Tag Archives: Chief Joseph

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. Continue reading

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The Crossroads

Lower Crab Creek provided water. In Eastern Washington, that was a godsend. Temperatures on the Columbia Plateau routinely soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, and rain is scarce. Cleaning irrigation ditches with a shovel west of Othello as a boy, many were the prayers I sent for even one scanty cloud to shield me from the overbearing sun.

The Sinkiuse Indians who lived there before me probably shared my distaste for the relentless sun. But they didn’t have the benefit of a well of cold water I could retire to, an air conditioner that cooled the house when I took a break. They were stuck with the weather the way it was: hot in the summertime, cold in the winter. They took a more basic approach to living on the Columbia Plateau: they stuck close to water, or if that weren’t possible, they found the shortest route from one water hole to the next.

Over centuries of migration and travel, humans developed routes that guided them along the most direct lines of travel from one pool or stream of potable water to the next. Continue reading

To The Cliffs and Beyond

My grandfather first climbed to the cliffs on Saddle Mountain in the 1920s. He was not the first visitor to a high ledge where soft sandstone is sandwiched between layers of black basalt. Names were carved into the soft rock, dated, gouged deeper on subsequent visits. My father, whose first visit to the cliffs must have been when he was a youngster in the 1920s, introduced the site to his children. Our first visits were made by motor vehicles. Rough trails still exist that can be followed by a truck with high suspension…not that I recommend the method of access. You miss so much when you’re trapped in metal.

My favorite route to the cliffs followed the Milwaukee Road tracks for a mile or so, then veered up the fenceline separating private cultivated land from the BLM sections. After you leave the railroad tracks you start a relentless climb, like going on foot up a mile-long stairway. First you traverse massive slopes of yellow clay, silt that precipitated out of the flood when the waters struck the mountain, slowed and diverted to the east and the west. These banks are composed of countless thin layers. In some places you can find petrified bones, usually blackened vertebrae of fish or small animals. We also found turtle shells and I keep a broken bison bone in my classroom, orange and yellow and imperfectly petrified. Continue reading