The Columbia always has been a river of commerce. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a water route across North America to the Pacific for the purposes of commerce, and he envisioned the Columbia as a key part of it. Inland fur-trading routes utilized the river and its tributaries; sea-going vessels increasingly explored the lower Columbia waterway beginning in the late 1700s.

It was inevitable that as river commerce grew, river traffic would grow, as well. Sail power soon gave way to steam power; river traffic grew rapidly in both the number of commercial vessels and the economic importance of the transportation industry. Steadily, the Columbia River country became more populated and the river became an important artery of commerce.

The first steam-powered vessel on the Columbia was, fittingly, a commercial ship. This was the Beaver, which crossed the Columbia River bar on March 19, 1836 on its way to Fort Vancouver. The 187-ton Beaver, 100 feet nine inches long, 20 feet across and 11 feet deep, was built in London for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Beaver could operate with sails or steam. It sailed from London to Fort Vancouver under sails. Once at the fort its engines and paddlewheels were assembled. Its first trial run under steam power was on the afternoon of May 17, 1836. Under steam power, the heavy little boat’s boilers consumed up to 40 cords of wood per day. So a long excursion required about as much time tied up along the shore so the crew could gather wood as the boat actually spent on the water. Nonetheless, the Beaver strengthened the Bay Company’s grip on Northwest commerce.

The ship was quite a curiosity in an era dominated by sail power. One of the first to ride on the Beaver after it arrived was the American missionary Samuel Parker, who came west with Marcus Whitman the previous year, 1835. He had returned east after establishing a location for his mission among the Nez Perce Indians and now was returning, via Fort Vancouver. Parker was expansionist in his thoughts about the future of his work and the potential for development of the Columbia River country. Regarding that day, June 14, 1836, Parker wrote:

We took a water excursion on the steamboat Beaver, Captain Horne, down the Columbia .. and back to the fort. All the lowlands were overflowed by the annual freshet, and presented the appearance of an immense bay, extending far back into the country. The day was pleasant and our company cheerful. The novelty of the steamboat on the Columbia awakened a train of prospective reflections upon the probable changes which would take place in these remote regions in a very few years. It was wholly an unthought of thing when I first contemplated this enterprise, that I should find here this forerunner of commerce and business. The gayety which prevailed was often suspended while we conversed of coming days when with civilized men all the rapid improvements in the arts of life should be introduced over this new world, and when cities and villages shall spring up on the west, as they are springing up on the east of the great mountains, and a new empire shall be added to the kingdoms of the earth.

Ironically, just a month later, on July 17 the Beaver left on its first voyage from Fort Vancouver — and never returned to the Columbia. The Chief Factor of the fort, Dr. John McLoughlin, didn’t like the boat and had disagreed with plans to build it from the start. He thought it was unnecessary for the Columbia, as there were no trading stations between Astoria and Fort Vancouver, and he was concerned that it drew too much water — eight feet — for the rapidly fluctuating Columbia. He dispatched the ship to the company’s Nisqually trading post at the southern end of Puget Sound, where it was more useful for trips up and down the sound and to locations as far away as Sitka. The Beaver was in the company’s employ for 40 years. The sturdy little ship had a symbolic value for the company, as well. As historian George Woodcock has noted, the ship was a symbol of the company’s vast power.

A little over a decade later, commercial steamboats began regular service on the Columbia. In 1850, the Columbia and the Lot Whitcomb went into operation. The Columbia, a 90-foot sidewheeler, was built at Astoria, the first constructed on the river. Completed in July, it was put into service between Oregon City and Astoria. The Lot Whitcomb, which was larger, was built at Milwaukie, just downstream from Oregon City on the Willamette, and was launched on Christmas Day the same year. The following year, 1851, the Jason P. Flint was brought in sections from the East, assembled at the Cascades of the Columbia and operated between those rapids and Portland.

In 1853, the steamboat Eagle was assembled at the upper end of the Cascades rapids and put into service between the Cascades and The Dalles. Other steamboats were built in this era, as well. These included the Mary and the Wasco in 1854 and 1855, respectively, and these also were built above the Cascades for service between the Cascades and The Dalles. The Colonel Wright, built in 1859, was the first steamboat launched above The Dalles. The boat was built at the mouth of the Deschutes River and was used to carry freight between Celilo and old Fort Walla Walla near the confluence of the Walla Walla River and the Columbia. That same year, 1859, the Colonel Wright probed 50 miles up the Snake; the following year it became the first steamboat to reach Lewiston. During the Idaho gold rush of 1861 the ship went up the Clearwater to within 12 miles of its forks, or about 30 miles above Lewiston. Two other boats joined the upper river trade in 1860, the Tenino and the Okanogan.

In 1860, rival steamboat operators joined forces to capitalize on the growing industry in transporting goods and people on the Columbia. The new company, formed by John C. Ainsworth and Simeon Reed of Portland, and Robert R. Thompson, originally of The Dalles. They named their business the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSNC). It would monopolize river transportation for the next 20 years.

Formed just time to capitalize on the Idaho gold rush, the OSNC prospered quickly. In February 1861, gold shipments to Portland totaled $4,700 in value; between June and December the same year they totaled $400,000 per month. In 1861, the OSNC carried 10,500 passengers and 6,290 tons of freight; in 1862, the figures were 24,500 passengers and 14,500 tons of freight.

With its monopoly on river traffic and portage routes at The Dalles and Celilo, the OSNC could charge virtually whatever it wanted for passage, and it did. For example, the company charged the usurious fee of $120 a ton for freight to Lewiston, and a “ton” was a measure of cubic feet, not poundage. The company’s rate on the Columbia was about 10 times the fee charged on the Missouri River, and there was no choice but to pay it. In 1864, with the Idaho gold rush at its height, the OSNC made a clear profit of $783,339. That is approximately $45 million in 2002 dollars. The OSNC endured frequent attacks over its rates and profits. In 1882, a railroad was completed between Celilo and Wallula, offering southeastern Washington farmers the first alternative to expensive steamboats to transport wheat downriver to Portland. Ironically, though, the company that built the line was a subsidiary of the OSNC. Thus, the OSNC retained its monopoly on transportation along the Columbia. This was long before government regulation of interstate commerce, and many people were angry about the usurious rates the company charged. U.S. Senator John Mitchell of Oregon fumed: “That the waters of any one river . . . much less one so magnificent as the Columbia . . . should be dominated . . . by any one company . . . is a standing reproach to the people or nation that tolerates or permits it.

Meanwhile, other steamboats were being built that would open other parts of the Columbia for water transportation. In 1865, the Forty Nine, a steamboat loaded with hopeful miners and their equipment, shoved off from Fort Colville at the confluence of the Colville and Columbia Rivers in present-day northeastern Washington, headed for the Big Bend of the Columbia in British Columbia where gold had been discovered. It was the first steamboat to cross the 49th parallel on the river. The captain, Leonard White, got as far as the Lower Arrow Lake a few miles north of the confluence with the Kootenay River, at modern-day Castlegar, about 240 miles south of the big bend, before being stopped by ice. There he unloaded his freight and passengers and turned back. The following year, 1866, he tried again when the ice had cleared, and made it as far as Downie Creek, near present-day Revelstoke, a one-way voyage of 270 miles. The one-way fare was $25 per person, and freight was $200 per ton. The steamboat era on the upper Columbia lasted until 1914.

Impassible rapids blocked steamboats from operating between Fort Colville and the headwaters of the river, but steamboats operated above the rapids between and among the small communities in the headwaters region. On May 8, 1886, Captain Frank Armstrong launched the first steamboat on the upper Columbia River, at Golden, British Columbia. The ship was called the Dutchess. Five hundred Indians met the ship at Lake Windermere on its maiden voyage upriver, the first steamboat they had seen. When the ship ran aground on a salmon spawning gravel bar, the Indians helped pull it free. In 1891, Armstrong incorporated the Upper Columbia Navigation & Tramway Company to haul passengers and freight between the Columbia and Kootenay rivers. One of his ships, the Gwendoline, made two of the only three trips through the canal that linked the headwaters of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers, built by visionary William Adolph Baillie-Grohman, and the only trip through the canal from north to south.

The Baillie-Grohman Canal supplies a brief but spectacular moment in the history of steamboats on the Columbia River. In June 1902, the steamboat North Star literally blasted its way through the canal. Captain Armstrong had seen his business decline as railroads handled more and more freight, but he believed he still could make money with a ship on the Columbia. Returning from a brief stint in Alaska where he captained a lake steamer, Armstrong bought back one of his old ships, the North Star, on the Kootenai in Montana and ran it up to the Kootenay end of the canal (the distance was over 200 miles; the spelling of the river is different in the two countries). He was surprised to discover that the 130-foot ship was too long (by 30 feet) and too wide (by nine inches) for the lock gates. Not to be defeated, Armstrong cut the side rails off the ship, burned away the lock gates and lengthened the lock with dams of sand bags at either end. Then he set a dynamite charge in the north dam, and the big ship literally sluiced into the Columbia Lake. The sand-bag dam at the south end kept the Kootenay from illegally flowing into the lake.

Armstrong ran the North Star down to Golden, where the leading citizens were so impressed they hosted a dinner in his honor at the Hotel Delphine in nearby Wilmer, on July 19, 1902. But that is not the end of the story. After one season of hauling freight and passengers on the upper river, the North Star was seized by Canadian Customs because it was American property and no duty had been paid when it entered Canada. After lying idle for 10 years, the North Star was scrapped.

Steamboats gradually gave way to barges and railroads and trucks, which were able to move larger volumes of cargo and people faster and at lower cost. The steamboating era lasted into the late 1940s on the Columbia River in the United States and into the 1950s in British Columbia.

On March 20, 1947, the Georgie Burton made a run from Portland to The Dalles, the last trip for the 41-year veteran steamboat. It may not have been the last steamboat trip on the Columbia, but the news media reported it was.

On April 24, 1954, the sternwheeler SS Minto tied up for good at the town of Nakusp on the lower Arrow Lake in British Columbia. The steamboat was sold by the Canadian Pacific Railway to the local Chamber of Commerce for $1. The famous Minto, named for the Governor General of Canada, the Fourth Earl of Minto, when it was launched in 1898, was the primary mode of transportation for many isolated farms and homes along the Arrow Lakes. The end of its service marked the end of the steamboat era. The Minto was the last passenger and freight steamboat to provide regularly scheduled service on the Columbia River mainstem in either the United States or Canada. In his book The Columbia, author Stewart Holbrook called the Minto “a happy and sturdy anachronism” when it tied up for the last time after 56 years of operation.