We evaluated two historically important data sets to characterize the San Francisco Estuary’s salinity regime before the State of California began systematic data collection in the early 1920s. One set documents barge travel along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to obtain water of adequate quality for local industry; a second set documents Delta inflow used to compute antecedent outflow. The barge travel distance reported over 2 decades (1908–1929) was well explained by flow–salinity modeling, indicating internal consistency in these measurements. However, absolute salinity intrusion estimated through the barge travel data is systematically lower than suggested by contemporaneous water-quality measurements available since 1921. Through integration of these data sets, our work showed substantial similarities between 1908–1921 and the subsequent period before construction of Shasta Dam (1922–1944). Our analysis reveals an apparent shift in the estuary’s salinity regime, with lesser salinity intrusion occurring in pre-1919 summer and fall months as a result of higher summer Delta outflow; this shift may be related to lower storage and irrigation diversions as well as a preponderance of wet years with higher summer runoff in the pre–1919 period. We found seasonal patterns of wet year salinity intrusion to be comparable over the full study period (1908–1944), indicating that the relative effect of upstream water management is minimal when flows are high, consistent with findings reported in later periods. The barge and flow data provide qualitative insights on early 20th century conditions, when limited data are available. Post–1920 hydrology and salinity data are preferable for quantitative analyses because of better documentation associated with collection and analysis, and sustained reporting over several decades. This work provides a foundation for future efforts to characterize the hydrologic and hydrodynamic changes that occurred in the system between the 1850s (i.e., natural or pre-development conditions) and the 1920s.