The First Chelan

Although Wikipedia describes this image as the steamer John Gates navigating Priest Rapids in 1884, the locality is surely not Priest Rapids, but Rock Island Rapids where the Chelan capsized on her upriver attempt and lost her rudder on her return downriver.

I’ve struggled with where to begin the story of the first steamboat Chelan. It’s a tale with roots in the larger conflicts that made the Northwest of the 1870s such a tragic and violent place. The steamboat wouldn’t even have been built if it were not for the breakout of the Nez Percés under Chief Joseph, but it wasn’t built as a direct result of that conflict. It was a response to another attempt by Native Americans to claim their natural rights and to reclaim their freedom. Even so, that was still only an indirect cause of this steamboat’s birth. It was a result of a murder by renegade Indians, angered by the deaths of their friends and family who were cut to pieces by the gatling gun mounted on a different river steamboat. Yet Chelan wasn’t built because the Perkins died. But all of these events led to the eventual arrest of Chief Moses and the removal of his followers from their land in the Columbia Basin. It was the creation of a new reservation for the Sinkiuse Indians that inspired the army to build the Chelan. The boat was needed as a ferry for crossing the Columbia River on the trail to a newly established fort that would safeguard Moses’ Indians on their new reservation.

As far as I know, no photographs of the steamboat Chelan exist. There are photographs of a later steamboat, built in 1902, which operated on the upper stretch of the Columbia until it was retired in 1910 when freight began moving by rail. The 125 foot sternwheeler was operated by the Columbia & Okanogan Steamboat Company. It was one of four retired steamboats tied to one another at a Wenatchee mooring, that burned in a spectacular fire on July 8, 1915.

The ghostly image of the first Chelan can only be found in a number of reports in newspapers or military documents. Ron Anglin did extensive research to piece the story together for his book Forgotten Trails.

In 1879, when Chief Moses was in Washington D. C. meeting the president and negotiating for his reservation, companies D, E and F of the Second Regiment of Infantry marched to the the confluence of Foster Creek with the Columbia River to establish a camp which was celebrated by a regimental ballad, “When Camp Chelan was New.” I have not been able to locate the words or music for this ballad. Let me know if you find it.

Lieutenant Thomas Symons was sent from Fort Walla Walla to scout the most convenient route for bringing supplies to the newly established post at the present location of Bridgeport. Symons’s detachment strayed from the regular trails and found itself in dire conditions late in the day after leaving White Bluffs. Eventually they found water in a “small alkali pool, which vile as it was seemed like nectar” to the men and animals. Their pool, like the one pictured in my masthead (showing my Aunt Elsie and her friend Ethyl Reynolds), would have been located in the hilly country south of Moses Lake.

After his arrival at the temporary camp, Symons and the camp’s commander, Colonel Merriam, scouted for a new and permanent location for the post. Their tour of Lake Chelan’s scenic and cultural wonders persuaded them to choose the site where downtown Chelan now sits.

In an 1882 official report, Symons described  the construction of a new Camp Chelan :

In the spring of 1880, the troops which had been encamped at the mouth of Foster Creek for the winter, removed to Lake Chelan, and Camp Chelan was established just where the lake narrows into the creek, on a beautiful bunchgrass-covered-plateau on the north bank…Temporary dwellings had to be erected, brick made, logs cut and brought down and made into lumber at a temporary mill, the saw mill built, roads made from the river up the steep bluffs to the lake…

During the frenzy to complete the new fort, thirty-two year old Private Charles Maynard plunged into the water beneath a raft of logs and was drowned on June 1, 1880, the only soldier to die at Camp Chelan. His remains were recovered weeks later near the mouth of the Chelan River and he was buried at the site of the fort. His lonely grave was a source of wonder and speculation to later settlers until a comrade revisited Chelan in 1904 and told his story. By that time, Maynard’s body had been removed to Fort Spokane.

Access to the fort, and particularly the cost of supplying the soldiers and their livestock with their daily necessities became an immediate problem. By land, Merriam and Symons both laid out routes that led from White Bluffs over Saddle Mountain to Crab Creek crossing, but then diverged in the arid dunes south of Moses Lake. Eventually the planned routes converged again to cross Rocky Ford and climb over the Waterville Plateau. At the head of Foster Creek the trail began a precipitous plunge into the valley of the Columbia. Some estimates show a drop of 2,ooo feet in four miles. After crossing the river near Bridgeport, the trail then had to climb a similarly steep grade. Merriam found the original trail laid out by a subordinate officer unacceptable and started a new route from the river to the fort. The bottleneck in all these routes lay at the river itself, where a ferry would be needed. The officers decided that a cable ferry should be built, but that in the meantime a motorized launch would best provide river passage. Like at the Vernita Ferry, the launch would propel a barge to and fro.

Ron Anglin’s research turned up a few newspaper reports that helped him trace the first voyage of a steam launch christened Chelan. It was purchased from a boatyard at Portland, run up the Columbia to the Cascade Rapids, then hauled around the rapids by the railroad portage. After cruising up the Middle Columbia, it again portaged on the railroad around the Dalles Rapids. By the time Chelan reached Wallula the season was too well advanced to attempt going further. The late summer river level was so low that the upriver rapids would have been impossible to pass.

Chelan measured a little less than sixty feet in length and ten feet wide. The hold was only around four and a half feet. Unlike most of the steamers on the Columbia at that time, Chelan‘s steam engine powered a screw propeller, like you would find on a modern ship. Paddlewheels were the most common propulsion on the river that summer of 1880. It was May, 1880 before the launch was ready to complete her upriver voyage.

A New York steam launch from the same period as the Chelan is probably similar to what the army's boat looked like.

The first major obstacle on the river above the confluence of the Snake River was Priest Rapids. A nine mile series of rapids confronted the little steamer. At times a line had to be sent ashore and the onboard capstan, powered by the steam engine pulled the boat through rough waters. The boat made several attempts to pass the rapids, even though the river was at its most favorable stage with spring runoff swelling the water level. After passing Priest Rapids the boat made fast work of the passage from Crab Creek to the foot of Rock Island Rapids. Here the river bedeviled the navigators. Although lines were sent ashore, the boat was unable to force her way past the strong current and inconvenient rocks. Eventually, the river capsized the boat and swept it back to the eddies below the rapids. Chelan was uprighted and repaired, but she gave up the attempt to pass Rock Island Rapids. Instead, she turned her nose downstream and ran Priest Rapids again, docking at the army post that had been established at White Bluffs.

Movie maker Werner Herzog based his dramatic feature Fitzcarraldo on a historic event similar to the struggle to get Chelan to her station. But Herzog’s steamship was much larger and it only had to pass a single ridge to reach its destination. Herzog, by the way, insisted on a much more difficult feat than the historical one he portrayed: the original of Fitzcarraldo cut his steamboat into sections before attempting to drag it over the mountain. That’s what the army decided to do with Chelan.  The boat was dragged out of the river at White Bluffs in mid-July. The machinery was extracted, the boiler and the shafts were lifted out of the hull. Then the hull itself was then cut into two roughly thirty foot sections. Several wagons were loaded with the machinery, boiler, screw and shafts and the hull sections were mounted on running gear of other wagons, torn apart to provide axles and wheels. Lieutenant H. B. Larson led the caravan on the trail north from White Bluffs over the low pass of Saddle Mountain.

Anglin located the testimony of a nephew of Ben Hutchinson, in which he reports that the oversized cowboy had helped in shipping the Chelan overland from White Bluffs to the landing where Bridgeport stands today. Hutchinson told his nephew that the steep northern face of Saddle Mountain presented a challenge to the passage of the steamboat. The way he tells it, the army sank deadmen into the soil to support the wagons as they made their zig-zag trek down the slope. Even today at the summit of this pass you can find a heap of boulders where the deadmen must have been anchored. Once they lowered the boat down the Taunton Coulee and finally made camp at the crossing of Crab Creek there were still dozens of miles to go before the launch could be rebuilt and used on the river.

A pile of basalt boulders at the summit of Saddle Mountain where the White Bluffs Trail crosses the ridge probably marks the spot where the Chelan's wagons were anchored for the descent of the north face.

It wasn’t until August that the impatient officers witnessed the arrival of the launch at the river landing on the trail to Camp Chelan. Here the hull had to be reassembled, the machinery reinstalled and everything sealed against the water. Drunken blacksmiths and the disastrous slip that pinned the engineer under the boiler, injuring his hip, delayed the reconstruction. Finally Chelan was ready to put into the water and Colonel Merriam joined the boat for what must have been a bittersweet celebratory cruise on October 3, 1880. By that time orders had been received to abandon the new fort. The army had decided on a site near the mouth of the Spokane River, which they would name Fort Spokane, as a replacement for Camp Chelan.

First Lieutenant Thomas W. Symons of the army engineers provided the final note about Chelan in his 1882 survey of the Upper Columbia River. Illustrating the navigability of the Rock Island Rapids below Wenatchee, he states:

The small steamer Chelan was brought down during high-water through the east channel, and she struck two or three times on account of breaking her rudder, but managed to escape.

From that point on, Chelan disappears from the historical record.

3 responses to “The First Chelan

  1. Great write up. I very much enjoyed it.

  2. Larry Grzywinski

    I also find it to be a great write up. I am hisatorian of the 2nd Infantry regiment and I also have been searching for the words and/or music for the ballad “When Camp Chelan Was New” with not luck. I did learn that it was written by Captain James Miller of Massachusetts. He was in command of Company I at the time.

  3. I agree about the photo of steamboat navigating “Priest Rapids” not being labeled correctly. The land around PR does not have rough mountains – they are all smooth and rounded

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