Shoshone Falls, often called the “Niagara of the West,” was the site of one of the most dangerous ferry boat crossings on the Snake River in Idaho. It certainly took more lives than any other.
Although noted landscape artist Thomas Moran had painted the falls, both in oils and watercolors, and Timothy O’Sullivan, a famous photographer of the Civil War who had worked with Matthew Brady, had recorded its spectacular plunge into the Snake River canyon, few people had ever seen the magnificent falls before the Oregon Short Line Railroad across southern Idaho was completed in 1883, making it possible for tourists to get off the train at Shoshone and ride a stagecoach from there to the falls.
Niagara Falls, with which Shoshone Falls was compared as early as the 1860s, drains the water from all the Great Lakes and carries the largest volume of any falls in North America. At 167 feet high, however, it does not match Shoshone Falls’ 212 feet in height.
With the completion of the Oregon Short Line, pioneer Charles Walgamott saw the possibilities presented for a lucrative business catering to tourists. On April 15, 1884, the commissioners of Alturas County (a giant political entity that no longer exists) granted him and his newly created Shoshone Falls Company a license to operate a ferry across the Snake River upstream from the falls for only $25 a year. Walgamott and his wife then opened a tent hotel on the north side of the canyon to accommodate arriving tourists.
The Idaho Statesman reported, somewhat tardily, on Oct. 21, 1885, that “It will be of interest to the traveling public to know that a ferry boat has been put on the Snake River at Shoshone Falls. A boat at that point has long been needed.” In July 1887 the paper noted that Bert Jett, the ferryman, had a narrow escape when an oarlock broke and he nearly went over the falls.
On April 2, 1904, the Weiser Signal carried this story: “Shoshone Falls Ferry — On March 31, 1904, the boat broke loose and went over the falls, killing two men and a woman. The woman, Marie Willis, was an employee of the Shoshone Falls Hotel, and was occasionally in charge of the ferry.” The story made the front page of papers around the country, usually with dramatic headlines like this from the Los Angeles Herald: “Hurled to Death in Cataract. Three plunged Over Shoshone Falls. Young Girl One Victim.” Later stories made it clear that the ferry itself did not go over the falls, but two rowboats manned by men trying to help Marie Willis with “a guide rope that was not working properly” sank in the spring torrent and were swept over the brink by the Snake River.
On May 3, 1905, news of another tragedy at the falls made headlines when Dan Kingsley, the ferryman, lost control of his boat and plunged over the falls to his death.
Two years later the Statesman reported a near disaster at the falls, involving prominent people: “Shoshone Falls Ferry — When the cable broke on the afternoon of May 27, 1907, Miss S. Belle Chamberlain, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Miss Louise Johnson, State Librarian, and two male passengers were left adrift. Fast thinking by the men saved the craft from going over the falls. They managed to grab the broken cable and tie it to the beam of the boat. After a nearly thirty-minute struggle they maneuvered the boat close enough to shore to be retrieved by a scow.”
The cables stretched across Idaho’s rivers for ferries to run along, propelled by river current alone, broke all too frequently, but rarely with loss of life. When it happened to Tom Starrh’s ferry in June 1885, he escaped injury, but his boat was wrecked beyond repair. Is it any wonder that Idaho’s ferries were nearly all replaced by bridges in the 1920s?
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.