Life Between Fences: Survival and Access at the Antioch Waterfront
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 introduces the current state of the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge and covers the history of several individuals who grew up along the river in Antioch. Part 2 continues their stories, discussing dangers, costs, and strategies for negotiating access to the river. Part 3 discusses various points of view regarding current and future access to the river and waterfront.
Just as young men like Hiebert, Lauritzen, Boccio and others learned how to handle firearms responsibly, they also had to learn to navigate the dangers of the San Joaquin River. Sometimes the boys would get lost in the “other world” of Sherman Island. As Brink reminisced, “It’s just like you go into a different world, once you get in there, it’s really neat. So, [sometimes] we stayed there longer than we should have.” He continued, “Once the tide changes, it can go from smooth water to a pretty good sized chop just as soon as the tide gets going…unless you were paying attention to the tides…that’s something that could sneak up on you.” Brink shared that when he was about sixteen, he and his friend nearly drowned. “We took two little kayaks and on the way back, they both sank, and I wasn’t a good swimmer, so I had a life jacket on and I just stayed by the boat. The other guy was a really good swimmer. So, we swam into one of the [industrial] plants along there.”
Sometimes the Coast Guard would rescue stranded boaters and kayakers, but other times tragedy struck. Boccio recalled, “I was nine years old, my best friend was twelve, his brother and his friends were fifteen and sixteen years old, and four of ‘em drowned down there…they went by boat, there was about five or six [boys]. The boat was small. It was sixteen foot. They went across to [Sherman] island over there to hunt, and on the way back it got real rough, and the boat started to sink…It was in the wintertime, and they had coats on and everything else. His brother was an excellent swimmer. They were within 50 feet of the beach, but they couldn’t make it.”
The sand dunes as well as the river could be a source of danger. Frew recalls, “Kids would go out there and play in the dunes and they’d start diggin’ tunnels and the tunnels would cave in.” Lauritzen notes that the Antioch Ledger carried many articles over the years about sand tunnels collapsing and kids getting trapped and dying. “Yet, there were lots of rescues out there, and it was a place to hang out, a very safe place for kids to play. You couldn’t hurt anything, unless you dug a tunnel.”
Local relationships shaped access to the dunes and the waterfront, and experiences along the river. Private landowners in the area frequently allowed locals to come and go across their property to swim and hunt and fish and take their boats out on the river. For instance, Jersey Island, about six miles east of Antioch, was owned by the Halseys. Hiebert shared that his dad, who owned a feed store, often traded feed and grain in exchange for hunting access on the island. “It was a prize to have a permit to go pheasant hunting on [Jersey] island in the days when the Halseys owned it. And you had to know Ted, or if he called up and said, ‘hey, we need a sand bag today,’ that’s how you got a permit, because he had rising water and he needed help around the island…it’s been pretty exclusive, not for rich folks, but for people who knew people, neighbors helping neighbors.” The Stamm family hired a woman named Katie as a caretaker for the property. Boccio recalled she used to babysit him and his brother. Several residents stated that Katie charged local beach-goers a bottle of liquor for entrance across the property to the river. Brink shared that by his time, there was very little interaction with Katie. “Mostly we just played down there [at the dunes], and I don’t remember anything about butterflies or anything like that. But what I do remember was a story about Katie…that was like an urban legend, ‘Oh, boy, don’t go anywhere near her house over there, she drinks, she’s drunk all the time, and she’s got guns…’ so we steered clear.”
Katie may have been one of the few women who lived independently and fearlessly at the waterfront, but other evidence suggests that gender often shaped waterfront access. Whereas many boys ran freely and explored the river, the islands, and the waterfront alone or with other boys, girls came to the beach most often with their parents, brothers, or trusted friends. Elizabeth Rimbault, local historian and former Antioch city council member, remembers going to the river with her mother one or two Sundays a month. Liz recalls, “My mother…was an early working woman…in the fifties most of the women stayed at home and took care of the kids. But…with four children to support it was necessary for her to work…When we would come up on Sunday, she would just really need a break from working and taking care of the house and taking care of our needs as children. And so we would pack…a dinner, on Sunday, that was called “river beans”…like a bean stew. And she would have a big pan of cornbread. And all four of us would be thrown in the car with the corn bread and the river beans and off we would go through the delta to…the bridge to where Brannan Island state park is now, but we would not go on the state park side. We would scale down the slope of the other side of the bridge.”
Whereas payment was necessary in other areas, including at the dunes, Liz’s mother drove to this area because it was free. Liz shared that at Katie’s shack on Fulton Shipyard Road, “you’d pay her a bottle of booze and you’d be able to drive down near the beach and go down behind the dunes…and then of course, Little’s Corral,” — a bar at the dunes where many of the men would go after getting off work at the plants — “you had to go and pay Little at the bar a couple of bucks and then you could drive through the gate and go on in. And when you went into Brannan State Park, you had to pay to get into the park. But you didn’t have to pay…to shimmy down the bank on the other side, so we were saving a few bucks there. So we were always going [to the river] in a car.”
Liz explained, “The idea was that my mother would relax and read a book, and she didn’t want to hear from her kids. So we were just turned loose on the banks of the river there while she relaxed for a day.” This tired working mother found a point of access to the waterfront, turning spaces that for boys and men were sites of industry and adventure into a place of rest and rejuvenation for herself, where she could read undisturbed while her children played by the San Joaquin.
Because of these issues of payment, Liz did not visit the dunes and the beach alone. “Not by ourselves because my parents would have to pay the price to get into the dunes.” But Liz’s brother who was “more of a walker, and enjoyed fishing” roamed by the river more freely. The boys walked along the river on foot, through marshes and other terrain, circumventing fences and payment, while girls tended to be at least partially dependent on family members, cars, and other resources to visit the river. Liz remembers playing in the nearby swamp, however. “Our house was basically across the street from the swamp that was Lake Alhambra, and we’d go down there frequently as kids, which is why I say we’re lucky we’re alive today, because we would build a raft and we would row out onto this swamp that was actually deeper than it is now as a lake. And it was of course lots of tules, and we would catch frogs, and dragonflies…as kids we spent our summers roaming back and forth between the houses in the neighborhood and basically taking care of ourselves, and doing a lot of kick the can or mother may I games…” There was little supervision, but it seems that she was not often inclined or permitted to venture as far away as her brother and other boys were. This pattern bears out in photographic evidence, as well. To date I have not been able to locate any photos that depict only females at the dunes or river. The only photo of a single female sunbather was taken by the male friend who had accompanied her to the dunes. The rest of the photos available in archives and private collections show females only in co-ed groups from the late 1800s to the 1950s. Further research and oral history interviews should be conducted for evidence that could confirm or contradict this pattern.
Access to the river from downtown Antioch was also scarce. A single pier extended out from Riverview Lodge. Liz shared, “other than this you didn’t really have any access to the waterfront…from town, because right next to the Lodge was the shantytown, which was all little boats that were connected with gangplanks that went from boat to boat and that’s where really poverty stricken individuals lived there on the boats…A lot of the Chinese lived there, a number of prostitutes lived there, so we were never allowed to go there.” Sandy Beach gradually became an alternative beach site as private landowners sold their land to industries developing along the waterfront. But Liz recalls that when she was in high school, after an incident of sexual assault against a young woman, this location quickly gained a reputation of being an unsafe place for women to go without proper supervision or as part of a trusted co-ed group.
As waterfront access slowly closed, economic opportunity soared. All of the men interviewed earned their livings at the plants. Most retired from the industries there, as did many of their fathers before them. Brink stated that everyone who grew up in Antioch or the surrounding area knew that when they graduated high school that they would get a job at the plants. Boccio concurred. “If you wanted a job, you got a job.” Lauritzen notes, “Antioch and Pittsburgh were mill towns, that’s what we were. We didn’t have a pollution problem here in town from automobiles because everybody in town had a job at Crown Zellerbach, at Dow Chemical, at Fibreboard, at Dupont, at PG&E, at Glass Containers, at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, at Antioch Bridge in Pittsburgh, everybody had a job out here.” All of the interviewees spoke positively about the economic opportunity the plants provided for them and their families. Along with economic stability, the industrial plants followed in the footsteps of the previous landowners by providing various spaces for continued access to the river for employees and their families. Over time, there was a dance pavilion, a bowling alley, and a park on these properties along the waterfront.
Frew spoke with ambivalence about the changes the mills brought to the local environment and the economy. There was sadness about the destruction of the natural environment, intertwined with a sense of delight and mischief that he had been able to maintain access to his boyhood home. When asked how he felt about the tractors tearing down the trees in what had been his “front yard,” he said, “It really is sad, to go from a forest…to a car parking lot.” But he also admitted that in his 43 years at Crown Zellerbach, he came to enjoy his work. And with a slight grin he added, “Plus I had access to things that only I knew was there in the beginning…Because I worked at the mill, I could go down. I ended up working on the paper machine which was right on the river…so (chuckle), I could go down to the river and do anything I wanted…I roamed around a lot…I’d get bored on night shift or in the evenings, I’d go down to the river.” Frew was able, through his employment, to maintain access to the places of his youth despite the changes in property ownership and policy.
This access that he and others, like his older brothers, were able to maintain also led to a darker concern. He remembers that his brothers used to swim in a pond behind the Fibreboard plant. During the interview, a new thought occurred to him. “The water came out a really light green…well, [my brother] died of cancer, and my other brother died of cancer. And when you make bleached paper you get dioxin.” He felt there could be a connection between their exposure to dioxin in this pond and the cancer that took their lives. Because Frew was much younger than his brothers, he was not permitted as much freedom in those early years, and so he did not swim in the pond. He recalls that there were pipes with waste running out into the Delta from Fibreboard and Crown Zellerbach, not far upstream from where everyone went swimming. Despite this, “everybody swam in the river.”
Apart from these occasional notes of ambivalence, the overwhelming feeling among interviewees was that the industrial plants along the waterfront had been good for Antioch’s economy and its families. The strongest resentment was expressed not towards industry, but towards the ADNWR. This was the last of the waterfront property that had been purchased and subsequently closed to public access. The intentions of the reserve to protect and revive the three endangered species and their habitat met with skepticism from many of those interviewed. Aware of the political sensitivity of this issue, most were hesitant at first to express their feelings candidly, but it soon became clear that these sentiments have been deeply felt by many long-term residents in the community. The sense, broadly, was that the federal government had taken the remaining waterfront in a futile attempt to bring back several species that might not be possible to save or that they believe could be saved through other means. Brink captured the feelings of many when he said, “The refuge took a lot of waterfront. The whole area that my family would have used is right along there…I’m sorry, I’d much rather see people there than butterflies and flowers. I’m sorry, there’s lots of butterflies and flowers, and as far as giving up the waterfront for that, I’m not in favor of it all.”
Boccio proposed an alternative. Calling the current plan “nonsense,” he suggested, “Take an acre or so, fence it off, and make a beautiful spot for those damn butterflies. But don’t let them take over 45 acres.” Brink added, “When you think about how prime that property is, it’s not like you’re picking 45 acres in the hills out there. If you look along the river, how little there is available…and the refuge was probably the last piece…that was closed off.”
To be continued in Part 3
If you or members of your community would be interested in sharing your stories with the Delta Protection Commission for its anthology of sources, please contact Carrie.Alexander@delta.ca.gov. For further information on the anthology project, please visit delta.ca.gov/anthology.
To volunteer with the annual butterfly survey or for more information on the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge, please call 707-769-4200 or visit their website at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/antioch_dunes/. Public tours take place on the second Saturday of every month from 10 AM to 11 AM. They meet at 501 Fulton Shipyard Road in Antioch. Reservations are not necessary.
Carrie Alexander is a Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. and Environmental History at University of California, Davis. She serves as a historian and community liaison with the Delta Protection Commission. She is also a private consultant in design and marketing. Prior to beginning her Ph.D. program at Davis, she worked for ten years in web design and print publications for several large corporations, state organizations, and non-profits on the east coast. Originally from Colorado, she moved to Davis with her daughter in 2012 and has developed a deep love for the Delta’s ecology, culture, and history.