Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Snake River Steamboat Shoshone Makes Trial Run [otd 05/16]

On May 16, 1866, the stern-wheel steamboat Shoshone made its first trial run on the Snake River. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company had built the vessel in a rough temporary shipyard near the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers.
Shoshone look-alike.* Oregon Historical Society.

Unfortunately, Idaho at that time had virtually no manufacturing infrastructure. Every piece of machinery – boilers, engines, and so forth – had to be hauled from Oregon by freight wagon over the Blue Mountains. Their “shipyard” had no foundry, so a blacksmith hammered out all the small metalwork on a hand forge.

To make matters worse, there was no sawmill near the construction site. Loads of pine planks, some whipsawed by hand, had to be dragged out of the mountains. Work began in October 1865, but poor roads and bad weather caused long delays. Records suggest that all the delays and the freight charges tripled the final cost of the steamer. But finally, in May, the Shoshone floated on the waters of the Snake.

The Company intended to haul freight upstream from Olds’ Ferry, where the wagon road dropped out of the Oregon mountains to the Snake. (It’s also just above the constriction into Hells Canyon.) The Shoshone could carry the equivalent of 60 or more wagon loads, and save weeks getting freight to its most distant planned destinations. It seemed like a can’t-miss investment.

About a week after the trial run (May 24, 1866), the company ran an advertisement in the Idaho Statesman: “Steamboat Navigation on Snake River – the new steamer Shoshone … We can transport from 100,000 to 300,000 pounds per trip.”

However, the project experienced unexpectedly high expenses, starting with hefty labor costs to transfer goods on and off the ship. Also, supplying the boat with firewood proved expensive because there were/are no large forests near the river. And finally, maintenance costs proved to be far greater than expected.

Despite steady losses, the Company pursued its scheme for about three years. Then the directors decided to transfer the Shoshone to the lower Snake and the Columbia. The captain they assigned to run Hells Canyon in 1869 walked away when he saw the first really big whitewater, Copper Ledge Falls (now covered by a man-made lake).
Wild Sheep rapids, a Class-V during spring run-off:
mishaps are life-threatening. National Park Service.

The captain who arrived the following spring repaired some weather damage, reinforced the forward hull, and shot the falls. The boat made it, although part of the prow broke away. After temporary repairs, the sternwheeler continued through some of the most challenging whitewater on the planet.

The sternwheeler’s arrival at Lewiston created a sensation. Their bow debris had preceded them downstream and convinced observers that the Shoshone was no more. From there, the ship chugged downstream to The Dalles, where workers made more permanent repairs.

After about three years on the upper Columbia River, the company transferred the ship to the lower river and sold her. Still unlucky, in late 1874, the Shoshone hit a rock and sank in the Willamette River. The new owners salvaged her machinery, but let a farmer have the hull for a crude barn.

*The Tenino: Columbia-Snake river sternwheeler, same length as the Shoshone, 25 vs 27-ft wide, a foot greater draft, comparable twin-engine (steam) design.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State]
Darcy Williamson, River Tales of Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho (1997).


  1. my 4xgreat grandfather was the captain who took the Shoshone down the river. Captain Sebastian "Bas" Miller

  2. This man was my 3x great grandfather and the house that was Capt.Miller residence in Canemah,Oregon was willed to my grandmother after her father Henry Alfred Bolton (Capt.Miller and Sarah Miller grandson ) died..whom all we born and raised in the house

  3. After the first captain (who shall remain nameless here) refused to run Copper Ledge Falls, the owners hired Capt. Miller and -- as the story goes -- told him to run the falls if he could, or destroy the Shoshone so no one else could salvage it.