See The Ghost Towns of the Sacramento Delta Before They’re Gone
Travelers have always been drawn to California for its breathtaking mountains, relaxing beaches, extreme deserts, and endless forests. But between San Francisco and Sacramento sits the Sacramento Delta, a must-see region of rivers, island farms, and tiny towns.
Eight years ago my dad took me for my first drive through the Delta. We spent a full day zipping down winding roads, beholding islands and estuaries, all sitting below the sea level but kept dry by crumbling levees dating back over 100 years. My father explained to me the Delta’s integral role in California’s water politics—it’s the source of drinking and agricultural water for over two-thirds of the state, so everyone is eager to get their hands on it. I saw firsthand how the culture is sealed in time, the scattered buildings reminiscent of different decades of California’s history.
Related: America’s Coolest Ghost Towns
Together we explored Locke, a ghost town established in 1915, and once the largest rural community of Chinese immigrants in the country. Chinese workers were originally there to construct the levees, ultimately taking on local farming jobs once construction was finished. A fire destroyed the Chinese neighorhood of a nearby town of Walnut Grove, so the community banded together and built themselves a true Chinatown in Locke. Opportunities for work in the Delta have subsided over the years, leading many locals to move elsewhere. But despite its relative emptiness, the rich lives of the community it once hosted are evident in every nook and cranny of this historical place.
This is a road trip I’ve never forgotten and oft repeated. This year’s El Niño promises heavy rains, a relief for California’s multi-year drought. But considering the already rising sea levels, strong rain is a danger to the integrity of the levees and the towns they protect. Roughly half a million people live in the Delta region, and flooding from breached levees would force them to evacuate, not to mention severely affect the rest of the state’s drinking water situation. There’s a real threat of Locke and the other fascinating Delta towns being completely lost—along with their culture, history, and politics.
The Antioch bridge provides passage to the Delta from the south. From its peak, travelers get a glimpse of what’s to come, from islands of farmland to hidden pockets of boaters hidden behind the tree-lined roads.
The Delta is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with ducks, hawks, and all sorts of species calling this region their home. Abandoned docks and piers make for ideal sunning spots for these double-crested cormorants. These birds are an integral part of the rich ecology of the Delta, as their fishing behavior keeps other species in balance.
Levees in the Delta are unengineered: instead of concrete and other industrial ingredients they’re made of dredge material or piled rocks. The sea level on the right is quite a bit higher than the farmland on the left, meaning levee failures are catastrophic to neighboring communities. In 1862, Governor Leland Stanford had to take a rowboat to his inauguration at the State Capitol when the American River levees broke.
Development and decay go hand in hand in the Delta. Where one technology fades away into history, another blooms from the wreckage.
Islands in the delta are connected through a web of industrial-looking drawbridges, a popular subject for visiting photographers.
Crawdads are for sale both as bait and as dinner in Isleton—this mural is a nod to their popularity. A neighboring gas station has seen better days, its windows and interior thoroughly destroyed. Rocks and debris have been thrown at the glass, the jagged edges resembling teeth.
There are plenty of places to spend the night in the Delta, including Ryde’s throwback hotel, built in 1927 and rumored to be haunted. Though only 60 people call Ryde their home, it remains a fun and hospitable stop on any Delta adventure.
2015 marks the 100 year celebration of Locke’s existence—a town built by the Chinese for the Chinese, and a reminder of the Delta’s industrious past. Blink and you’ll miss the one short street that sits across a small drawbridge from Highway 160.
Locke was founded in 1915 and established as it looks today by 1920. It was once 100 percent Chinese, but that percentage has dropped to 10 as the overall population dwindled. Time shows its effects on Locke’s abandoned storefronts. Some shops remain open, including Al The Wop’s surprisingly energetic bar, and a museum dedicated to Locke’s history. It’s fun to explore what once was, and what it is now: a community preserved in time by its buildings and people.
A grizzled cat sunbathes in front of a Chinese medicine shop. Cats roam Locke’s main street, unafraid of the tourists who come by to snap pictures.
Locke’s resident cat lady cares for the kittens that inevitably spring up, helping rehome them away from the sometimes cruel life that comes with being a Delta cat. The sign bluntly states that cats will not be drowned should no one adopt them—a likely possibility under another caretaker.
The Locke Garden restaurant, a family-run establishment set up in Locke’s very first building, serves some of the best Chinese food in the Bay Area. The food here—esecially the pork buns and hot and sour soup—is well worth a stop while driving through the Delta.
Residents and tourists alike use sharp objects to carve their memory into Locke’s sagging theater, a tradition that has been around for years.
At its heart the Delta is a boating community. Many dedicated waterfarers from both near and far keep their boats docked at historical boathouses like this one.
Two-thirds of California drinking and agricultural water comes from the Delta, a fact that is largely unknown throughout the state. Unfortunately, it’s the residents of the Delta that pay the price during droughts, when cities like Beverly Hills refuse to cut their water consumption.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the Delta, and even harder to not be romanced by all it has to offer. If the levee conditions are addressed and rain is restored to the state, it will hopefully remain in this captivating and timeless state for a long, long time.