“The Delta Waterways, as in the past, are the lifeblood of San Joaquin County.”
San Joaquin Magazine, May 2015
Historic Rough and Ready Island has a rich and fascinating history. It is currently the West Complex at the Port of Stockton, situated in California’s great central valley delta. The delta has always been a challenging but rewarding environment, with each historical transformation bringing new opportunities and difficulties. What is now the West Complex emerged from a natural wetland, became a well-known Naval base, and is now a thriving economic engine of the state and an international trade center.
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The Port of Stockton’s West Complex, Rough and Ready Island, is part of a hard-working port, bringing everything from vegetables and grains to wind energy components to the region. The island now hosts warehouses, conveyors, railroads, and docks. But it has a rich history that goes back to long before the first steamship of lumber arrived at the Port in 1933. Each era in the island’s history tells the story of communities adapting to the challenging environment.
Part of the low-lying Central Valley delta, Rough and Ready Island is bounded by the Stockton Channel of the San Joaquin River and a slough now known as the Burns Cutoff. The island is dry land now, but was once part of a shifting landscape of low wetlands that were inundated in the wet season. Native American communities lived in villages on natural levees, and used the expertise of generations to optimize abundant plant, animal, and fish resources. Beginning in the Europeans and Americans plied the waterways, seeking fortunes in furs, gold, and productive agricultural soils.
Rough and Ready Island always transformed seasonally by rain, wind, and sun, but the first major permanent transformation was in the 1850s. Changes in federal law allowed states to fill wetlands and tidelands, and sell the newly created lands. Almost overnight, the delta filled with the sounds of dredging and pumping, as sediment was moved out of sloughs and river channels and deposited on land for new farms. The island, once “reclaimed,” hosted a small agricultural community and even had its own school.
The second transformation came late in World War II, when the site was selected by the Navy for a new supply annex. Built partly with POW labor, an orderly system of warehouses, streets, offices, barracks, and railroads sprung up in months. After the war, the Navy added a modern communications station to serve Cold War needs. These buildings have been designated the Naval Supply Annex Stockton National Historic District.
The third major transformation of Rough and Ready Island came in 1996, when the Navy transferred most of the property on the Island to the Port of Stockton. The historic warehouses are now filled with everything from onions to recycled glass. Many of the building renovations and replacements are in harmony with the historic character, an example of how the Port strives to balance the historic and natural environment of Rough and Ready Island with the powerful economic benefits of the West Complex.