River Navigation

In approaching this subject one finds that, as in all other lines, Portland has gradually become the center of all the navigation companies of Oregon. To indicate the sources of her present facilities it will therefore be proper to mention the efforts made in other places in our State which ultimated upon Portland. This can be done in no manner so satisfactorily as by inserting here two extracts; one of them being from a speech of Senator J. W. Nesmith, and the other from Hon. Win. Strong, before the Oregon Pioneer Association.

The former is a racy narrative of the very earliest efforts at navigation; and the latter shows the origin of our steamboat companies. Both the men named were personally cognizant of the facts in the case. Says Nesmith:

It is my purpose to speak briefly of the inception of our external and internal commerce, as inaugurated by the efforts of the early pioneers.

Forty years ago the few American citizens in Oregon were isolated from the out-side world. Some adventurous and enterprising persons conceived the idea of a vessel of a capacity to cross the Columbia river bar and navigate the ocean. Those persons were mostly old Rocky Mountain beaver trappers, and sailors who had drifted like waifs to the Willamette Valley. Their names were Joseph Gale, John Canan, Ralph Kilbourn, Pleasant Armstrong, Henry Woods, George Davis and Jacob Green. Felix Hathaway was employed as master ship carpenter, and Thomas Hubbard and J. L. Parrish did the blacksmith work. In the latter part of 1840, there was laid the keel of the schooner Star of Oregon, upon the east side of Swan Island, near the junction of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Co. either dreading commercial competition, or doubtful about their pay, at first refused to furnish any supplies. But through the earnest representation of Commodore Wilkes-then here in command of the American exploring squadron, who offered to become responsible for the payment-Dr. M’Loughlin furnished all such necessary articles as were in store at Vancouver. (According to another account current among old pioneers, the boat builders feigned to be persuaded by M’Loughlin to give up their plan, and go to raising wheat for him. He supplied them with ropes, nails, bagging, etc., etc., such as was necessary for agriculture, and was greatly astonished when in passing the island he saw his farmers industriously building the craft which he had attempted to inhibit, expressing his vexation in the words, “Curse these Americans; they always do get ahead of us.”) On the 19th day of May, 1841, the schooner was launched. She had only been planked up to the water ways, and in that condition was worked up to the falls of the Willamette. Owing to the destitution of means and the scarcity of provisions, the enterprising ship builders were compelled to suspend work upon their vessel until May, 1842. On the 25th of August the vessel was completed, and the crew went on board at the falls. They consisted of the following named persons: Joseph Gale, captain; John Canan, Pleasant Armstrong, Ralph Kilbourn, Jacob Green and one Indian boy ten years old. There was but one passenger, a Mr. Piffenhauser. Capt. Wilkes furnished them with an anchor, hawser, nautical instruments, a flag and a clearance. On the 12th of September, 1842, she crossed the bar of the Columbia, coming very near being wrecked in the breakers, and took latitude and departure from Cape Disappointment just as the sun touched the western horizon.

That night there arose a terrific storm, which lasted thirty-six hours, during which Captain Gale, who was the only experienced seaman on board, never left the helm. The little Star behaved beautifully in the storm, and after a voyage of five days anchored in the foreign port of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was then called.

The Star was 48 feet eight inches on the keel, 53 feet eight inches over all, with ten feet and nine inches in the widest part, and drew in good ballast trim four feet and six inches of water. Her frame was of swamp white oak, her knees of seasoned red fir roots; her beam and castings of red fir. She was clinker built, and of the Baltimore clipper model. She was planked with clear cedar, dressed to 1 1/4 inches, which was spiked to every rib with a wrought iron spike half an inch square, and clinched on the inside. The deck was double; and she was what is known as a fore and aft schooner, having no top sails, but simply fore and main sails, jib and flying jib. She was painted black, with a small white ribbon running from stem to stern, and was one of the handsomest little crafts that ever sat upon the water. Capt. Gale and the crew, who were the owners of the Star, sold her at the bay of San Francisco in the fall of 1842 to a French captain named Josa Lamonton, who had recently wrecked his vessel. The price was 350 cows.

Shortly after Captain Gale arrived in San Francisco, the captains of several vessels then in the harbor came on board his schooner, and when passing around the stern read Star of Oregon, he heard them swear that there was no such port in the world.

Gale and his crew remained in California all winter, and in the spring of 1843 started to Oregon with a party of forty-two men, who brought with them an aggregate of 1250 head of cattle, 600 head of mares, colts, horses and mules, and 3000 sheep. They were seventy-five days in reaching the Willamette Valley. On their arrival with their herds the monopoly in stock cattle came to an end in Oregon.

Captain Joseph Gale, the master spirit of the enterprise, was born, I believe, in the District of Columbia, and in his younger days followed the sea, where he obtained a good knowledge of navigation and seamanship. Captain Wilkes, before he would give him his papers, examined him satisfactorily upon these subjects.. Abandoning the sea he found his way to the Rocky Mountains, and was for several years a trapper. I knew him well and lived with him in the winter of 1843-4, and often listened to his thrilling adventures of the sea and land. He then had the American flag that Wilkes gave him, and made a sort of canopy of it, under which he slept. No saint was ever more devoted to his shrine than was Gale to that dear old flag.

In the summer of 1844, Aaron Cook, a bluff old Englishman, strongly imbued with American sentiments, conceived the idea of building a schooner to supercede the Indian canoes then doing the carrying trade on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Cook employed Edwin W. and M. B. Otie and myself as the carpenters to construct the craft. We built her in a cove or recess of the rocks just in front of Frank Ermotinger’s house, near the upper end of Oregon City.

None of us had any knowledge of ship-building, but by dint of perseverance we constructed a schooner of about thirty-five tons but-then. She was called the Calipooiah. Jack Warner did the caulking, paying and rigging. Warner was a young Scotchman with a good education, which he never turned to any practical account. He ran away from school in the “Land o’ Cakes” and took to the sea, where he picked up a good deal of knowledge pertaining to the sailors’ craft. I recollect one day when Jack, with a kettle of hot pitch and a long -handled swab, was pitching the hull of the Calipooiah, he was accosted by an “uncouth Missourian,” who had evidently never seen anything of the kind before, with an inquiry as to his occupation. Jack responded in broad Scotch: “I am a landscape painter by profession, and am doing a wee bit of adornment for Capt. Cook’s schooner.”

In the month of August, 1844, we had launched and finished the Calipooiah and went on a pleasure excursion to the mouth of the Columbia. The crew and passengers consisted of Captain Aaron Cook, Jack Warner, Jack Campbell, Rev. A. F. Waller and family, W. H. Gray and wife, A. E. Wilson, Robert Shortess, W. W. Raymond, E. W. Otie, M. B. Otie and J. W. Nesmith. There might have been others on board; if so, their names have escaped me. The after portion had a small cabin, which was given up for the accommodation of the ladies and children. Forward was a box filled with earth, upon which a fire was made for cooking purposes. We had our own blankets and slept upon the deck. The weather was delightful, and we listlessly drifted down the Willamette and Columbia rivers, sometimes aided by the wind. Portland was then a solitude like any other part of the forest-clad bank. There were then no revenue officers here under pretense of “protecting” American industries, and no custom house boat boarded us.

In four days we reached Astoria, or Fort George, as the single old shanty on the place, in charge of an old Scotchman, was called. The river was full of fish, and the shores abounded in game. We had our rifles along, and subsisted upon wild delicacies. There were then numerous large Indian villages along the margin of the river, and the canoes of the natives were rarely out of sight. The Indians often came on hoard to dispose of salmon; their price was a bullet and a charge of powder for a fish.

The grand old river existed then in its natural state, as Lewis and Clark found it forty years before. I believe that there was but one American settler’s cabin on the hanks of the Columbia from its source to the ocean. That was on the south side of the river, and belonged to Henry Hunt and Ben Wood, who were building a saw-mill at that point.

On an Island near Cathlamet some of us went ashore to visit a large Indian village, where the natives lived in large and comparatively comfortable houses. They showed us some articles which they said were presented to them by Lewis and Clarke, among which were a faded cotton handkerchief and a small mirror, about two inches square, in a small tin case. The corners of the case were worn off and the sides worn through by much handling. The Indians seemed to regard the articles with great veneration, and would not dispose of them to us for any price we were able to offer.

The only vessel we saw in the river was Her Majesty’s sloop-of-war Modeste, of eighteen guns, under command of Capt. Thomas Bailie. ‘We passed her in a long niche in the river, as she lay at anchor. We had a spanking breeze, and, with all our sail set and the American flag flying at our mast-head, we proudly ran close under her broadside. A long line of officers and sailors looked down over the hammocks and from the quarter-deck at our unpainted and primitive craft in apparently as much astonishment as if we were the Flying Dutchman or some other phantom ship from the moon to plant the Stars and Stripes upon the neutral waters of the Columbia.” The steamer Eliza Anderson, launched November 27, 1858, was entirely built at Portland, of Oregon fir timber, and at this date, July, 1889, is running on Puget Sound with most of her original timber as apparently sound as the day it was put in her.

Judge Strong, at one time attorney of the old O. S. N. Company, succinctly begins his narrative at the annual meeting of the Pioneer Association in 1878 by stating what he found upon reaching the Columbia:

Astoria at that time was a small place, or rather two places, the upper and lower town, between which there was great rivalry. They were about a mile apart, with no road connecting them except by water and along the beach. The upper town was known to the people of lower Astoria as “Adairville.” The lower town was designated by its rival as ” Old Fort George,” or ” McClure’s Astoria.” A road between the two places would have weakened the differences of both, isolation being the protection of either. In the upper town was the custom house, in the lower two companies of the First U. S. Engineers, under command of Major J. S. Hathaway. There were not, excepting the military and those attached to them, and the custom house officials, to the best of my recollection, to exceed twenty-five men in both towns.

At the time of our arrival in the country there was considerable commerce carried on, principally in sailing vessels, between the Columbia river and San Francisco. The exports were chiefly lumber; the imports generally merchandise.

The Pacific Mail steamer Caroline had made a trip in the month of May or June, 1850, bringing up furniture for the Grand Hotel at Pacific City, and as passengers, Dr. Elijah White, Judge Alonzo Skinner, J. D. Holman and others, who were the founders and proprietors of the city. Some of the proprietors still live, but the city has been long since buried and the place where it stood has returned to the primeval forest from which it was taken. The Mail Company’s steamers Oregon and Panama had each made one trip to the river that summer, but regular mail service by steamer from San Francisco was not established until the arrival of the steamer Columbia in the winter or spring of 1850-51. The usual length of time of receiving letters from the States was from six weeks to two months. It took, however, three months to send and get an answer from an interior State, and postage on a single letter was forty cents. After the arrival of the Columbia, they came with great regularity once a month, and a year or two afterwards semi-monthly.

In 1852 the railroad across the Isthmus was completed, thus greatly improving that route. A route had been established across Nicaragua, which for a time was quite popular, but was finally abandoned on account of internal disturbances in the country, in part, and in part on account of competition and increased facilities upon the Isthmus route. The date when the Nicaragua route commenced to be used and was discontinued I am not able at this time to give. The price of passage by the Isthmus route, before their opposition, was from $200 to $250, which included only a limited amount of baggage. Freights were extraordinarily high, amounting to a prohibition upon all excepting merchandise.

In 1857 the Overland Stage Company was organized and commenced carrying the letter mail between St. Joe, Missouri, and Placerville, California, under a contract with the Postmaster General, under an act of Congress, approved March 3d, 1857. The act authorized a semi-monthly, weekly, or semi-weekly service, at a cost per annum not exceeding $300,000 for semi-monthly, $450,000 for weekly, and $600,000 for semi-weekly service-the mail to he carried in good four-horse coaches or spring, wagons, suitable for passengers, through in twenty-five days. The original contract was for six years, but was extended, and the line run until the railroad was completed in 1869. After the route was opened, twenty-two days was the schedule time. The stages run full both ways. fare $250. The starting and arrival of the stages were great events at both ends of the line. A pony express from San Francisco to St. Joe was started in 1859, and run about a year and a half. It made the trip in ten days.


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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