Wealth on the Columbia River

Oregon Historical Society. In 1867 Carleton Watkins took this photograph of a train coming around what the locals called "Cape Horn" on the portage route between The Dalles and Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. The train belonged to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company.

Captain Robert R. Thompson moved to Alameda with his family in 1877. An adventuresome man, Thompson struck it rich in the California gold fields and became even wealthier transporting people and goods on and around the Columbia River. In 1858, he and his partner, Lawrence Coe, had a monopoly supplying the United States Army at Fort Walla Walla with its needs. The pair thought it easier to get Army’s goods upriver on a steamboat, rather than overland. With that in mind, they built the 110-foot-long steamer Venture at the Attwell Boatyard. They launched Venture on the Columbia above the Cascades, hoping to keep her away from its treacherous waters.

Forty passengers boarded Venture the day of her trial trip, and the pilot attempted to navigate her away from the Cascades. She was unable to make headway, however, and the booming current caught the vessel and swept her over the rapids.

A passage in Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest describes what happened next. "She went down stern first and made the passage beautifully until she reached the foot of the Cascades," the authors stated. "Here she poised on a rock in the middle of the river, in rather a dangerous position."

Capt. E.W. Baughman was running a small schooner below the Cascades. He sailed up and rescued the passengers, all but one that is. A man had jumped overboard, while the boat was making the perilous run. "He disappeared in the swirling waters," Lewis and Dryden stated.

As the river was rising the steamer soon floated off and was picked up at the lower Cascades. A group of investors purchased Venture, repaired her, rechristened her Umatilla, and towed her to British Columbia. One of these men, John Commiger Ainsworth would later make a name for himself in Oakland and join Thompson to create the Southern California city of Redondo Beach.

Undaunted by the Venture’s misadventure, Thompson and Coe hauled boilers and fittings to the mouth of the Des Chutes River and built the steamer Colonel Wright, which they named for Colonel George Wright. With Baughman as co-pilot, launched her above Celilo Falls, further upriver than their failed Venture trial run. She made her first trip in October 24, 1858, as the first steamer to ply the Columbia River above The Dalles.

Two years later, Thompson and Coe built the steamboat Tenino.

That same year, a group of investors decided to form the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. They approached Thompson with the idea of enticing him to join their new venture. Thompson agreed, but it would have to be on his terms. He received an $18,000.00 cash bonus, along with 120 shares of stock, making him the company’s largest shareholder.

Author Franz Timmen described the Oregon Steam Navigation Company as "the many-tentacled monopoly of river transportation." The company even built a pair of portage railroads on the south side of the Columbia: one around the Cascades and the second between The Dalles and Celilo Falls. The Dalles-Celilo Falls run cost the company $1 million to construct.

In 1878, the company built a steamboat, which it named for Thompson. The R.R. Thompson set a record, churning through the Cascades in only six minutes and 40 seconds. That run set the record for the fastest of any steamer through those boat-pitching waters.

Two years after that record-breaking run, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company purchased the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and took over the older company’s trackage. The new company expanded its Columbia River route, surveying from where the Oregon Steam Navigation tracks ended at Celilo and east to Wallula.

By then Thompson was living in Alameda with his sights set on developing a water company. We’ll learn more about those experiences in the next segment.

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