April 29, 2017: This month we recount the amazing tale of how we managed to break one of the busiest drawbridges on the Sacramento River. But before we do that, we want to take you back in time for a bit of Chinese history. Last month we mentioned that Roni was preparing to take a group of students on a tour of the Delta as part of an activity sponsored by the Delta Science Center, so in addition to the scouting expedition we made along the route on her birthday, we found ourselves returning there on Sunday, April 2, for a more serious survey of the places she planned to stop and the time it might take to talk about each one.
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With Roni behind the wheel and Glenn armed with a pen and notepad to record the vital details, our lazy trek took us up Highway 160 as far a Locke, a sleepy Delta town that has the distinction of being the only Chinese-founded community in the United States. We have driven past it on numerous occasions, and even stopped there once to enjoy lunch at Al the Wop's and peek in a shop window or two, but we had never really explored it or given a second thought to the weathered, tumble-down buildings that make up the town's 14 acres. This time was different, because not only did we need to scout out the area in advance of the school tour, but we were also ready for lunch by the midpoint of our drive and Glenn thought it would be fun to eat at Locke Garden restaurant in town.
Locke was founded in 1915 after a fire in neighboring Walnut Grove prompted the Chinese community to seek a place that was truly their own. They went to a local landowner, George Locke, who agreed to let them build on a piece of his property, and thus the town of Lockeport was born. The name was later shortened to Locke. Because, why not? The town largely served the needs of the migrant Chinese farm laborers who worked the fields of asparagus and pear orchards during harvest season, but there was also a thriving business district with a local grocery store, bars, a theater, gambling halls and restaurants. Anti-immigrant sentiment around the turn of the 20th century prevented Chinese-Americans from owning property, and as a result the town's Chinese population declined and its businesses gradually disappeared. Before it was declared a national historical site in the mid-1970s, many of its original buildings were falling into disrepair and on the verge of collapse. Let's face it, nothing about Locke was built for permanence, right down to the construction materials and methods selected for its structures.
The state of California took Locke under its wing, and with the help of grant money it has preserved or restored some of the most significant buildings. Maybe restored isn't the right word — more like suspended the process of decay. The town today is like one huge outdoor museum, where visitors can park their vehicle then get out and stroll the old Main Street, which looks much today as it appeared 100 years ago. You can still see upstairs balconies where the handful of remaining residents have draped laundry to dry in the afternoon sun. Clapboard buildings still bear the weathered signs and address placards of businesses long ago departed, some of the structures listing slightly (or more often not so slightly) off their foundations. Narrow alleyways overgrown with vines and lined with antiques provide quick access for locals between the downtown street and residential areas behind it. It's an inspiring place for painters, photographers, and lovers of American history.
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O GET TO Locke Garden restaurant on the south end of town, we had to park in the small lot on the north end and walk a couple of blocks. This is what might best be described as the "slow route" because it requires walking past the many interesting buildings. Our first stop was the old boarding house that now serves as a museum. Roni had designs on bringing the school group here until she learned from the docent that the museum is closed on Wednesdays. That didn't stop us from enjoying the displays ourselves, including a large album of photographs taken throughout Locke's existence, detailing the history of just about every building in town.
We mentioned earlier that nothing in Locke was built for longevity, and this appears to be especially true of the boarding house. We were quite surprised that visitors are allowed up on the second floor, where the former boarding rooms are housed. You emerge at the top of a narrow wooden staircase into a long, thin hallway connecting perhaps a dozen rooms. The floor creaks and groans and feels wavy under foot. The walls are painted yellow, made from a flimsy beaded panelling perhaps a half-inch thick that feel as though you could easily knock them down if you leaned against them. And you thought that modern hotels have thin walls.
Each of the boarding rooms is about 6x8 feet, barely large enough for a cot and a desk or chair. Each room is furnished to depict how in might have looked in a given decade, starting in the 1900s and moving up to the 1950s. There wasn't much space for one tenant, let alone the two or three who often shared rooms to save on the cost of rent. There is a small community bathroom off the middle of the hallway, and a large room at one end of the hall is set up with passport photos of many of the Chinese immigrants along with schematics of Locke's downtown streets. It's all an interesting exhibit to check out, and it is free with a suggested donation.
We didn't want to spend too long touring the museums because it was already mid-afternoon by the time we got to town and we were very hungry, so we skipped the Chinese school and spent just a few minutes at the Locke Memorial Park checking out the commemorative bronze monument and wall plaques before Roni found a shortcut at the Star Theatre that led us up a set of stairs and back to the top of the levee near Highway 160. This was definitely the faster route to the restaurant, but more hazardous given the lack of sidewalks and our proximity to the busy highway.
The Locke Garden restaurant looks at first like the last place you would find food. It is set back from the highway and so overgrown with plants that it would be easy to miss if you're just driving by (and in fact we had done exactly that for many years before this visit.) Roni has always had reservations about such hole-in-the-wall places. Sometimes you can have a great dining experience, but others you get exactly what you fear from a place that looks like time forgot. Glenn is more adventurous about dining out, so he wasn't put off by first appearances. We bravely went inside.
Locke Garden has the distinction of being the first building in Locke, having started its existence as a gambling hall. Being on a corner lot, it is quite spacious inside. We ordered individual items off the menu, which was definitely the more expensive way to go, but it also allowed us to try great dishes like their hot and sour soup, lemon chicken and asparagus fried rice. This proved to be much tastier than the fare we find at our random Chinese restaurants near home. Everything was prepared using peanut oil, which gave the food a lighter, nuttier flavor. The meal and the service were equally good, and we had a fair amount of food left to take home.
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E PACKED THE leftovers in the car and then proceeded back into town to check out some more of the shops. We were still on a scouting mission after all, and Roni was looking for a good spot in town to end her school tour. We found that in the Lockeport Grill & Fountain, located on Main Street in what once was a mercantile. The place looks like a typical Old West soda shop with a long wooden bar and rows of glasses and dishware on the wall behind the counter. The owners have outfitted the store with a couple of upright player pianos, an odd assortment of musical instruments, and a collection of hats that customers are encouraged to try on and take photos of themselves to post on social media.
Roni had an idea that she could bring the kids in for ice cream at the end of the tour. She was disappointed to find out that the shop is closed on Wednesdays, but the owners were quite accommodating and agreed to open up just for the occasion. The tour itinerary now set, we headed back for home.
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ITH THE ODDBALL weather we've been having this winter and spring, Roni was concerned that we might end up with rain for her school tour. But she got lucky. Wednesday the 5th arrived warm and sunny as we met up at the Antioch-Oakley Regional Shoreline off Bridgehead Road just after 9 a.m. The kids from Independence High School in Brentwood arrived in two groups, riding in two brand new Ford vans that the school district had just purchased for such things as our field trip; no big, clunky, expensive to operate yellow school buses these days. We had roughly two dozen science students to entertain for the next four hours.
Fortunately we also had the expertise of volunteer presenters like Chris Lauritzen, owner of Lauritzen Yacht Harbor in Oakley, who started things off with a history of the Antioch Bridge and a lesson in how to read tide tables. Chris's father was a ship captain and he is filled with interesting tales about their adventures working on the Delta, which kept the kids engaged for the initial half hour. Then we all piled into our vehicles to drive to our next destination, Upper Sherman Island. Roni served as carpool driver for us and two of her DSC volunteers, Linda Hardcastle and Tom Williams, so we could save on gas and bridge tolls. It was fun to have their company as we made our way up Highway 160 and along the back roads.
At Sherman Island, we pulled over to the side of the two-lane levee road for a talk about wind energy, river currents and subsidence — the process through which Delta islands "sink" from soil erosion, necessitating the constant rebuilding of the levees to protect them from flooding. It's somewhat dense, technical information for high school kids to digest, and Tom Williams, a retired engineer and former general manager of the Ironhouse Sanitary District, is very familiar with the process, having also been in charge of levee maintenance for Jersey Island, which the district owns. With a wind farm and several anchored barges as a backdrop, Tom and Chris took turns sharing their knowledge with the tour group.
Next it was back on the road for a swing along the Delta Loop, through Isleton and into Walnut Grove. Roni had made arrangements for the kids to see a drawbridge in action, and it was to be our next to last stop before going into Locke for ice cream. But the bridge she had hoped to show them is operated by Sacramento County, not the state of California, so getting permission to open it for something other than an approaching boat was a more complex task. As a substitute, her contact with the state offered to open up the Paintersville Bridge for the tour. It spans the Sacramento River on Highway 160 between Walnut Grove and Courtland, and while it does see a fair amount of traffic most weekdays, it is lighter than on other spans nearer to Sacramento or Rio Vista.
The problem with the Paintersville Bridge was that it took us about 10 minutes out of our way. That may not sound like much, but Roni had a pretty tight itinerary, and we were already running a bit late from our earlier stops; the owners at the Lockeport ice cream shop were expecting us. Plus the kids were getting hungry. Roni had picked up a few sandwiches from Subway before we left Oakley, and the original plan was to have the kids eat them at the ice cream place. But it just happens that there is a taco truck that does regular business near the east entrance to the bridge, so when the kids saw this they didn't waste another second thinking about what they wanted for lunch. The sandwich idea was quickly abandoned in favor of soft tacos.
After everyone had had their fill of tasty Mexican food, it was time to have the bridge tender do his thing. Chris Lauritzen used his portable marine radio to call the operator, who was expecting us, as if he were just another boat on the river needing the bridge opened. Moments later, the warning bells started clanging and the gates dropped to stop traffic on the highway. Then the two halves of the bridge raised slowly skyward. The kids and their teacher eagerly watched the show, cameras taking pictures and video of the whole process. You have to remember that for many of these kids it was the first time they had ever been up on the Delta or seen a 100-year-old drawbridge in action. It is quite an experience the first time.
Everything was going according to plan, and Chris told the operator that he had raised the bridge high enough for the purpose of our demonstration. We all waited to see the steel decks lowered back into position. And waited… And waited… Something appeared to be wrong. The machinery was hard at work, the ancient gears turning, but the bridge wasn't moving. Traffic, light that it was, was backing up on the highway. Folks began getting impatient with the delay. One man pulled up in his car and asked us if there was a boat on the river that was causing the delay. Nope, no boat, just us. Grind, grind, grind… Had we (inadvertently) actually managed to break the Paintersville Bridge? We all looked at Chris Lauritzen. Well, we kidded him, now we know who to blame.
We waited around as long as we could to see the outcome, but we were running way behind schedule and had to get back to Locke before the ice cream shop owners gave up on us. As everyone piled back into their vans and cars, the last thing we saw was the bridge tender raising the two halves as high as they could go in the hope that the gears might unbind and would start working properly again. Ah, the perils of 20th century technology. We can only imagine that the problem was soon resolved and those poor motorists didn't have to sit around all day waiting to get to their destinations.
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Y THE TIME we reached Locke it was getting close to 1 p.m., but the Lockeport Grill & Fountain was open and waiting for our group. Roni had arranged for everyone to get a two-scoop serving of ice cream, so everyone took turns choosing from chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, except for the oddball kid who decided he had to have rainbow sherbet. A few of the kids played with the musical instruments and posed for pictures wearing the silly hats that the shop keeps on hand, while the adults sat out on the sidewalk benches and chairs to relax with their ice creams. The more adventurous of us explored the storefronts in the immediate vicinity. It was a fun way to end the day.
Roni had hoped to have time to take the tour group on a walk at the nearby Delta Meadows River Park, which runs behind Locke and includes a dirt trail through some of the Delta's most beautiful riparian forest. Unfortunately, the detour to see the drawbridge had left us with no time to spare, and the school group had to get on the road for home by 2 p.m. It was a work day for Glenn, as well, so we needed to get going too.
Everyone agreed that the tour had gone well (the broken drawbridge excepted) and had been educational. It was Tom Williams' first visit to Locke after many years of living in Antioch, so he was especially impressed. We had a lot to talk about during the 45-minute ride back to Oakley. And for Roni it was somewhat bittersweet, because just days earlier she had informed her board of directors that this would be her last month as executive director of the Delta Science Center. After more than six years at its helm, she has decided it is time to move on and focus on other things, including her increasingly busy schedule as public outreach coordinator at the sanitary district. It will feel strange not having the DSC in our lives after all this time, but we are both looking forward to some new activities and have no doubt that the Delta will continue to be an important aspect of our recreation outings.
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ETTING TOGETHER WITH family seems to be a challenge these days, and increasingly our gatherings tend to be limited to holidays or other special occasions. At what point do you stop calling them visits and start thinking of them as family reunions? Whatever it was called, we all gathered at Glenn's parents' house in Hayward on Easter Sunday to help celebrate his grandmother's 102nd birthday. It seems like just yesterday that we watched her blow out the candles on her 100th birthday cake, but she appears no worse for wear in those two years since. Glenn wore his new Locke T-shirt in honor of the occasion, being sure to tell Grandmother that she and the historical town had something in common: they both share the same birth year.
The occasion also gave us the chance to see Glenn's Uncle Dave and Aunt Marie, who had driven down from Oregon for the weekend, and meet brother Sean's friend Denise, who joined us at our table as his guest. Hopefully we didn't scare her away, although we promised her we don't bite.
It's been a big month for awards, as Roni learned that her work at the sanitary district is being recognized with a statewide prize for public outreach from the California Association of Sanitation Agencies. And Glenn's newspaper celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of a December fire that killed 36 people at an Oakland artist community warehouse. It seems morbid to be celebrating an event that cost so many people their lives, but it is the nature of the beast for hardworking journalists who are recognized with their profession's most coveted award. The $15,000 cash that comes with the Pulitzer is being donated to the victims relief fund. Everyone at the paper got to share in the moment with champagne when the prizes were announced April 10. That was a good thing, because just 10 days later came the announcement that the company is disbanding the copy desk and shipping all its page production work south to a centralized facility in Monrovia, California. It is very tough times for a once proud profession.
The weather continues to dog us as we attempt to kick start our front yard driveway project. Every time we think we might catch a break in the rain to get in some digging or weeding, Mother Nature douses us anew. It has been one of the wettest rain seasons on record in our state, and although that is good news for ending our longstanding drought, it has meant a lot of outdoor plans have been ruined. Finally, however, it appears that we are due for a stretch of sunny days. We have made slight progress on the driveway in recent weekends, managing to excavate the strip where we plan to install pavers. The biggest challenge has been getting through the roots of the plum tree, as there are many of them and some may be vital to the tree's existence. We first removed the sand around them so we could get a better look at the tangle and decide if they needed to be saved, but ultimately we decided that they were just in the way if we planned to do our driveway properly. So we cut them off and are now just crossing our fingers that the tree will survive with those it still has attached. That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? Right?