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Small, intimate stops on the northern shores

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POSTED July 4, 2014 6:24 p.m.

The roads wind.

Back and forth and back and forth – weaving on levees and through farmland and past old buildings that look like they’re straight out of the Depression.

It’s a serene area. Almost movie-like in its appearance and enchanting in its beauty, the area around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is mysterious – old oak trees flourish along the banks and seem to provide the perfect backdrop for the communities that have sprouted up over the years.

Oh yes, people live here.

While the cluster isn’t nearly as tight as those in the Mother Lode, communities like Isleton and Rio Vista are strung together to provide that sort of Andy Griffith backdrop. Take away the browns and the tans and the taupes and you can almost see a little kid walking down the levee with his fishing pole in black-and-white.

That’s what these towns are like – Isleton and its historic downtown and Rio Vista and its spot as a famed fishing spot.

Walnut Grove is similar. So is Courtland.

There are bigger cities that are along the Delta, and those that are unmistakably linked to the shipping channels that run from the San Francisco Bay through the dredged turns and the deep lanes that allowed for commerce to flourish in Northern California.

But here’s a snapshot of what you’ll find at some of the smaller, more intimate places that still stand today:

u COURTLAND: This census-designated place – which has an official post office – was founded in 1872 by the son of a local businessman that operated a steamer landing in the region. It’s the home of an annual “Pear Fair” and offers unique, historic riverfront houses that have rebounded slightly since the housing market has started to come back. The Paintersville Bridge, which stretches across the Sacramento River, is a favorite among photographers and a showcase of the region’s reliance on shipping during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

u ISLETON: Only 804 people live in Isleton. That’s half as many as lived there during the town’s heyday. But that doesn’t take away from the charm that the city’s downtown – a National Historic Landmark – brings to the table when traversed the farmland that surrounds the Delta. A Chinese “tong” building – a type of social hall and gathering place that many historians also believe served as a cover for organized crime – also remains to this day. The city is home to a water tower that advertises its name as well as an arched bridge that traverses the Sacramento River.

u WALNUT GROVE: Considerably larger than its other Delta community counterparts, Walnut Grove – home to just over 1,500 people – is the current home of the area’s Congressman, John Garamendi, as well as the massive communication towers that can be spotted at night from I-5. It’s one of the earliest settlements along the Sacramento River, founded by John Sharp after he and his family chose the site because of the abundant walnut groves and trees in the area. A ferry service made the city a popular draw, and it became an early Japanese settlement – as many as 67 Japanese businesses popped up by 1914. The Grand Island Mansion – which hosted both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan – is also located in Walnut Grove.

u LOCKE: Named after John Lockeport, the original landowner, Locke was a settlement nearly exclusively for Chinese residents. It drew its name from its landlord because the Chinese, at the time, were excluded from owning land and instead opted to form their own community with his assistance. Primarily an agricultural camp, the migration of Chinese to the area came from nearby Walnut Grove after an accidental fire destroyed its Chinatown. The population would swell during harvest season, although only 10 Chinese residents currently call the town home. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

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