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Steam boat captains – rock stars of the upper Columbia

By on May 25, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

They were a brotherhood of fearless, skilled and well-paid men who knew the river — all its rocks, snags, rapids, whirlpools and channels. 

They knew how to maneuver a 300 ton, 130-foot long, four-deck, steam powered rear paddle wheel ship up and down the wild river of the west. No easy feat.

The captains were respected and idolized by the people they served along the river. They brought needed goods to the towns and took the production of the north-country back to the railroad at Wenatchee. No passenger on any of the riverboats ever forgot the experience.

J.A. Whiting worked as a deckhand on the ships and in Bruce Wilson’s book, Late Frontier, he described a trip up river. 

“The steamer fought its way up the Columbia in a cacophony of sounds, paddle wheel slapping tirelessly at the water, the steam engine chuff-chuffing, a creaking of the long connecting rods, bow plowing through the Columbia’s relentless current, clanging of the ship’s bell, the softer dinner gong, a deep throated whistle messaging a landing just ahead, All these sounds changing from one mile to the next, and when cliffs closed in, all of them and their echoes becoming a single sound.’”

Most said it could never be done until Captain William P. Gray brought the first steamship, the City of Ellensburgh, to the upper Columbia. 

In a 1928 letter to Linley Hull, Captain Gray recalled the trip. “We left Pasco early in August 1888 with 35 tons of freight and all the fuel (cord wood or coal) we could carry. It took 22 hours to reach Priest Rapids. Working two days with lines and spars we got through Priest Rapids, where I took a chance of drowning five men and myself in running a line down the lower rapid. From this point the river was fairly good to Rock Island Rapids where we had to use four lines at once to make the passage and avoid reefs; but by reason of the poor power of the boat, we were dangerously near the dead line of failure.”

Captain Gray continued up the Columbia (what a sight it must have been to the few settlers standing on the banks) through the Entiat and Pateros Rapids and up the Okanogan River until grounding near the town of Monse and unloading the freight. The City of Ellensburgh was the only steamer on the upper Columbia until 1893.

Captain Gray had first-hand training in river running. 

In 1861 he, along with his brothers and their father, William H. Gray, built a boat at their homestead on Lake Osooyos. Father Gray was a master mechanic and carpenter tired of farming. 

With no nails, only hand made wooden pegs, they built an open boat 91 feet long with a 12-foot beam. It was powered with long oars called sweeps. 

After some practice on the lake, they loaded the boat with family and belongings and pushed off down the Okanogan River. They shot McLoughlin Falls and soon reached the Columbia. 

They negotiated the difficult Pateros, Entiat and Rock Island Rapids then Priest Rapids. From there it was an easy float to the mouth of the Deschutes River on the lower Columbia. 

Captain Gray must have thought often of that harrowing trip as he piloted the City of Ellensburgh through the same rapids.

By 1890, J.J. Hill knew where his railroad would cross the Columbia River and the North Cascades. He knew that it would not travel up the Columbia to the Okanogan country but he did understand that there would be significant freight coming down from there to the railroad at Wenatchee. 

Hill told his friend and business partner, Mississippi steamboat Captain Alexander Griggs, that there was money to be made on the upper Columbia.

In 1891, Griggs traveled to Wenatchee to see the Columbia for himself. It was a challenging river, not at all like the Mississippi and the Red River where he had piloted riverboats for years. The Captain liked a challenge. 

He returned to Minnesota to put preparations in motion. 

In 1893 he returned to Wenatchee, on the Great Northern, formed the Columbia and Okanogan Steamboat Company and began assembling a fleet of ships beginning with the City of Ellensburgh and the Thomas L. Nixon, a large boat the Great Northern had used to ferry rail cars across the Columbia before the bridge was built at Rock Island.

Captain C.E. Hansen on the riverboat steamer City of Ellensburgh. Photo courtesy Okanogan County Historical Society, 3979.

The C. & O. Company dominated the steamboat business on the river for 21 years. 

Over those years, 22 steamships plied the upper Columbia and the C & O. Company built or bought from competitors, 17 of them. The boats ran daily from Wenatchee to Brewster and, at times of high water, up the Okanogan to Riverside. Captain Griggs built a home on north Wenatchee Avenue and another on the banks of the Columbia at Brewster.

During the massive 1894 flood, a log collided with a cable ferry trying to reach Brewster from the Douglas County side. 

Separated from its cable, the ferry started down the swollen Columbia carrying a man and wife and their wagon with horses. 

The husband took to the ferry’s rowboat and tried to guide the ferry towards shore while Captain Griggs, on horseback, rode along the shoreline shouting instructions. The ferry was hauled ashore at Pateros. 

Captain Griggs’ Brewster home floated off its foundations and traveled downriver to the mouth of Navarre Coulee.

When Alexander Griggs bought the Thomas L. Nixon from the Great Northern he got its captain, Claus Hansen, in the deal. 

Captain Griggs made Hansen captain of the City of Ellensburgh and refitted the boat with a more powerful engine and larger boilers greatly improving the boats ability to buck the Columbia current on the upstream runs. Captain Hansen kept the job until the City of Ellensburgh was retired and dismantled in 1905.

During the 1894 flood, a group of people had assembled at the Douglas County shore of the Columbia at the site of the Central Ferry. The ferry was washed out, as were all the ferries in the area. The people were stranded and running short of food.  

Nellie Gallarno recalled, “Almost anything could be seen floating down the Columbia; buildings, haystacks (one captained by a crowing rooster), wagons, beds, boats, barrels…” 

Guy Victor, 10 years old at the time of the flood remembered, “trees, buildings, drowned stock and about two million feet of logs from Canada.”

In the midst of the clogged river, Captain Claus Hansen brought the City of Ellensburgh from Wenatchee to the upper river to ferry the stranded folks across. It was the only steamer to accomplish the feat during the flood. 

Captain Claus Hansen retired from steam boating in 1909 and served two terms as mayor of Okanogan.

As glamorous and profitable as steam boating was and as skilled as the captains were, it was dangerous business, especially for the wooden boats. 

Of the 22 ships on the river between 1888 and 1914, four were lost to fire and seven to the rocks. The Rock Island Rapids claimed the Selkirk, rocks near Brewster sunk the Enterprise and the graveyard of the Entiat Rapids took the North Star, Camano, Alexander Griggs, W.H. Pringle and likely the Gerome.

Not long after the Great Northern reached Wenatchee, talk began to grow about a rail line from Wenatchee to Oroville. 

J.J. Hill and the Great Northern resisted for years but it was clear that the line would come and when it did Hill’s friend, Captain Griggs, would lose his business. 

In 1910, the C. & O. Steamboat Company began selling off its assets. 

Later that year, grading for the rail line began moving south from Oroville. Two years later the line from Wenatchee north was begun. The first trains began running in 1914. 

The following year, the last four steamboats of the C. & O. Company burned to their waterlines while tied to the dock at the foot of Fifth Street in Wenatchee.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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