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The Riverboat Legend
Borrowed from the site of
American West Steamboat Company

The mighty Columbia River is some 2,000 miles long, making it the second longest river in the United States. From its confluence with the Snake River to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River of the early 1800s crossed over a hundred areas of whitewater and rapids. Moving downstream was fairly easy, but the rapids and occasional falls made it virtually impossible to establish any upstream commerce with sailing ships or canoes.


The Steamer Almota (1876) cruised the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.

The Harvest Queen, a turn-of-the-century, sternwheeler operated on the Columbia & Willamette Rivers out of Portland.

Click to open the Baily Gatzert's Postcard Page
BAILEY GATZERT

The passenger steamer, Bailey Gatzert, built in 1890, was the fastest (20+ MPH) on the river. She also carried more passengers than any other vessel in her 10 years on the Columbia.

The mighty Columbia River is some 2,000 miles long, making it the second longest river in the United States. From its confluence with the Snake River to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River of the early 1800s crossed over a hundred areas of whitewater and rapids. Moving downstream was fairly easy, but the rapids and occasional falls made it virtually impossible to establish any upstream commerce with sailing ships or canoes.

A new type of watercraft was needed: one with a shallow draft and high maneuverability, yet capable of carrying large loads of freight and people. The steam powered sternwheeler was the perfect boat for this diverse river and in 1855, the Jennie Clark was placed into service. Fast and maneuverable, the paddlewheeler was to dominate ship traffic on the Columbia River for nearly a century and would grow from a workboat into a beautifully appointed passenger vessel.

In just a few years after the introduction, hundreds of sternwheelers were built and operated along the Willamette, Columbia, and Snake rivers. Between Portland and the Snake River, the Columbia was divided into three operating sections, each worked by its own set of river boats. The dividing lines between river sections were caused by the narrow rapids of the Cascades and the towering Celilo Falls. These hazards were virtually impassable by river boats (although that did not stop some unfortunate captains from trying) and required the development of short portages to carry passengers and freight around the obstructions of one section of the river to board a vessel in the next section to continue upstream.

Passengers and freight would travel the lower Columbia River to the Cascades on the Fashion, Carrie Ladd, Mountain Buck, or Julia. There they would put ashore and ride the portage railroad behind a tiny rail car, affectionately known as the “Oregon Pony,” to the upper landing, where they would board the Idaho, Hassalo, or Wasco to The Dalles. There they would ride a horse drawn wagon for a short ride around Celilo Falls then board the Colonel Wright, Nez Perce Chief, Yakima, or Spray for a cruise to Lewiston on the Snake River.

But the most famous of all Columbia River sternwheelers was the Bailey Gatzert, one of the fastest ever built. Unlike her less-refined cousins who were primarily built for hauling freight, the Bailey Gatzert was crafted as an overnight passenger vessel. With luxurious appointments and fine service, she set the standard that other vessels would follow.

The sternwheelers were not the only thing becoming more refined. The Columbia River itself was modified several times to facilitate vessel traffic: first with the removal of the dangerous John Day Rock in 1873, then with the construction of the Cascade Locks in 1896. Next, the Celilo Canal around Celilo Falls was constructed in 1915.

The big dams of the Columbia River finally tamed the most dangerous parts, but by then the traffic on board those graceful ships was being diverted by the building of roads and railroads. Finally trucks, Model T's and buses took over as the new methods for hauling freight and people. Most of the ships then moved on to other areas of the country or were abandoned. The last overnight passenger sternwheeler operating on the Columbia was removed from service in 1917, nearly 62 years after Jennie Clark was constructed. Now it is over eighty five years later, and the Queen of the West and Empress of the North proudly continue the tradition and legend of the great sternwheelers.


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