Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rio Vista Museum Traces Family's Dredging History

Rio Vista Museum Traces Family's Dredging History
By Carol Bogart Daily Republic January 18, 2008

Patty (Dutra) Bruce stands in one of the rooms of the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista. The Dutra family has been involved in dredging in the delta for several generations. Mike McCoy Photo by Mike McCoy

RIO VISTA - 'I look around here and say, 'We actually have a museum in our family,' ' Patty (Dutra) Bruce said. 'How many people can say that?'

For more than 100 years, Dutra dredges maintained the levee system that turned hundreds of thousands of acres of former Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta marshland into fields for farming, she said.

Around the turn of the last century, Dutra 'sidedraft clamshell dredges' replaced the 'floating steam shovels' that had been used to lift sediment and repair the levees, which were originally constructed by hand by Chinese laborers.

Bruce's grandfather, Edward Dutra, and his wife, Linda Dutra, were Delta born and bred. The two built the Dutra Dredging Co. virtually from scratch after Ed learned the trade from his father, Tony Dutra, a dredging contractor.

The couple had the foresight to memorialize the Dutras' imprint on California history through the collection on display at the museum.

'A lot of these levees were built by hand until these dredges developed the river system we have today,' explained Bruce, who majored in history in college.

The Dutra Museum of Dredging is housed in a 100-year-old hilltop home at 425 St. Gertrude's Ave. in Rio Vista. The home, which Edward and Linda Dutra bought in 1978, overlooks the Sacramento River. The museum includes esoteric fossils unearthed more than 30 years ago when Dutra dredges removed sediment from the San Joaquin River near Stockton.

On display are what the exhibit identifies as a bone from a woolly mammoth and a partial tooth of a dinosaur.

Also interesting are the scale models of dredges designed and built by hand by Edward Dutra. Bruce points out her grandfather's clever use of an ice cream scoop to simulate the 'clam shell' scoop dredges used to remove silt and repair the levees.

Between 1950 and 1967, Dutra Dredging helped with sections of the 43-mile-long, 30-foot-deep Deep Water Channel, Bruce said. The Army Corps of Engineers project opened the Sacramento River to commercial shipping from the river's mouth through Rio Vista.

Bill Dutra is the last male family member still in the dredging business, but his three daughters help in the family business, which has projects across California and as far away as Washington, D.C., and Boston. In 1989, Dutra equipment helped restore the Bay Bridge after it collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Bruce, 30, delights in sharing the family history with those who make an appointment to go through the museum.

'I was 9 or 10 years old when I started working for my dad,' she recalled.

Her parents graduated from Rio Vista High School, she said. One sister, Denise Maurer, 40, owns a construction company in Rio Vista.

Bruce's aunt, Jan Bennett, 53, said Dutra dredging contributed 'greatly' to the economic development of the area -- clear back to Gold Rush times.

In that era, major land arteries such as Highway 12 didn't exist, Bruce said. A museum mural depicts the river boats that carried both passengers and commercial cargo such as produce Delta farmers took to market.

Today, the Delta remains vital to California's economy and the nation, former Rio Vista mayor Marci Coglianese said. Coglianese is active in state efforts to protect Delta levees.

Calling the Delta 'the beating heart of the circulation system of California,' Coglianese said the levees are critical to the state's water supply as an 'economic engine.

'For example, Delta water is shipped to Southern California. California is 'the great supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the rest of the country,' Coglianese said.

The possibility of levee failure became a subject of intense debate in Sacramento after levee failure left New Orleans under water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Coglianese said.

The state is looking at strengthening the levees with rock, and Dutra rock and equipment could be used to do it, Coglianese believes.

'Their expertise is second to none in the world, and they understand the resources of the Delta,' she said.

That expertise is on display at the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista.Reach Carol Bogart at 427-6955 or at

IF YOU GO:The Dutra Museum of Dredging is located at 425 St. Gertrude's Ave. in Rio Vista, across from Rio Vista High School. Tours are by appointment only. To make an appointment, call Patty (Dutra) Bruce at (415) 258-1588.

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