By Kaylee Osowski / kosowski@chronline.com
Editor’s Note: Today’s edition concludes the Journey on the Cowlitz, a two-week trip down the river from the headwaters to the Columbia River. See previous stories — including more historical articles — at cowlitz.seesouthwestwa.com.
wolf4If today’s Cowlitz River anglers and recreationists were on the river 100 to about 150 years ago, they may have run into some steamboat and ferry traffic from Toledo to Longview.
For decades, riverboats traveled back and forth on the Cowlitz River at Toledo and the Columbia River in Portland transporting goods and passengers with regular boat schedules emerging in 1878 and lasting until 1918.
A one-way trip took 24 hours, including stops at river towns between the two hubs.
The changing river with shallow depths in the summer and flooding and sometimes frozen waters in the winter, along with sandbars, trees and snags, made navigating the river a challenge for riverboat captains.
According to Sandra A. Crowell’s “The Land Called Lewis: A History of Lewis County, Washington” the first riverboat to navigate the river may have been the Beaver, a side-wheeler riverboat said to have floated the Cowlitz for a short time beginning as early as 1836.
In the 1850s, attempts by two steamboat charters to provide service on the Cowlitz granted by the Washington Territorial government were unsuccessful.
According to “The Land Called Lewis,” restrictions and deadlines made it impossible for the boats to provide services.
The first steamer on the Cowlitz, the Bell, traveled the river in the early 1860s. In 1864, the Monticello and Cowlitz Landing Steamboat Company built the “Rescue” in Monticello, a town located at the mouth of the Cowlitz. It was mostly destroyed by a flood in 1867.
The Oregon Steam Navigation Company launched its steamer, the Express, in direct competition with the Rescue. The Monticello and Cowlitz Landing Steamboat Company sued claiming the Express violated exclusive navigation rights granted by the government.
Courts ruled the rights granted by the Washington Territorial Legislature were void, and both boats provided transportation. The fight to get passengers led to rates as low as 25 cents, Crowell wrote.
The low prices and other competition didn’t keep the companies floating for long.
Residents in Cowlitz Landing, located about 1 mile downstream from modern day Toledo, organized to form the Cowlitz Steam Navigation Company. When the citizens set their steamer the Rainier out on its maiden voyage, it breached after hitting a snag in the river. Crowell notes that it is unclear if the steamer made more than the occasional trips after that.
It wasn’t until Joseph Kellogg and Company formed and built its steamboat the Toledo, in 1878 that regular service on the river began.
According to Fritz Timmen’s “Blow for the Landing: A Hundred Years of Steam Navigation on the Waters of the West,” Kellogg, his brother and two sons that made up the company headed the navigation just above Cowlitz Landing. Kellogg eventually convinced some settlers to move to the area to start a community there. It was called Toledo after the riverboat.
According to a 2012 post by Matthew Roach on the Washington State Library Blog “Between the Lines,” a June 3, 1887 issue of the newspaper the Cowlitz’s Advocate detailed two sameday riverboat incidents involving the Toledo.
The first occurred near Castle Rock as the Toledo was coming in to make landing. Whittle’s ferryboat, which ran on a cable wire, struck the steamboat. The two riverboats pushed against one another until Captain Orrin Kellogg detached the cable from the cord, and eventually the ropes from the cable to the ferry separated. The Toledo, which had received minimal damage to the pilot house and whistle pipe, towed the ferry to the landing. It also had minimal damage.
The reporter of the collision boarded the Toledo. A mile down the river, steam began escaping, first alerting passengers with its hissing and then encompassing the boat in steam. Apparently the steam escaped from a pipe damaged it the collision with the ferry.
According to the article, the steam caused “a terrible commotion.”
“Women screamed and fainted; men threw down their cards and rushed out on deck, vowing, if saved, they would do better in the future,” the article says.
The captain assured passengers they were not in danger. After landing and fixing the damage, the riverboat continued its journey.
The Toledo was sold to another company in 1891 and wrecked on the Yamhill River in Oregon in 1896, according to the blog.
During the height of steamboat travel on the Cowlitz — the 1870s and 1880s — round trips from Portland to Toledo were made three times a week. The distance between the two port towns was 62 miles. A round-trip ticket was $2.50 on average.
Many of the steamboats that traveled the Cowlitz were designed to float shallower water during the dry season, according to “The Land Called Lewis.” The boats were typically single or double deck sternwheelers 100-135 feet long and 20-30 wide. Some had rooms for overnight travelers.
Along with people, the steamboats moved livestock, food, furniture, building supplies, machinery and other goods. People along the way flagged down riverboat captains to pick up supplies along their route.
The last regular steamboat, the Chester, made its final trip in 1918. However, the Oregona made the last steamboat trip on the Cowlitz a month later in April of that year.
While some credit the steamboats decline to the railroad, Crowell writes that Dr. Wayne Galvin found that rail shipping rates were higher than river rates.
It was the increase in car and truck transport and a vehicle bridge across the Columbia River that had a bigger impact on the riverboats’ ultimate disappearance from the Cowlitz River.