Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Steamer Accident Kills Five on the Coeur d Alene River [otd 04/04]

On April 4, 1887, the steamer Spokane pulled away from the dock at Kingston, Idaho. (That's about seven miles west of Kellogg.) The little boat chugged along the winding course of the Coeur d'Alene River. The Spokane had been built in 1882 for trade on the Snake River below Lewiston. Several transfers later, she was operating as an excursion steamer on Lake Pend Oreille. In 1887, a new owner moved the boat south to Lake Coeur d'Alene and modified it to handle freight as well as passengers.
Small steamer. Library of Congress.

She joined three other steamboats operating on the Lake. The U. S. Army built the first steamer in 1879 to haul feed for the animals at Fort Sherman [blog, Apr 16]. Coeur d'Alene City, which quickly appeared near the Fort, grew explosively after prospectors discovered gold and silver in the Coeur d'Alene River watershed. To exploit the traffic into the mines, entrepreneurs built two steamers during the winter of 1883-1884.

The owners reaped fine profits transporting passengers and goods up the river. The Old Mission at Cataldo proved to be the most reliable “head of navigation.” However, favorable water levels sometimes allowed boats to reach Kingston, about eight miles further upstream. That represented a considerable savings in time, effort and cost, given the rough roads of the time.

Unfortunately, the Spokane’s operator in April 1887, Capt. Nelson Martin, was not familiar with the river’s twists and turns. A former stage line owner, this was his first trip on the route. The boat reached a spot where the current split around a small island. The Captain perhaps waited too long to pick a branch to use, or simply miscalculated how quickly the vessel could turn. A surviving passenger stated that, “She was running very fast.” Whatever the cause, the hull thumped into a mass of driftwood. A probable over-reaction sent the little craft careening crosswise of the strong current … and it capsized.

Five of the approximately twenty passengers drowned in the accident. Three were prominent figures of the time: a Deputy U. S. Marshall, a former City Clerk of Spokane, and a mining investor from Maine. Authorities jailed Captain Martin and his engineer, but the two were soon released. New owners raised the boat and operated it for many years as the Irene.

Coeur d’Alene steamers enjoyed this first “heyday” – with almost limitless business, and profits – only until the railroads laid new tracks deep into the mining districts. After 1891-1893, lake and river traffic supported only one or two big vessels, and a bevy of smaller (40-60 feet) boats.
Steamer Flyer on Lake Coeur d’Alene, ca 1910.  Hult reference.

However, starting in 1899-1900, logging company money poured into the area to exploit the huge stands of Idaho timber. By 1910, Coeur d'Alene City had over ten thousand residents. Best estimates suggest that around fifty steamers operated on the Lake and its tributaries. Ten or so could accommodate hundreds of passengers: Recreational excursions became a huge source of traffic.

This second boom lasted longer than the first, but it too began to wane by around 1920. Railroad spurs grabbed more freight, and people began to prefer automobile travel. By the mid-1920s, only a handful of the big boats still operated, and the last disappeared in 1938.

Today, hundreds of personal watercraft ply the lake, and area resorts operated a few excursion boats. Still, a diesel-power people corral cannot quite capture the glamor and excitement of a classic steamer.
References: [Illust-North]
“By Request,” Lewiston Teller, Lewiston, Idaho (April 14, 1887).
Ruby El Hult, Steamboats in the Timber, The Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho (© Ruby El Hult, 1952).

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