The Delta King Hotel was opened on the Sacramento Riverfront in 1989, but the story of the vessel goes back almost 100 years to 1927. It is an important part of Northern California history. The Coyne family meticulously restored the vessel to its former glory to share with visitors and residents of Sacramento. One of the brothers behind the resurrection, Charlie Coyne, wrote about the history of the Delta King and the renovations they completed in a letter below.
A LETTER FROM CHARLIE
In early 1984 my brother Ed Coyne walked into my Bay Area office and suggested we make an investment in the historic riverboat Delta King. I had never heard of the boat, but Ed described its storied history traveling the Sacramento River since 1927, and its unique connection with the people of Sacramento and San Francisco. The boat had a long way to go, but my family’s enthusiasm to renovate the historic vessel led us to purchase the Delta King in 1984. Little did we know, we would have 5 long years ahead of us, putting our blood, sweat, and tears into restoring this historic paddlewheeler to its former glory.
What intrigued us about the Delta King, and what we learned more about as we worked on it, was it’s incredible history and ties to Northern California. The Delta King has a sister ship, the Delta Queen, both of which commuted from San Francisco to Sacramento for nearly 14 years from 1927 to 1940.
The Delta King is an authentic 285-foot riverboat that was originally built in Glasgow, Scotland and Stockton, California. The King and her identical twin, the Delta Queen, were christened on May 20, 1927, and began their daily river voyages between San Francisco and Sacramento in June of that year. At 6:00 p.m. each evening, the grand monarchs of the Delta left their docks for the 10 ½ hour trip that included prohibition-era drinking, jazz bands, gambling and fine dining.
It was an unrivaled trip of fun and adventure, but the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in 1937 and 1938 spelled the doom of the California riverboats. By 1940 the King and Queen were out of business and readied for transport to New York.
In 1940, World War II broke out, and the Delta King and Delta Queen were drafted into the U.S. Navy to serve on San Francisco Bay as troop transport ships, naval barracks and finally as hospital ships. They were painted Navy gray and renamed YFB 55 (Delta King) and YFB 56 (Delta Queen).
At the conclusion of the War, the Delta Queen was purchased by the Green Line Steamers of Cincinnati and taken, via the Panama Canal, to the Mississippi River where she served as the flagship of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. When the Delta Queen left for the east in 1948 she took the steam engines from the Delta King for spare parts. The Delta King has been towed everywhere it has gone since then.
In 2019 the United States Congress approved an exemption for the Delta Queen to again provide overnight passenger service (US Coast Guard regulations typically do not allow overnight passengers on vessels with wooden superstructures). She is currently undergoing restoration in a shipyard near New Orleans. River Cruises on the refurbished Delta Queen are scheduled to commence in 2021.
After the war, the Delta King was ingloriously shuttled between Canada and California with hopes of becoming a floating Ghirardelli Square or Chinese Restaurant. These dreams were dashed by various mishaps and ownership disputes. At one time the Delta King was used as a rooming house in snowbound Kitimat, Canada by men working at a nearby aluminum manufacturing plant.
In 1984, after being partially submerged for 15 months in San Francisco Bay, the Delta King was acquired by my family and towed to the Pacific Drydock Co. in Oakland. There the original steel hull was stripped and completely restored to like-new condition, and from there we took her to Old Sacramento where she underwent a complete historical renovation.
We were honored to work on the Delta King renovations, and took special care to preserve as much of the original ship as possible. Even though she was submerged in the Bay for over a year, we were able to preserve much of the original woodworking details throughout the boat. Our architect and partner, Walter Harvey, insisted that we use as much of the original wood as possible, which we obliged, and we’re so glad we did. The subtleties of the new and antique wood adds to the incredible story of resurrecting the boat and the work we put into reopening an authentic Delta King.
After five painstaking years, the Delta King rechristened and opened to once again reign as the heralded monarch of the Sacramento River. When we began operations on the boat in April of 1989, we were elated to hear stories and first-hand recollections of those fortunate people who actually rode on the King and Queen during their heyday, between 1927 and 1940, or who had served aboard these antique boats during the war years.
The Delta King is on the National Register of Historic Places. Accordingly, we are mindful of our role as caretakers of an important historical artifact and its significance to California.
Today, this beautiful floating hotel enjoys year-round activity. The original 88 staterooms have been remodeled to create 44 more spacious hotel rooms. The Sacramento Bee has highlighted the Pilothouse Restaurant as a “must dine" destination, and has been featured in Travel + Leisure as one of the best small hotels in the world.
This is a brief and somewhat personal reflection on the chronology of the Delta King.
Stan Garvey’s excellent book King and Queen of the River, available on-line or at the hotel front desk, provides a scholarly and interesting history of the Delta King and Delta Queen, as well as river-boating in early California. It is highly recommended.