The 1,243 miles long Columbia River is the fourth longest river in North America and has a long tradition of steamboating. In the days before the lock-and-dam system, the river was very dangerous to navigate, with strong currents, bars, reefs and rapids. Today impressive locks and dams with lifts more than 100 feet only the mouth of the river is still a real challenge for the pilots.
In May 1836, the Hudson’s bay Company sidewheeler, BEAVER, was the first steamboat started from Fort Vancouver up the Columbia River the first time. In early days rapids at the Cascades and a very strong current at The Dalles separated the river into three sections, while steamboats did only operated on the lower part of the river until 1850. Later, there had been river traffic also in the middle and upper part of the river. Portage railroads or trails connected the landings below and above the obstacles in the river and freight was simply unloaded, carried around the obstacles and reloaded to another steamboat.
With a length of 1,040 miles the Snake River is a major tributary to the Columbia River. Its source is in the Yellowstone National Park, but navigation is limited to the section below Hell’s Canyon. Once the Snake River was named Lewis River, as the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 – 1806 explored the lower section of the river. The famous Oregon Trail of the mid 19th century followed the Snake River.
The 187-mile-long Willamette River flows into the Columbia River near Portland, OR. Operating steamboats on the Willamette River always was financially difficult and competition was heavy. Today, there is only little commercial traffic on the Willamette River at all.
- Steamboats on Northwest Rivers, Bill Gulick