JOAN DEL MONTE
Murder in the Sacramento Delta
Interesting Historical Information about the Sacramento Delta
criminal lawyer, FULTON YEE, disappears, and the search for him is no place for a lady, but unconventional mystery writer VERA MOONACHIE has to find him, because he is churning his files of nasty crimes for her plot and he has the solution to her current mystery.
From the moment she starts her search, Vera is confronted with a hornets nest of fragile egos, including Fulton's trio of feuding ex-lovers. We meet Nancy Branscomb, an editor Fulton met years before when he visited her family's cabin in the Sacramento Delta. We meet Florence Loring, a real estate agent with a past so colorful that she met Fulton when he was defending her in court. And we meet Emma Sawtooth, a haystack-shaped earth mother who runs a writers' group. Vera encounters an athorship dispute based on a notebook. And when Vera picks up that notebook, she picks up the deadliest kind of enemies ---people with something to hide.
Looking for a solution to this seemingly pointless disappearance, Vera embarks on a harrowing journey to the storied Sacramento Delta, a place which seems caught in a time warp. She discovers an old land contract with the resident Chinese community, which is in the way of a major land development. And events take a weird turn on the mud bottom of a Delta slough.
And then someone tries to kill Vera. Old agreements can be murder.
The Sacramento Delta, California1920
People are funny. They love a good fight. Years later Delta people were still talking about Billy Sun’s fight with the fire chief.
The story went round that the fire that burned Isleton’s Chinatown in 1920 started in the kitchen of Billy Sun’s restaurant on the bank of the Sacramento River, because everybody knew Billy brought in illegals from his home in the Chinese province of Guangdong to work in his restaurant kitchen.
Billy was a prosperous man, a hard little man, who stood five feet four inches, his gestures quick and direct. Billy adopted an amenable nature. “You learn to move with the river current,” he often said, “or you fall down and drown in the mud.”
In the Delta in June, the tule fog hangs low, different from other fogs; it hugs the ground in streamers of white, and forms a barrier that blocks one’s vision. People in the midst of a tule fog think the entire area is socked in, because they can’t see their hands in front of their faces at vipissy
The day of the fire, it was hard to see what really happened. People whispered that Harold Ah Tye, angry about a gambling debt, threw a lump of lard on the hissing deep fryer next to his rival, Jum Gai, intending to frighten him. But the fat spattered on the dry wooden wall behind the stove.
A tired old man in a dirty white apron and grease-caked shoes was sitting in the corner near the stove. He saw the fire and yelled. Somebody threw water on the fire, which made it worse, and the restaurant went up in flames.
Shortly thereafter, The Isleton fire crew swung in, pulling a brightly polished wheeled water pumper. They started to unroll a hose.
“We need to pump water from the river,” Billy shouted, running up the street. “I’ll speak to the men.”
Lifting his ham sized hands, the fire chief said, “Now, just hang on a minute. Any words to be had will be had by me. This is my fire department. I’m chief here.”
“The fire’s moving fast,” Billy insisted.
He broke free of hands restraining him and tried to drag up the equipment. More Chinese arrived. Flames snatched the gold-painted roof braces and caught the underside of the roof, sparks flew in the air; then Billy’s storage building located next door caught fire, and next was the big asparagus sheds lining the Sacramento River. The dry wooden shingles from the buildings curled, split, and began to fly in the air and drop on the surface of the river.
“I’m the person says if we stop a fire,” the chief said. “That’s my job.”
“What are you going to do?” Billy asked. “Are you going to just stand there?”
“I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do, is send in a volunteer fireman,” said the chief, “put a man’s life in danger, and have the building collapse on him.”
Several volunteer firemen left the pumper and gathered round. So did some Chinese. Sensing an argument, they didn’t want to miss a single word.
“Billy,” the chief said, reaching down to put his hands on Billy’s shoulders, “now you know there’s nothing much we can do when these old rickety wooden buildings start burning. And if we use the new pumper, all that junk floating on the river, it will jam up the equipment.”
“You’ve got the equipment! Hook it up!” Billy said.
“Public equipment!” the chief said, jabbing a finger at Billy.
“There could be people inside those buildings,” Billy said.
“Now, Billy, nobody’s inside.”
“How would you know?” Billy asked. “You don’t see them, right? They’re Chinese.”
“Well, I didn’t sit and count them, but they scattered like roaches,” said the fire chief on nubilefilm.xxx You know this fire is your fault, bringing in all these men, guys who got problems with immigration. God knows what these people do. So you watch your manners.” The fire chief gave Billy a look of concentrated malevolence. “You want taking down a peg or two, you people. Some folks in town think too many of your kind are moving in right now.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to stand here—” Billy said.
“We can’t help you here. We’re leaving,” the chief said.
He circled his hand above his head for his men to follow him. The firemen looked at each other. Then they pulled the pumper up the street, away from the fire.
The Chinese came out of the warrens of the poor, where the air was thick with the smell of latrines, incense, wok cooking, and the copper stills in which they made their gin. They tried to save their tiny businesses. They stood on the levee road, gasped in the acrid air, and passed buckets of water. Harold Ah Tye ran with buckets of water from the river until he fell gasping in an exhausted heap in the middle of Main Street. They stood and watched the buildings burn to the ground.
That night Billy Sun decided the Chinese needed to establish their own town.
At that point, because of the harsh Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented immigrant Chinese from owning land in California, the Chinese could only lease the land. The California Legislature didn’t get rid of the Alien Land Law until 1952.
Billy Sun chose Swan’s Landing, a few miles south, named for the cranes that wintered in the Sacramento Valley. The non-English-speaking Chinese called the town “Swanee.” Because the land flooded easily, the landowner leased them the town cheap.
Billy built levees, just like the ones the Chinese were familiar with from Guangdong. He set up a rotation of men. The work required the men to work in waist-deep water, with river currents and parasites. They slowly built up a ring of protection for Swanee. Then they planted pear orchards and asparagus.
Billy Sun wanted a written lease showing their rights to Swanee. He drew up a one-hundred-year lease that included a right of renewal. The document was executed and notarized. There were two copies of the lease; Billy Sun had one copy, and the landowner had the other.
The sand and stone levees worked. They held back the river for five decades, through the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression, through World War II, until the devastating Andrus Island flood in June 1972. The Andrus Island flood howled into the Delta from the North Pacific, made waves twenty-five feet high in the shallow sloughs, released three inches of rain an hour, and dumped a roaring, unstoppable wall of water on the Delta.
The buildings of Swanee withstood the flood, but people had to chop their way out of their roofs. Main Street in Swanee was flooded, and Billy Sun’s copy of the lease was washed away and lost.
Which led to murder.
Interesting Historical Information
about the Sacramento Delta
When researching the information for "MUD BLOOD," I knew that I wanted the story to be set in the Venice Canals of California and the rich farm lands of the Sacramento Delta area of Courtland, Locke, Isleton, Rio Vista, Ryde, and Walnut Grove along Highway 160. I had no idea where the story was going to take us.
Kathy Owens (friend and my researcher) and I made several trips to the Delta and saw the waterways and levees. We talked to the people in the Delta towns with stories lush in history of days gone by. We saw farm land as far as the eyes could see and fishing in the many waterways. The history of the Delta became fascinating as the research stated and the story began to unfold.
The California Delta had been inhabited for centuries by the Indians, when the Spaniards first discovered the area in 1772. The French trappers arrived in the early 1800s, but it was the gold rush in 1848 that hastened the settlement of the Delta. In the mid 1800s the paddle wheeler steamboats brought people to the waterfront towns as the Gold Rush began.
The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, and by the 1920s the automobiles arrived. Chinese workers constructed levees, bridges and cable-drawn ferries. By the 1930s, the steamboat activity in the Delta was fading. The Delta King and Delta Queen were launched in 1927 and taken out of regular service before WWII.
The first crude levees were built by hand by the Chinese in the early 1850s. The Delta's Chinese population emigrated from two areas in Guangdong Province in southeastern China. One group came from Sze Yap, and the other from the Chungshan district. In 1861, the California state legislature passed the Swamp and Overflow Act to encourage levee building for reclamation purposes, with solid constructionto begin in the 1870s.
There are approximately 550,000 acres on some 55 man-made islands that have been turned from swampland into fertile farmland. Once the land became fit for agriculture, the Chinese remained in the Delta to become farm workers and tenant farmers. In 1915, Walnut Grove's Chinatown burned to the ground. Rather than rebuild in Walnut Grove,the Chungsan group moved out and later built themselves a town on land leased from the family of a landowner named George Locke.
California's 1913 Alien Land Act prevented aliens who were not American born from owning land in California. The Act was rigidly enforced against the Chinese in the California Delta. The Chinese could only lease land to build their towns, like Locke. The Act was not delclared unconstitutional until 1952. The results of this harsh land law form the basis for conflict in "MUD BLOOD."
In 1938 the last great steamboat race took place on the Sacramento River. It was part of Sacramento's Golden Empire Celebration, a sixteen mile race--churning the water and hell bent for victory. The Paddle Wheelers were Port of Stockton verses the Delta Queen, a race to be remembered!
Courtland is an adorable little town which bloomed off the banks of the Sacramento River as recreational boaters and commercial fishermen increased in the Delta.
Isleton was "born" in 1874 with the opening of a general store to sell supplies to the Gold Mners boating up and down the Sacramento Delta. Many of the orginal Main Street buildings remain, with newer additions along the more recent section of Main Street. Yet Isleton still feels more like a sleepy river town you'd find in the deep south, along the bayous.
When the Walnut Grove Chinatown burned down in 1915, the Chinese decided that it was time to establish a town of their own and approached land owner George Locke. The town was laid out by Chinese architects and industrious building ensued. The founding of Lockport, later 'Locke', was a reality. Wood structures that housed dens of inequity remain standing - barely. There is the interesting Dai Loy Museum, a former Chinese gambling house, with a fascination collection of artifacts and the original tables where games of chance, such as fan-tan, were interrupted by raids, sending gamblers fleeing out the back. A few doors from the museum is Al the Wop's a wonderful restaurant, which serves hearty meat and potatoes meals; and the bartender may show you how to make a dollar bill stick to the ceiling. The ceiling money collected yearly, funds a community liver-and-onions dinner.
Rio Vista was established in 1856, becoming a mid-way point for mariners and gold miners traveling between the shipping ports of Sacramento and San Francisco. It is still the largest town in the Delta with 3,800 full times residents. Rio Vista has a museum with an eclectic trove of old buggies and a 1900 Chinese noodle-making machine. Still existing are the 19th century tree-lined streets with beautiful Victorian and California Ranch style homes.
The town's major draw is Foster's Bighorn Saloon and Restaurant, a cafe and bar where hundreds of animal heads stare at diners through glass eyes. Glaring down from the walls are stuffed and mounted heads of lions, tigers, bears, impalas, walruses and moose - enough trophy heads to fill an ark, more than 250 in all. The largest landmark, the Rio Vista Bridge, is one of many drawbridges designed by Joseph Strauss, architect of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is situated on the historic Sacramento River with a silhouette of the rolling Montezuma Hills to the south.
Ryde, a tony town established in 1891 and in the 1930''s had many large canneries along its banks. The Ryde Hotel and Restaurant offers visitors a glimpse of the past with photos and memorabilia.
Walnut Grove was established in 1851 and occupies both sides of the Sacramento River. On the west bank of the river, one can view stately old homes reminiscent of southern mansions and a simpler way of life and home to many of the local farming families. After the fire destroyed the Asian section of town in 1915, the Japanese established a separate community. Walnut Grove served as the center of social and economic life for many Japanese agriculture workers in the Delta region until 1942, when they were relocated to internment camps during World War II.
Today only five ferries remain in the Delta, all available for a free ride. The Venice Island Ferry and the Woodward Island Ferry lead to private property, so there is no place to go. Victory II is a free-running ferry from jersey Island to Webb Tract and Bradford Island. The Real McCoy crosses at Cache Slough near Rio Vista. The J-Mac Ferry is a fun free ferry-ride that takes you across the pretty waters of historic Steamboat Slough. The J-Mac ferry runs year round guided by cables: the cruise across the river takes all of three minutes. Ferries have been serving the Delta for over 75 years, but the J-Mac is the newest, built in 1966. This ferry has rarely been "down," except for times of flooding in the area.
Sources of information - Hal Schell's "Dawling on the Delta" and numerous online web sites regarding the Delta.
"This is from the book
~ ISLAND ~
~Poem No. 13 ~
Poems by the immigrant Chinese detained on Angel Island."
In the quiet of the night, I heard,
faintly, the whistling of the wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The Sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
Written by Yu of Taishan
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