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Steamships on the Willamette 'gone bad'

by: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Steamships gather on the Willamette River between Oregon City and West Linn. The vessels could carry up to 500 tons of cargo.In the mid-1800s, Oregonians hailed steamboats as an empowering sign of state progress — transportation’s deliverance from dependence on the whims of the wind, oxen and mules.

Steamboats could carry up to 500 tons of cargo, rapidly transporting grain and produce from the Columbia River Gorge and Corvallis, to the Pacific. Mass transport of livestock, timber and lumber, salted salmon, mail and even gold dust (from Idaho to the San Francisco Mint) revolutionized the Western economy.

But the bottom of the Willamette River is mired with the personal belongings, bones and dreams of countless lives lost to steamboat catastrophes. Steam engine explosions peaked in the mid-19th century. Just as noted American author Mark Twain lost his younger brother Henry Clemens to a boiler disaster on the Pennsylvania out of New Orleans in 1859, the explosion of the Gazelle claimed more than two dozen lives just above Willamette Falls in 1854.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28, the Museum of the Oregon Territory, 211 Tumwater Drive, Oregon City, hosts a free public program, “Steamships of the Willamette and Boilers Gone Bad.”

Program presenter Ed Wilson, a retired Navy commander and mechanical science engineer, is the Oregon Maritime Museum librarian. He will speak about the importance of steam-powered vessels in the Northwest and the frequent disasters that befell early steam pioneers and their passengers in Clackamas County.

The program complements MOOT’s new exhibit, “100 Years of Steamers on the Willamette.”

Built in Clackamas County

Clackamas County Historical Society Collections Manager Karin Morey said, “From 1850 to 1889, at least 50 steamers, both side-wheelers and sternwheelers, were constructed at Oregon City, Linn City (West Linn), Milwaukie, and New Era. The launch of the steamer Lot Whitcolm at Milwaukie on Christmas Day 1850 opened a century of transporting goods and passengers by water on the upper and lower Willamette River.”

The Oregon Belle was the first steamer to be entirely built in the West. Its iron, from engine to bell, came entirely from Oregon City foundries. Prior to that, the industry was monopolized by engines built on the East Coast and shipped around Cape Horn.

Countless Oregon steamboats were lost to fire (The Willamette Chief and the Leona, whose wreckage is still visible in summer’s low water in La Center, Wash.), to sinking (the Ramona, the Oregon), and even to tumbling over the rocky Willamette Falls (the Portland).

But none perhaps is as famous as the Gazelle, built in Linn City (now West Linn), whose double-engine boilers exploded, killing 24 people and badly injuring 30 more. Boiler explosions in older steamships could have been attributed to deficiencies in steel strength or failure of safety valves due to corrosion, caused by dirty river feed-water.

But the Gazelle was less than a month old. It is suspected that operator error — physically overriding safety valve action to speed up temperature for departure — may have been the cause. The Gazelle’s chief engineer Moses Toner was sighted jumping overboard a few moments before the Gazelle blew. He rapidly fled the Oregon Territory, when indicted for “gross and culpable negligence” by a coroners’ investigatory commission.

Rise, fall of steam vessels

Steamers depended on both cargo fees and passenger fares, and as with most businesses, time was money. Captains of the fastest steamers, such as John C. Ainsworth of Milwaukie’s Lot Whitcolm, were paid up to $500 a month — nearly $130,000 a year in today’s terms.

Steamboats used the power of wood fuel to heat water for their steam-propelled engines. They could burn more than four cords an hour. Yet even the Lot Whitcolm, which cut the trip to Astoria from two days down to 10 hours, often only reached speeds of 12 mph.

Ocean-going, propeller-driven ships could only navigate the 101 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the point where the Willamette meets the Columbia River in Portland. The additional 19 miles upriver to Oregon City were more hazardous for deep-draft vessles, so cargo transfer to side-wheelers or sternwheelers was required. Steamboats were all side-wheelers before 1854. None in Oregon survive. They needed great docking width, and were eventually displaced by the more maneuverable sternwheeler.

At best, steamboats built in this region served for a handful of years, and then — if fast — were sold to areas of higher demand (Lot Whitcolm), or — if hopelessly outdated — were often repurposed as sawmill engines. Steamboats became quaint and nearly obsolete with the expansion of railroads. However, steam turbines still provide up to 90 percent of electric power in the United States.

In his talk at the Museum of the Oregon Territory, Wilson will shed light on the causes of boiler explosions and why they still occur, even with the availability of modern engineering, design and testing. Wilson grew up on a California farm in the heart of “Steinbeck Country.”

His first sea experience was gained as a teenager, when he and a friend built their own boat to pursue king salmon along the Pacific Coast. Wilson taught college courses in naval architecture and marine electronic systems, although he claims “everything I need to know I learned on the farm.”

He enjoys singing songs of the sea and traditional chanteys, reciting nautical poetry, and, of course, telling “sea stories.”

Museum of the Oregon Territory admission is free.




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