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The Story of the Delta King

In early 1984 my brother Ed Coyne walked into my San Rafael law office and suggested we make a modest investment in the historic riverboat Delta King. I had never heard of the Delta King. Ed described the famous vessel and its storied history on the Sacramento River. He elaborated on the striking white super-structure, particularly as contrasted with the maraschino cherry red of the churning paddle wheel. He referenced the beloved, identical sister ship, the Delta Queen, which was famously operating out of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Ed spoke of the 14 years that the DK and the DQ commuted between San Francisco and Sacramento from 1927 to 1940 and their role in World War II. In short order my 3 brothers and sister and I agreed to invest in the glorious Delta King.

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The boat we purchased was not quite as described.

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It has been a long and fascinating journey, populated with adventure, misadventure, stories, great characters, acquaintances and friends. Only the historic Delta King could have opened such opportunity, such a life for us.

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The Delta King is an authentic 285-foot riverboat that was originally built in Glasgow, Scotland and Stockton, California.   The King and her identical twin, the Delta Queen, were christened on May 20, 1927, and began their daily river voyages between San Francisco and Sacramento in June of that year.  At 6:00 p.m. each evening, the grand monarchs of the Delta left their docks for the 10 ½ hour trip that included prohibition era drinking, jazz bands, gambling and fine dining.

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A stateroom was $3.50, but for a dollar and “…your own blanket” the night could be spent on the Cargo Deck.

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The completion of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge in 1937 and 1938 spelled the doom of the California river boat. By 1940 the King and Queen were out of business and readied for transport to New York.

Then the war broke out. Both the King and Queen were drafted into the U. S. Navy to serve on San Francisco Bay as net tenders, floating barracks, troop transports and hospital ships.  They were painted Navy gray and renamed YFB 55 (Delta King) and YFB 56 (Delta Queen).

At the conclusion of the War, the Delta Queen was purchased by the Green Line Steamers of Cincinnati and taken, via the Panama Canal, to the Mississippi River where she served as the flagship of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. When the Queen left for the east, she took the engines from the Delta King for spare parts. The Delta King has been towed everywhere it has gone since then.
In 2008 the United States Congress declined to extend the exemption for the Delta Queen to provide overnight passenger service. (Current regulations do not allow overnight passage of vessels with wood superstructures.) The Queen is now in Chattanooga Tennessee with plans to operate as a land side hotel and entertainment facility, much like the Delta King does currently.

After the war, the King was ingloriously shuttled between Canada and California as a derelict with hopes of becoming a floating Ghirardelli Square or Chinese Restaurant dashed by sinkings and litigations. At one time the Delta King was a landlocked barrack in Kitimat, Canada, used by men working in the nearby aluminum smelter.

In 1984, after being partially submerged for 15 months in San Francisco Bay, the Delta King was acquired by my family and towed to Old Sacramento, where it underwent a complete historical renovation.

Five pain-staking years later the Delta King reopened to reign, once again, as the heralded monarch of the Sacramento River.

Today, the beautiful floating hotel enjoys year-round activity.

  • The original 88 staterooms now number 44 larger rooms.
  • The award-winning Pilothouse Restaurant is called a “must dine destination” by the Sacramento Bee
  • Delta Bar and Grill- Irish Thursday Nights with “Stout Rebellion”, Live entertainment on the weekends.  A separate menu with smaller plates in a relaxed atmosphere over looking the river
  • Wedding, meeting and conferences
  • Suspects Murder Mystery Dinner Theater
  • Capital Stage productions in our Delta King Theater
  • Delta King Wine School

 

The Delta King is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The most frequently asked question about the Delta King is how much of the original woodwork were we able to preserve. The answer is “quite a bit”. If you look closely at the beautiful woodwork in the Delta Bar and Grill and in The Pilothouse, you can discern what is old and what is new. There is a subtle but distinct difference. Not all the old wood went back into its original position, but it was preserved, rejuvenated and used whenever possible. Initially, we had partners in architect Walter Harvey, since deceased, and his wife Joanna. Walter insisted on using the original wood, at considerable additional expense, often over objection. Walter was right.

Another frequent question is whether it is a “boat” or a “ship”. There are many different definitions of the terms. The one I consider most apropos is a dictionary definition of a ship as a “large ocean going vessel”. The Delta King is large, but not ocean going. Some insist that it is a ship because all boats are “capable of being hoisted onto a ship”. By this definition, it would be a ship. Historically, the Queen and King have been referenced as “stern wheel paddle boats”. To my mind, this clearly mitigates in favor of “boat” as the proper designation.
When we first re-opened for business in April of 1989, every day people would tell us of their first hand recollections of having rode the Queen and King between 1927 and 1940 and of having served aboard the boats during the war years.  Today it is rare to have such first hand recollections related. We are mindful of our role as caretakers of an important historical artifact and its significance to California.

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This is a brief and somewhat personal reflection on the chronology of the Delta King. Stan Garvey’s excellent book King and Queen of the River, available at the hotel front desk, provides a scholarly and interesting history of the Delta King and Delta Queen, as well as river boating in early California. It is highly recommended.

-Charlie Coyne

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