Names and Character of Early Pacific Steamships

The first river steamboat in Oregon was the Columbia, built by General Adair, Captain Dan Frost and others, at Upper Astoria in 1850. She was a side-wheel boat, ninety feet in length, of about seventy-five tons burthen, capable of accommodating not to exceed twenty passengers, though I have known of her carrying on one trip over one hundred. Though small, her cost exceeded $25,000. Mechanics engaged in her construction were paid at the rate of sixteen dollars per day, and other laborers five to eight dollars, gold. She made her first trip in June, 1850, under the command of Capt. Fros; McDermott, engineer. It generally took about twenty-four hours to make the trip. She tied up nights and in foggy weather. Fare was twenty-five dollars each way. She was an independent little craft, and not remarkably accommodating, utterly ignoring Lower Astoria. All freight and passengers must come on board at the upper town. She ran for a year or two, when her machinery was taken out and put into the Fashion. Her hull afterwards floated out to sea.

The Lot Whitcomb, also a side-wheeler, was the next. She was built at Milwaukie, then one of the most lively and promising towns in Oregon, by Lot Whitcomb, Col. Jennings, S. S. White and others and launched on Christmas Day, 1850. That was a great day in Oregon. Hundreds from all parts of the Territory came to witness the launch. The festivities were kept up for three days and nights. There was music instrumental-at least, I heard several fiddles -and vocal, dancing and feasting. The whole city was full of good cheer; every house was open and all was free of charge-no one would receive pay. Sleeping accommodations were rather scarce, but there was plenty to keep one awake.

The Lot Whitcomb had a fine model, a powerful engine, and was staunch and fast. Her keel was 12×14 inches, 160 feet long, a solid, stick of Oregon fir. Her burden was 600 tons, had a 17-inch cylinder, 7-feet stroke and cost about $80,000. She proved a safe and comfortable boat. Fare upon her was reduced to $15 between Portland and Astoria. She ran upon Oregon waters until the latter part of 1853, when she was taken to San Francisco and ran for some years on the Sacramento. Captain John C. Ainsworth took command. This was his first steamboating in Oregon. Jacob Kamm was her engineer. Captain Ainsworth was from Iowa, where he had been engaged in steamboating on the Mississippi between St. Louis and Galena about five years. He was a young man about twenty-eight years of age when he commenced in Oregon, and had nothing to begin with but the ordinary capital of an Oregon pioneer-a sound head, a brave heart, willing hands, energy and fidelity to trust. I have known him through his whole career in Oregon. The fortune and position he has acquired are not the result of accident or chance, but have beta secured by industry, integrity, ability, hard labor and prudence. Such fortune and such position come to all who work as hard, as long and well as Captain Ainsworth.

Jacob Kamm, the engineer, was the right man in the right place on such a boat, under such a captain. He proved himself skillful and prudent; no accident ever occurred through his want of skill and care during the long period in which he ran as engineer on Oregon steamboats. The fortune he has acquired has been built up by hard labor, increased and preserved by skill and prudence.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, a New York corporation which had the mail contract between Panama and Oregon, brought out a large iron steamer called the Willamette. She was built for the company at Wilmington, Delaware, and brought around Cape Horn under sail as a three masted schooner, arriving in the fall of 1851. She was soon fitted up and commenced running, under Captain Durbrow, between Portland and Astoria in connection with the company’s sea steamer. She was an elegant boat in all her appointments, had fine accommodation for passengers, and great freight capacity. In fact, she was altogether too large for the trade, and in August, 1852, her owners took her to California and ran her on the Sacramento. One good thing she did, she put fare down to $10. Fare on this route went down slowly; first $26, then $15, then $10, then $8, and then $3; it is now $2. It is only within a few years that the passenger trade on the lower Columbia has been of any considerable value, or would support a single weekly steamboat. It has now become of more importance.

Time will only permit me to touch upon the important events which make eras in the commerce of Oregon.

Navigation upon the Willamette above the falls at Oregon City by steamboats was opened by the Hoosier, built at Oregon City below the falls and taken up early 1851. She ran between Cauemah and Dayton on the Yamhill.

Early in 1851 Abernethy & Co’s barque, the Success, from New York, arrived at Oregon City with a general cargo of merchandise and three steamboats; two of them were small iron propellers, and the third, the Multnomah, was a side-wheel boat built of wood. The Eagle was very little larger than an ordinary ship’s yawl-boat. She was owned and run between Portland and Oregon City by Captains William Wells and Richard Williams. When Wells was captain, Williams was mate, fireman and all hands; when Captain Dick took the wheel, Wells became the crew. She carried freight for $15 per ton, passengers $5 each. Pretty good pay for a twelve mile route. She made more money according to her size than any boat in Oregon. Out of her earnings the owners built the iron steamboat Belle, and made themselves principal owners in the Senorita-two, for that day, first-class steamboats. The Washington was somewhat larger, owned by Alexander S. Murray, who commanded her. Ile took the boat up above the falls in June, 1851, run her there until the fall or winter of 1851-2, when he brought her down and run her between Portland and Oregon City until the spring of 1853, when she was again taken above the falls, where she ran until July of the same year, when her owners there, Allan McKinley & Co., brought her below and sent her under steam around to the Umpqua river. She arrived there in safety, crossing the bars of both rivers, and ended her days there in the service of her owners. She was known after her sea voyage as the “Bully Washington.” The only money ever made out of her was made by her first owner, Capt. Murray. He was a sharp Scotchman, came from Australia here and returned there when he left Oregon. He is said to be the father of internal navigation in Australia. He made money, and when I last heard of him was engaged in the navigation of Murray’s river, which empties into the ocean at Adelaide.

The next and most famous of the steamers that were brought out after the Success was the Multnomah . She came in sections, and was set up at Canemah by two or three army or navy officers of the United States, who had brought her out, Doctors Gray and Maxwell and Captain Binicle; was built of oak staves two inches in thickness and of the width and length of ordinary boat plank, bound with hoops made of bar iron, keyed up on the gunwales; was 100 feet in length, with good machinery, and like her principal owner, Dr. Gray, fastidiously nice in all her appointments. She had no timbers except her deck beams and the frame upon which her engine and machinery rested; was as staunch as iron and oak could make her, It was as difficult to knock her to pieces from the outside as it is for a boy to kick in a well hooped barrel. She commenced running above the falls shortly after the Washington, and run there-her highest point being Corvallis, then Marysville-until May, 1852, when she was brought below on ways in a cradle, and thereafter run on the lower Willamette and Columbia, part of the time making three trips a week to Oregon City and three trips to the Cascades. She brought down many of the emigrants of 1852. She fell into the hands of Abernethy & Co., and in the winter and spring of 1853, ran between Portland and Oregon City in connection with the Lot Whitcomb: On the failure of Abernethy & Co.; she fell into the hands of their creditors and had different captains every few trips for a year or two. She was then purchased by Captain Richard Hoyt, and run on the lower Columbia route until his death in the winter or spring of 1861-2. She finally came into the hands of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, and after much more useful service laid her bones in the hone-yard below Portland.

About the same time, 1851, a small wooden boat, a propeller, called the Black Hawk, ran between Portland and Oregon City. She made money very rapidly for her owners.

The other boats built for or run above the falls of the Willamette were the Portland, built opposite Portland, in 1853, by A. S. Murray, John Torrance and James Clinton. She was afterwards taken above the falls where she ran for some time. On the 17th of March, 1857, she was carried over the falls in high water, leaving hardly a vestige of the boat, and drowning her captain, Arthur Jamison, and one deck hand.

There was the Canemah, side-wheels, built in 1851, by A. F. Hedges, afterwards killed by the Indians in Colonel Kelly’s fight on the Touchet in 1856; Manson Beers and Hamilton Campbell. She ran between Canemah and Corvallis. The heaviest load she ever carried was 35 tons. Passage on her was $5 to Salem. She made little or no money for her owners though she had a mail contract.

The Oregon, built and owned by Ben Simpson & Co., in 1852, was a side-wheel boat of good size, but proved very poor property.

The Shoalwater, built by the owners of the Canemah, in 1852-3, as a low-water boat, commanded by Captain Lem White, the pioneer captain upon the upper Columbia, proved to be a failures. She changed her name several times, was the Phoenix, Franklin, and Minnie Holmes. Her had hick followed her under every alias. In the spring of 1854, she collapsed a flue near Rock Island while stopping at a landing. None were killed, but several were more or less seriously injured and all badly scared. H. N. V. Holmes, a prominent resident of Polk county, was badly injured, but jumped overboard and swam across the river to the eastern shore before he knew that he was hurt.

Next was the Willamette, also built by the owners of the Canemah, in 1853. She was a large and expensive boat of the Mississippi style; run above the falls until July, 1854, when she was taken below, and in the fall of the same year was sold and taken to California. She proved a failure everywhere and came near breaking her owners. The current seemed to be against her whether she ran up or down stream.

In the summer of 1853 a company of California capitalists bought the land and built a basin and warehouse on the west side of the Willamette at the falls, near where the canal and locks now are. Their first boat was burned on the stocks October 6, 1853. The second was the ill-fated Gazelle, a large and beautiful side-wheel steamer. She made her first trip on the 18th of March, 1854. On the 5th of April, 1854, when lying at Canemah, her boiler exploded, causing great loss of lives. Over twenty persons were killed outright, and as many wounded, three or four of whom died shortly afterwards. The Rev. J. P. Miller, a Presbyterian minister, of Albany, in this State, the father of Mrs. Judge Wilson, now a widow and postmaster at The Dalles (postmistress is not known under the post-office laws); Mrs. Kelly, wife of Col. Kelly, late U. S. Senator from this State, now resident of Portland, and Mrs. Grover, the wife of Gen. Cuvier Grover. Many other valuable citizens of Oregon were among the killed. The wreck was bought by Captains R. Hoyt, William Wells and A. S. Murray, taken down over the falls on the 11th day of August, 1855, and converted into the Senorita, of which I have before spoken. The warehouse company afterwards built the Oregon, which was sunk and proved a total loss. The property passed into other hands; the buildings were afterwards burned, and all was swept away in the flood of December, 1861.

The first stern-wheeler upon the upper Willamette was the Enterprise, built in the fall of 1855, by Archibald Jamison (a brother of the one lost on the Portland when she went over the falls, in March, 1854), Captain A. S. Murray, Armory Holbrook, John Torrance and others. She was 115 feet in length, fifteen feet in width, and had neat cabin appointments. She run on the upper river under Captain Jamison-the first really successful boat on that part of the river-and after some years’ service was sold to Captain Tom Wright, son of Commodore, better known as ” Bully ” Wright, of San Francisco, who took her to Frazier river on the breaking out of the mines there, where she finished her course; as I now recollect, she was blown up.

In 1856 Captains Cochrane, Gibson, Cassidy and others built the James Clinton, afterwards called the Surprise. She was in her day the largest and best stern-wheeler upon the Willamette.

The Success, built at a later period by Captain Baughman, belied her name, and had a short and unprofitable career.

There were other steamboats during this time and afterwards upon that portion of the river which time forbids me to name. What I have already stated is sufficient to give a general idea of the growth of navigation up to the time when corporations commenced their operation. These boats that I have named, and others built and owned by private individuals, held the field until 1862-3, when the People’s Transportation Company, a corporation under the general incorporation law of Oregon, entered upon its career. They built the canal, basin and warehouse on the east side of the river, and carried on a profitable trade between Portland and the various points up the river, finally selling out to Ben Holladay, who, with his railroad and river steamboats, then held command of the trade of the entire Willamette Valley.

An account of the internal commerce of Oregon would be incomplete without a history of the origin and growth of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. I shall speak of it historically only, how it originated and what it has accomplished Whether its influence has been good ‘or bad, whether, on the whole, it has been or is likely to be detrimental to the true interests of our people, are questions that are not to be discussed here. Time will only permit me to give a brief sketch of the prominent points in its history. It is an Oregon institution, established by Oregon men who made their start in Oregon. Its beginnings were small, but it has grown to great importance under the control of the men who originated it.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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