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Wednesday, 24 July 2019 14:08

Piracy on the Low Seas

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By Dan Clarke

This past weekend the world reflected on one of history’s great accomplishments. It was the 50th anniversary of America’s Apollo moon mission.

People of a certain age were asking themselves, “Do you remember what you were doing when man walked on the moon?” Most people were glued to their TV sets, watching this giant leap for mankind.

I was not. We didn’t have a TV on the Delta King. Several of us “pirates” had boarded this historic sternwheeler in Stockton the day before and, after making sure (we hoped) that all was shipshape, left that city to sail north and home to Sacramento, a more rightful port for this vessel, as we saw things.

River Lines brochure PicmonkeyRiver Lines brochure gave information on the Delta King and Queen's comings and goings to 1930s passengers

A few months earlier I had been asked to represent the Sacramento Junior Chamber of Commerce, aka “the Jaycees,” in a group of locals who thought it would be a fine idea if Sacramento honored its history by bringing a riverboat to this city built at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. Our committee would meet in the basement room of a downtown restaurant for drinks and strategy. Though probably the youngest person in the room, I was perceptive enough to realize that really none of us knew what the hell we were doing. But we were wonderfully well-intentioned.

It soon became apparent that building a new boat or even acquiring an existing and still functional one was beyond our means. Way beyond. Eventually, we heard that the Delta King was moored in Stockton, and all but abandoned. The King and its sister ship, the Delta Queen, were fabricated in Scotland in 1926 and assembled in Stockton the following year. They went into service between San Francisco and Sacramento in 1927. They were riverboat royalty. The Delta Queen was still in service, but currently plying the Mississippi. The Delta King had suffered at the hands of looters because of the inattention of whoever was supposed to own it.

This was a shame, we thought. Somebody ought to do something about the situation.

Maybe this was our opportunity.

All day Saturday, July 19th of 1969 I worked with my crew of Jaycees to put plywood over big, just-above-the waterline “portholes” that some would-be marine architect had ordered cut into the Delta King in recent times. We finished before the tugs arrived to pull us out of Stockton (the boat’s own running gear had been removed years earlier). We weren’t embarking on a trans-oceanic journey, but we were going to spend some time on rivers and in Suisun Bay. Who knew whether water would be coming through those patched holes? Whether due to good craftsmanship or just good luck, our retrofitting held. Apparently. I appointed myself chef for the journey, as I remember making salami and cheese sandwiches on French bread shortly after we got underway.

pirates on Delta King staircase PicmonkeySwashbucklers of '69, these retired pirates pose on Delta King staircase at 50-year reunionI believe there were six or seven of us on this journey, though at the moment I can only remember three others; Justus Ghormley, a man who’d actually served in the U.S. Navy, Tom Horton, the talented young newspaperman from the Sacramento Union whose columns had been the genesis for this idea of acquiring a riverboat for Sacramento, and Geoff Wong, who’d recently passed the bar and was our advisor on all aspects of maritime law.

It was dark soon after we got underway and we had no electricity. We passed several small groups of fishermen who must have thought us quite an apparition—a ghost ship slipping by almost silently, illuminated by the eerie light of just a few lanterns. Our crew drank beer and ate more sandwiches. Occasionally we checked the hull and our boarded-up “portholes” to see if we were taking on water. Then we drank some more beer. Eventually, we all went to bed. Our “staterooms” were random flat spaces on the deck that looked like good spots to throw down a sleeping bag.

Mike Coyne PicmonkeyMike Coyne, owner of the Delta King

When I woke up, we were proceeding up the Sacramento Deepwater Channel, a 43-mile long waterway inaugurated a few years earlier to help facilitate trade for the inland port of Sacramento. We hadn’t sunk during night. None of us had drowned. We seemed well on our way to getting our riverboat home. I found Tom Horton up by the bow. After congratulating him for his catalytic role in our drama, I bummed a cigar from Tom and, no Champagne being available, we toasted our success with a couple cans of beer. It was a glorious morning.

The crew of the Apollo was preparing for the culmination of their mission—actually walking on the moon. Our gang was looking forward to bringing our trophy home to Sacramento and docking at the old River Lines location at the foot of Capitol Avenue.

As we came closer to our destination, there was one more challenge. We had to exit the deepwater channel and enter the Sacramento River just south of downtown and Old Sacramento. To do this we had to pass through a lock. It looked awfully narrow. I was aware that the Delta King was just short of 300-feet long, but how wide was it? I had no idea. Perhaps the tug boat operators did, but I don’t think anybody else in our crew had a clue. It would have been a hell of a note to come all this way and get stuck in a slot a mile or two southwest of our goal. Filled with dread, we darted left and right to check our clearances as we entered the lock. Our boat came though OK, but didn’t have more than a foot or two to spare on each side. Entering the Sacramento River, the natural waterway the Delta King and Queen always used in the 1920s and ‘30s, we were greeted by several small boats and their occupants. We were home.

We had our boat. Now what were we going to do?

The general idea was to restore this King of the Delta to something resembling its former glory. If making it fit for navigation on its own was out of the question, at least it could become some sort of floating museum to remind Sacramentans of their riparian heritage.

Our city was the capital of the State of California, though it suffered from its reputation as a torpid government town. But for a while our riverboat was the toast of that town. We had tapped into a latent sense of civic pride.

Geoff Wong reads Horton letter PicmonkeyGeoff Wong reads a letter from the late Tom Horton, as penned by his wife, KarenWe were all volunteers, of course. Our reward was the enhancement of the city in which we lived. That, and the fun of pulling off something improbable. We may have referred to this acquisition of the Delta King as a caper (an act of questionable legality, but generally harmless in our view, though the rightful owners, were any to be found, might have viewed our deeds less charitably). Soon we were joined by other volunteers. Our press liaison Jerry Vorpahl, also a volunteer, had done a great job with the media. Both daily papers were following the story, as were local radio and television. ‘Save the King” posters went up all over town. Many citizens contributed modest amounts toward dockage fees and the costs of beginning the cleanup. Others wanted to put their shoulders to the wheel and contributed selflessly of their skills. Local jazz bands played music of the ‘20s and ‘30s on the main deck. People were having a great time doing something they considered worthwhile.

Eventually, our lack of financial resources began to tell. And then there was that issue of who really owned the boat. Flamboyant San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli pressed his claim, but seemed to get into the spirit of things by referring to our attorney Geoff Wong as a “Chinese pirate” and suggesting at one point that the two of them collaborate to turn the boat into a floating casino and bordello.

A few years later custody of the Delta King reverted to interests which were not from Sacramento. Whatever their ambitions for the boat, they did a lousy job and by 1984 the Delta King was half submerged in Richmond, California. A miserable wreck, but a wreck with a past.

As things turned out, the wreck had a future, too. Members of the Coyne Family purchased the Delta King in 1984 and began the long and very expensive process of restoration. Since 1989, they have operated the Delta King as a floating restaurant, bar and hotel on the Old Sacramento waterfront.

So when my old friend Geoff Wong contacted me a few weeks ago to announce that he and Jerry Vorpahl were arranging a 50-year reunion, I knew I had to be there. We met around four o’clock in the boat’s handsome Delta Bar and Grill. Our numbers were tiny compared to all those folks who helped with the attempt to “Save the King” half a century ago, but maybe it’s just as well. Our drinks were all going on Geoff’s bar tab and we were running it up high enough as it was. Folks brought memorabilia; posters, photos, newspaper clippings, but mostly they brought a bonhomie (that’s French pirate talk) to the gathering. All had stories to tell and the saga of our riverboat caper so long ago benefitted from the richness of detail brought by this patchwork quilt of reminiscences. Geoff and I were there, of course, and Justus Ghormley, who came all the way up from San Pedro, proved he was still slim enough to fit into his navy uniform. Sadly, Tom Horton wasn’t with us. He died in 2006, but his widow, Karen, sent Geoff a letter done in her husband’s style that Geoff read to our group.


Editor’s note:  More about the Delta King’s history, as well as a look at its current life as a hotel and restaurant can be found here. For a more detailed history see the late Stan Garvey’s book, King and Queen of the River.

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