The Willamette River was the main north-south way of commerce during Oregon’s earliest years.
There was little other choice. Existing roads were mud-bound trails that provided little in the way of comfortable, effective transport of goods and passengers until the state of Oregon began constructing concrete highways in the 1920s. Railroads filled in, but not until well after the Civil War.
Sidney Newton, historian and former mayor of Independence, chronicled the development of river traffic on the Willamette River. He said regular passenger service existed for years between Portland and Independence. It took about a full day to pass each way.
The government-operated locks at Willamette Falls at Oregon City gave access to the Willamette River. Most of the boats were side-wheelers or stern-wheeler paddle boats. Some of them were identified by Newton as the Isabel, Bentley, Multnomah, Albany, Saint Claire, Altoona, Pomona, Oregonus and Canemah. The Canemah was the first steamboat on the upper Willamette. Newton said it was launched by A.F. Hedges in 1851. Two others, passenger steamers Independence and Louise, were propeller-driven.
Steamboats made it upstream as far as Eugene and Springfield, depending upon how high the water flowed and the skills of the captain at avoiding gravel bars.
For a while, the Army Corps of Engineers operated a set of locks near Lafayette to give access by river to McMinnville.
Boats on the Willamette carried feed grains, livestock, lots and passengers. They carried cargo to Portland, where it was loaded aboard other ships destined for ports on the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. River transport was especially vital in the export of grains. The Independence West Side reported Feb. 3, 1888, that nine grain ships arrived at Portland that week, and 14 more had departed for the sea.
There was great competition between the steamers. That may have been the cause behind the explosion of the boiler in the side-wheeler gazelle, March 19, 1854, at Canemah, immediately upstream from Oregon City. Reports said the safety valve on the steam boiler had been tied down. The explosion killed 24 of the 60 persons aboard. One who died was Samuel L. Burch, county judge of Polk County.
There was some experimenting on the river. The boat Hayburner was powered by oxen who trod on a treadmill, which was geared to the paddles. It worked going downstream, but the oxen lacked the power to propel the boat upstream against the current.
Passenger service was terminated in favor of the railroads after World War I. Cargo continued to be hauled on the river until the late 1960s. The last was a series of petroleum barges pushed by tug boats up the Willamette to a tank farm at Millersburg, south of Albany. Use of the tank barges ended when a pipeline was laid up the valley. The Army Corps of Engineers, which had kept the Willamette’s channel dredged, ceased maintenance of the river bed at that time. The Corps of Engineers has closed the locks at Oregon City, which ends any possibility of renewing commercial traffic on the river.
Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society at the Polk County Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, Sundays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults; $4 for seniors; $1 for children aged 6 to 17. Those younger than 6 or older than 100 are free. Society members also are free.