twitter icon facebook icon youtube icon instagram icon

Stories from the valley

The Delta Town of Isleton: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

Isleton might be a quiet small town where around 800 live today, but in its heyday over 2,000 called it home. Founded in 1874 by Josiah Poole, the town was built on former peat bogs that were turned into fertile farmland through the construction of levees along the Sacramento River. Situated on Highway 160 about 6 miles east of Rio Vista, Isleton has a rich history.


sacramento river near Isleton

Beginning in 1875, Chinese immigrants began settling in Isleton, where they served as farm workers, the primary crops they helped plant, tend, and harvest being sugar beets and pears. Isleton’s Chinatown was formed three years later. Due to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that denied Chinese entrance into the U.S. for ten years, Japanese workers filled the gap. They established businesses in the eastern portion of Isleton’s Chinatown. At the turn of the century, canning became the primary industry, with three canneries processing their latest crop—asparagus. The workforce in the canneries was 90% Asian. The canneries thrived until 1966 when the last one closed.

Isleton main street

Fire swept through Isleton in 1915 and again in 1926, destroying much of the town. When the buildings were rebuilt after the last fire, pressed tin siding was used to make the structures more fireproof. The Chinese settled on the west side of F Street, the Japanese on the east. Both districts were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Although most of the Asian population is now gone, Isleton is home to several buildings constructed after the 1926 fire. Among them are the brightly colored Mei Wah building and the Bing Kong Tong with its tall flagpole on top. The community is raising funds to restore the historic Bing Kong society building, which will house the Isleton Museum.

Fire wasn’t the only catastrophe to visit the town. Isleton lies in a 100-year flood zone. In 1972, a levee failure caused a flood that covered half the town and much of the agricultural land. Residents were evacuated for many months. As they did after the fires, the people of Isleton rallied, recovering from the setback. This resiliency served them well when they experienced a major economic upheaval after the recession in 2008.

docks on the sacramento river near Isleton

Isleton is home to hardworking, friendly people who enjoy their Delta lifestyle. Those I talked with have a deep love of their community and its place alongside the mighty Sacramento River. A stop on the pier revealed locals walking dogs, enjoying some catch-and-release fishing, and spending time with friends. My husband and I rounded out our visit with a delicious lunch from The McBoodery sandwich shop at 25 Main Street, which we ate under a massive oak near the town’s water tower. I highly recommend a visit to this interesting slice of history.