Treasures of Rio Vista

Mud and big game: two reasons to make the trip upstream
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Oct 11, 2014 | By Fredric Hamber

f you’ve ever been to the Sacramento River town of Rio Vista, it was probably to have a drink at Foster's Big Horn (we'll get there in a minute). Sandwiched about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, this little town is named for its "view" of the "river" (literally) and has about 7,000 or so odd residents. There are a few noteworthy sights that drive visitors to Rio Vista — the annual Bass Festival, or a chance to glimpse 'Humphrey' the Humpback whale — but there's a lesser-known attraction in this California Delta town 60 miles from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean: the Dutra Museum of Dredging. Open by appointment only, and run by a family who have been around as long as... well, almost as long as the mud they love scooping up, the Dutra Museum is a singular attraction, a little slice of often passed-over and passed-by history. 

Along with rocks and silt, the dredges also scoop up the rejectamenta of river life: glass bottles, fishing tackle, Chinese porcelain teacups and, in one remarkable instance in 1980, a fossilized tooth from a wooly mammoth, also on display.

Think of river dredging like your dad's chore of cleaning the rain gutters on the house. When leaves build up, the gutters can't flow properly, and then you've got yourself a problem. In much the same way, sediment builds up on riverbeds and, if not cleared out from time to time, this will cause the flow to be dammed, and the river to flood. This is what happened in the Great Flood of 1862, when heavy rains carried hydraulic gold mining debris downriver from the Sierra foothills, flooding massive sections of Oregon, Nevada and California. In addition, dredging also ensures that (generally shallow) rivers stay navagable for watercraft.

Basically, dredging is important, even if it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

So: they scoop. Housed on a barge or the riverbank, dredgers use a large crane to pull sediment from the river. In this case, the scoopings are used to build and maintain levees on the perimeters of islands in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, which allow agriculture to be grown from the richest organic muck possible — reclamation, it's called. And that, gentlemen, is how you get your California Delta produce: asparagus, peaches, walnuts, cherries...

At the Dutra Museum you can see 150 years of Delta history through the machinery of reclamation — like backhoes and hopper dredges — and learn how mules and horses dragging equipment gave way to steam-powered machines. There are detailed model replicas of sidedraft clamshell dredges on display, as well as terse log books ("July 14, 1904. Got the Empire's boom down this afternoon and got it ashore. Got the timbers for new boom").

Along with rocks and silt, the dredges also scoop up the rejectamenta of river life: glass bottles, fishing tackle, Chinese porcelain teacups and, in one remarkable instance in 1980, a fossilized tooth from a wooly mammoth, also on display.

It’s about the coolest Bay Area field trip ever, led by Jan Bennett, a member of the Dutra family who were Portuguese whalers before they got into dredging. During WWII, Jan’s stepfather Edward A. Dutra transported a dredge on a 32-day voyage from San Francisco via Honolulu to Midway, Tinian, and Christmas Islands where it was used to dredge coral that had been blasted so that the US Army Corps of Engineers could build piers at the edges of atolls.

kay, now it's time for a beer, so let's head back down the hill to Rio Vista’s Main Street. Foster’s Big Horn is a place to meet your drinking buddies while gazing upon moose, bears, rhinoceri, mountain lions and Cape buffalo as they stare back at you. It's quite a collection — in fact, the elephant head mounted on the back wall of the restaurant is the largest mammal trophy in any collection, anywhere.

The place was opened in 1931, the pride of big game hunter William "Bill" Foster, an old bootlegger who had moved to Rio Vista when he was on the lam from then-District Attorney Earl Warren. Foster made eight trips to Africa, the first in 1919. But when we say "trip", we're not talking Virgin Atlantic connecting through Heathrow. On that first trip he shipped as a cabin boy, inspired by the African stories of hunter/filmmaker Henry Snow for whom he had apprenticed at a foundry in California. Over the years Foster also travelled extensively in Alaska and Canada, and on those trips, as on his African journeys, he brought a taxidermist along to begin the preservation process immediately. 

The elephant head mounted on the back wall of the restaurant is the largest mammal trophy in any collection anywhere.

He was also passionate about photographing the exotic places he adventured to, and his captioned photos are framed on the walls below his specimens. It's the sort of treasure trove you can imagine mounted on wood-paneled walls, but the very drabness of the brick building with its cracked linoleum and acoustic tile ceiling is part of its beguiling charm.

After the repeal of Prohibition, Foster was in the legitimate bartending business which supported his travels. In 1953 he retired from hunting and devoted his attentions full time to running the place until his death in 1963. There are still some folks with memories of the heydays when the gin would flow with Bill behind the bar, serving up to 300 martinis a day.