Idaho History

Early steamboats struggled in rough waters of Idaho, Northwest

Steamboats in North Idaho plied the water in beautiful wooded country.
Steamboats in North Idaho plied the water in beautiful wooded country. Idaho State Historical Society

The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which had built the ill-fated steamboat Shoshone at the mouth of the Boise River in 1866, had a virtual monopoly on steamboating in the Pacific Northwest, and made a fortune for its owners and stockholders.

On May 27, 1869, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman wrote: “The steamboat Shoshone that has lain tied to the bank of the ferry for the last three years, is about to start on a trip to the Columbia River. Capt. C. Smith, somewhat famous for taking steamers over dangerous rapids, having once successfully navigated the falls of the Willamette with a steamboat, has come up with a trusty engineer, and is preparing for the perilous journey through the canyons of Snake River.

“The Shoshone, it will be remembered, was built in 1866 at the mouth of Boise River to ply between Old’s Ferry and the Owyhee ferry, but for want of business was unsuccessful and has laid up ever since, having made but two or three trips.”

Of the upcoming float down Hells Canyon, the Statesman said, “A more perilous and uncertain adventure has never been undertaken in these waters.”

In April 1870, “Captain Charles Miller has gone up Snake River to try to bring the steamer Shoshone down to the Columbia. The O.S.N. Co. will also try to bring down the steamer Mary Moody from Lake Pend Oreille. Both of these enterprises have proven failures, with large pecuniary losses to the stockholders.” The battered Shoshone arrived in Lewiston in May, then went on down the Columbia to The Dalles, Oregon, where extensive repairs were undertaken.

A long account in the Idaho Statesman on May 31, 1929, told the story of the Shoshone in some detail, noting that after spending its final years of service on the Willamette River, its cabins were salvaged and became chicken coops.

The Shoshone, like all steamboats and railroad locomotives of its day, burned wood or coal to generate steam – as did ocean-going luxury passenger liners and freighters. The age of petroleum would come gradually, but by the early 20th century oil would take over the world’s transportation systems, and make men like John D. Rockefeller multimillionaires. Boise Valley’s efficient, nonpolluting electric streetcar and interurban railway systems of the 1910s and ’20s were replaced by trucks and buses.

It is hard to even imagine a world without petroleum-powered automobiles, railroads or airliners.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email