The Overland Monthly/Volume 7/The First Steamboat on the Upper Columbia

The Overland Monthly  (1886) 
The First Steamboat on the Upper Columbia by Lawrence W. Coe

From the June 1886 issue of The Overland Monthly


Previous to 1859 the Columbia River from the Dalles upwards had been navigated only by the Indian canoes, the Hudson Bay Company's batteaux, and for a short time immediately before, by a few flat bottomed sailing craft, freighting to Wallula. This is a point on the river twelve miles below the junction of Snake River, and is the embarcadero for Walla Walla. In 1859, a stern-wheel steamboat, the "Colonel Wright, "was built, and as she was successful, navigation was established permanently. The route was from Des Chutes to Wallula a distance of fifteen miles and the business, while limited in amount, was rendered exceedingly profitable by enormously high prices for transportation.

It was the fortune of the writer to make a voyage on the first trip of the "Colonel Wright," up the river to Wallula, a feat which was generally supposed to be impossible, and in fact, most people with any knowledge of the rocky, rapid, and dangerous character of the river, believed the projectors of the enterprise were simply throwing their money away in building the boat. The reasoning of the promoters was, that steam should go where sail would take a boat; if not, then steam and sail together ought: and therefore they put a mast in their steamboat, which carried a huge square sail; this proved a material advantage during the season of winds, which are regular trades up the river. Subsequently it was ascertained that a little greater steam power was ample without sail, and thereafter no steamboats were built with masts.

The question of fuel was a grave one. The country about the upper Columbia is almost absolutely treeless. Its sources are well wooded, and on various bars along the river were considerable deposits of driftwood remaining from former years, and annually reinforced, to some extent, each season of high water. Efforts were made to increase this supply by catchment, and for the first season the boat was supplied in great part, by drift-wood. Evidently, however, this supply could not be depended upon, and eventually the boat was compelled to take with her, from her starting point, wood for fuel for the entire round trip—this comprising in its bulk and weight the principal part of her cargo. Fuel was also expensive, wood costing $10 per cord.

The "Colonel Wright" was under the command of Captain Len White, an experienced stern-wheel steamboat man. He had spent some months in navigating and studying the river in a batteau, for the purpose of learning its intricacies and dangers before assuming charge. While noted for certain excentricities, Captain White will long be remembered as a bold and skillful pioneer navigator on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The steamboat was named after the popular and distinguished Colonel of the Ninth United States Infantry—afterwards General—who was lost on the ill-fated steamship " Brother Jonathan," which foundered at sea.

A notification that the "Colonel Wright " was completed, and would start up the river on a trip in April, 1859, determined the writer to be one of a party of observation. About a dozen passengers for the upper country availed themselves of the opportunity to go, and the steamer carried a cargo of about fifty tons of freight. Leaving Des Chutes in the morning of a bright, clear day, the boat's head was turned up stream, with a cheer from the few attending spectators, who had assembled to witness the departure. There was present but one dissenter to the general hilarity prevalent—the Honorable Victor Trevitt,the late well-known and much-lamented "Vic," the keeper of a toll-bridge across the Des Chutes River, whose business would be very seriously affected by the success of the boat. He created a sensation by offering to bet five hundred dollars that the boat would never make the trip. Luckily for him, his banter was not accepted. He displayed his usual sagacity and foresight, however, by disposing the next day of his bridge property, even before he knew of the result of the trip.

After we started, a mile or two showed some defect in the steering gear, to remedy which a stoppage of an hour was made at anchor, after which the voyage was resumed.

On board, the spirit was generally cheerful. The owners of the boat were there, carefully watching the outcome of their enterprise, and were hopeful thereof. The captain was confident and buoyant, as in his shirt sleeves, in the pilot house, he manipulated the wheel, not neglecting, however, any opportunity to get up an argument in favor of the advantages of phonetic spelling his pet theory—whenever he could find a listener, even in the most dangerous places on the river. The steward was a model of accommodation. Our fellow passengers were generally acquaintances and congenial; and everything being new and neat and clean, I made up my mind for an enjoyable trip.

The Columbia, from Des Chutes to Priest's Rapid, the head of navigation up to the present time, is a broad and deep-flowing river. At intervals it is interrupted by reefs of rocks, which confine the waters to narrow bounds, through which they flow with tremendous force, the damming up also producing considerable fall. These rapids, as they are called, are numerous, but in ordinary stages of water, only two are considered especially difficult the "John Day" and the "Umatilla "Rapids, both named after streams entering into the Columbia in the vicinity of the rapids. In very low stages of water in winter there are a dozen other equally dangerous places, but these two maintain their questionable dignity of danger at any and all times of the year. In extremely low water, a reef, not known in ordinary stages, completely shuts off navigation above Wallula.

For forty miles above Des Chutes the river scenery is bold and startling. The mountains come abruptly to the water's edge, and in many instances, the banks are perpendicular walls of columnar basaltic rock, many hundred feet high. The puff puff of the steamer between these high walls created an echo, which intensified and reverberated in every direction. Farther on the banks became flattened, the scenery changing to pastoral; peacefully stretching to the far distance, it seemed to lack only the element of human occupation to become a land of promise. Had the hills been dotted with herds of cattle or chequered with fields of grain, as is now the case, the view would have been entrancing. But then, all was lifeless. An occasional Indian hut, near the rapids, on the bank of the river, with, perhaps, a slouching Indian lounging about a fishing trap, or herding a few ponies among the rocks, was the only sign of life from one end of the trip to the other. Not a settlement of any kind, nor the house or home of a white man, was visible from the river, until we reached the terminus at Wallula, where stands an old adobe fort, erected years ago by the Hudson Bay Company. This was now occupied by Higgins, the agent for the Army Quartermaster, who occupied the building as a warehouse and depot. Higgins reigned here, solitary and alone, and like Robinson Crusoe, monarch of all he surveyed.

On our trip, the first obstacle was met at John Day's Rapids, a narrow, rocky passage with an island in the center of the river dividing it in two. Either side was passable for the small sail boat but for the larger steamer was yet to be tested. The Captain chose the right hand but it was a failure. The way was too narrow, the turns too short, and the current frightful. We bumped severely against the rocky bank; but fortunately, the point of contact was above the water line. Finally, he dropped the boat back and below, to try again, or, as he said, to find a "softer spot."

This time—taking the left hand channel and advantage of all the eddies—we succeeded in surmounting first one and then another of the short, sharp pitches in the stream, until finally, the last was conquered and the victory celebrated by a prolonged toot of the steam whistle, which would have produced a sensation among the warlike tribes who here, formerly, opposed the passage of the fur trader and explorer of early days.

Just at the head of the rapids the John Day River, named in honor of one of the renowned hunters and scouts attached to the expedition of Lewis and Clarke in 1804, debouches into the Columbia. Indian and Rock Creek Rapids, Squally Brook and other strong points were vanquished in succession as we came to them; and now a long stretch of placid river intervened, comparatively clear of obstructions—or, as the Captain remarked, of a "civilized" character. Our speed was fair and the weather charming. A good breeze kept the sail distended, and the ever-varying panorama was delightfully interesting. The Captain kept the lead line going almost constantly—an operation which compels the close attention of even the most indolent and unobservant passenger, there being a hint of danger, or risk, or want of knowledge suggested thereby; and a sort of summing up in thought what we shall do if an accident should happen, seems to follow instinctively. You may be sure, every passenger knew where the life preservers were to be found, and I fancy knew well how to use them.

Darkness found us within sound, if not within sight, of the famous Umatilla Rapid, the last and most formidable obstruction on the river. Hunting for a smooth and quiet place, we came to anchor for the night, as it was impossible to ascend the rapids except by daylight. The continuous roar of the cataract just above us was a lullaby which ushered in a slumber as sound as it was refreshing. At daylight the next morning, we were awakened by the noise of preparation, the escape of steam, the "Cheerily, heave O! "of the sailors getting the anchor home, and, finally, the clear sound of the engineer's gong, to go ahead. Every body was up and dressing, for the chief interest was centered in the struggle to be undertaken. If the Umatilla Rapids can be passed, success for the enterprise and for the country is assured—otherwise failure.

The rapids are formed by reefs extending completely across the river. There are three separate reefs each about half a mile apart from the other. These reefs rise as they approach the shore, consequently, the water is more shallow there. The passage through the reefs must be made through narrow openings or breaks, which are near the middle of the stream. The volume of water passing these breaks is enormous, and it shoots through with fearful velocity. The openings are not in line with each other, so a boat is compelled to pursue a zigzag course in ascending or descending. It was ascertained subsequently that in consequence of the irregular openings, it was safer to ascend with a steamboat than to descend. Of late years, the United States has spent much money and labor in removing rock and improving the channel here—all of which has been of decided benefit at certain stages of the river. But a difficult and dangerous place it will always be.

The fierce running waves swept up and against our boat's bow, as if protesting against any intrusion. As fast as they were swept aside, others took their place. Still we advanced, until we got up to and under the lee of the lower reef. Here the Captain decided upon an opening which he thought large enough for our boat, and accessible.

Jamming her nose with all speed into the fall, she nobly breasted the waters, which thundered around and poured over the bow upon the deck in profusion. Trembling and creaking in every part, she rapidly shoved herself bodily over the fall—but the rise of the boat on top of the fall lifted the stern wheel out of the water, and she hesitated—then lost headway—then went astern. "More steam," cried the Captain, but we still went back—until striking slacker water, we regained steerage-way.

"By mighty," says the Captain, "she must go through."

Again she rushes, and again she is baptized; but the Captain, having found a "little softer" place, holds her firm—until the wheel as well as the boat surmounts the fall—then, all at once, she hoots ahead over and away from the rapids, into broad water, with a dignified air of superiority, which is wholly excusable under the circumstances.

In the comparatively quiet, yet still strong, water between the reefs, we now seek a passage through the middle reef, and, as if the boat had gained strength and courage, the attack on the next strong water was successful at the first attempt.

These two victories had a corresponding effect on the passengers and crew, who loudly cheered the second passing; and as we headed for the third and last reef, seemed to think, as the party said to Noah in the ark, "Well, it's not going to be much of a shower anyhow." And so it proved. The experience at the upper reef was similar to that at the middle, and we glided into the clear, open river again, just as the welcome breakfast bell recalled us to more material things than the wars of giants, of which we had just been deeply interested spectators.

General congratulation followed around the breakfast table. The owners looked pleased and happy. The passengers who were to go on, expected to be on the outside of a mule or a pony in a couple of hours, and to sleep in Walla Walla that night. The boat was to return to Des Chutes that day. The cautious Captain interposed, however: " Well, boys, we are up, but we haven't got down yet."

To us, who were to return, this was an intimation of more trouble, and, perhaps, a new experience. However, our faith in the boat and her commander had now risen to that elevation at which we were prepared to believe she could perform any wonder, and we were disposed to scoff at any doubter.

We arrived at Wallula at nine o'clock. Higgins, the solitary inhabitant, came forth to take our lines and bid us welcome. Soon a messenger was sent to an Indian ranch for ponies, and presently a small band was driven into a corral, and the passengers engaged themselves in the selection of riding animals. Wallula is situated at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, and is a bleak, barren, and desolate-looking place. Opposite and across the river are high grass hills, sloping away gently into the Yakima Valley on the north. The post and town of Walla Walla is situated thirty miles inland, at the head of the lovely valley whose wonderful fertility begins some miles inland from this point. The interval is sand hills and plain, clad with sage brush.

Now that our passengers are mounted and gone, the boat unloaded, we make ready to return. Two hours' time has been consumed here, when we cast off, and are headed down stream. The difference in speed of the boat was astonishing. We seemed to fly. We could hardly recognize the prominent points we had so carefully scanned in our laborious upward trip. We ran the Umatilla Rapids without accident, notwithstanding the premonitory warnings of our Captain. Thence on, with full head of steam, our way was made as rapidly as possible, for we wanted to reach Des Chutes before night.

It was quite dark when we reached John Day Rapids, but still we could plainly see the threatening rocks rising out of the boiling and seething water; we passed them in close proximity, yet escaping them. From here it was plain sailing, and we arrived at the landing our starting point of yesterday just as the steward was lighting up the cabin for supper.

Not anticipating so quick a return, we had made no provision for riding into the Dalles fifteen miles overland. But we soon found a teamster, whose freight wagon, filled with straw, would make a comfortable conveyance, so we concluded to complete the trip by a ride to town.

Bidding good-bye to our genial Captain, we ensconced ourselves in the wagon, which, in about four hours, landed us at the hostelry, where we toasted in champagne the success of the steamboat, and the inauguration of one of the greatest enterprises of the Northwest.

L. W. Coe.