flood of 1862 when skimmers swept across the country to rescue farming families and livestock.
There were literally hundreds of landings along the river, where a boat would stop to unload freight or pick up cargo even as small as a peach pod right next to the farm. Many of these “farm” stops were brush landings… masses of brush, tree prunings and other trash dumped on the shore. A steamer would rear up to one of these landing stages, spread its gangway, lay planks over the brush, and load or deliver cargo as needed. Stories were told of new ranchhands who had no idea where they were going to be ignominiously “landed” on these shaking platforms, armpit-deep in leaves and brush.
The captains of steamboats frequently performed another service for the almost isolated farm women. They went shopping for them in San Francisco, and it was no surprise to see a burly captain matching hardware with yarn, buttons, lace or ribbons at one of the exclusive stores. These articles and food specialties of various children were duly delivered on the next journey north.
In the 1876 copy of the Pacific Coast Business Directory (listing every business in every city on the West Coast), compiler Henry G. Langley notes the importance of river traffic to the economy of Tehama and Red Bluff and the equal importance of these two cities for river boats. Despite competition from the railroad, he said, traffic on the river was quite heavy.
Warehouses along the banks held large outbound shipments of wool and wheat and other agricultural products as well as inbound shipments of hardware, furniture, dry goods, and all other items that had to be imported. Large barges loaded with sacks of grain or sacks of wool were put in place before going down the river. There was a great exodus of the town’s population every time one of the ship’s whistles ripped through the air…. the most important event of the day was watching the riverboats go about their business.
Brightly painted ocean liners (Clara Hisken, Little City of the Big Trees) were of particular interest to Tehama County. During the summer long weekends it has become customary to take the boat downriver from Red Bluff to Tehama in the afternoon, walk around the town, perhaps have dinner at one of the hotels and attend the dance in the evening. The day ended with the catch of the last train towards the north at the end of the evening. On one occasion, however, the boat hung on a sandbar for so long that, when it finally docked, passengers had to race across town to catch the train at the western end of town. .
One of the most interesting shipments to arrive at Tehama was a shipment of custom-made pews for the Presbyterian Church from a factory in Michigan. These gently curved pews, still in use in Tehama Church, had been sent from the factory around the Horn to San Francisco, where they were loaded onto a riverboat for the final leg of the journey. Another equally valuable cargo for tehama was the large school bell that Charles Harvey ordered from the foundry in Sheffield, England. It was installed atop the Masonic Hall-School building around 1860. When the new school was built in 1881, lowering the bell seemed impossible, and it remained in place until 1910 when a deck crew l abducted with their crane.
Faced with fierce competition from the railway, the timetables for the Bateaux-Mouches were maintained until 1916. The final railway had to buy out the shipping company to secure all traffic.
The most famous riverboat, and the one that traveled the river the longest, was the Red Bluff, built in Sacramento in 1894, 150 feet long, less than three feet draft, a large cargo carrier and people both up and down the river. .
At least two steamboats apparently sailed up the river to Tehama in the mid-1930s. The Red Bluff Daily News reported on April 5, 1937 that the 70-foot sternwheeler Sophia had arrived in Tehama the day before for a inspection cruise. In her Little Town with Tall Trees, Clara Hiskin describes the surprise visit of the liner Josie Lane “around 1936”. When the whistle sounded, she wrote, everyone in town froze in their tracks, then turned and raced to the dock in a froth of excitement and expectation. . The magic worked again.
Jean Barton has been writing her column for the Daily News since the early 1990s. She can be contacted by email at [email protected]