The Maria Wilkins

Willamette Falls Locks c. 1875 (photo courtesy Old Oregon Photos)
By Larry McIntryeJune 2015

It had been a full day for the towboat Maria Wilkins as she tied up to the wharf of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company located on the banks of East Portland late in the afternoon of January 1, 1873. In the approximated 10 hours since leaving, the little steamboat had passed into history as the first boat to traverse the newly completed Willamette Locks located across the Willamette River from Oregon City. (1)

In general it had been a good day as everyone returned safely. She had done her job. But it hadn’t started well. The actual departure was late. What was scheduled as an 8 AM sharp departure kept being extended as accommodations were adjusted for the growing crowd of special attendees. It took time to get everything and everyone on board. Then, at eight thirty-five and with flags flying, the little towboat had moved out into the wide Willamette and headed upriver.

Pressed into service as a passenger boat for the day, she had performed well despite the fact that she had been designed to be a towboat. Up to now her duties were to push or pull other water craft that needed assistance against the current of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

She had carried passengers on occasion before but never such a number and of such importance. Onboard had been the Governor of Oregon, L.F. Grover, and the Mayor of Portland, Philip Wasserman, as well as former Portland Mayor, Henry Failing, and James Laidlaw, the British Consul, but none more important than Bernard Goldsmith, organizer and host of this voyage. Goldsmith was also a former mayor of Portland but now served as President of The Willamette Falls Canal & Lock Company. It had been this company that contracted for the use of the Maria Wilkins for the day.

Then there were the men officially representing the State of Oregon in the capacity of Board of Commissioners appointed by the Governor to inspect the Locks and confirm that they met the requirements as set out by law. They were Ex-Governor John Whiteaker, George A. Helm and Lloyd Brooke. (2)

Some of the investors in the venture had been there including Jacob Kamm, highly respected steamboat engineer Capt. Joseph Kellogg, and Col. Joe Teal. Then there were the important business men such as J. H. Haden, Capt. Charles Holman, John Marshall, George T. Meyers, S. B. Parrish and E. W. Wright.

The newspapers had been well represented with Col. B. B. Taylor of the Herald, Harvey W. Scott of the Bulletin, and Mr. Baltimore of the Oregonian Newspaper.

The Steamship Governor Grover traveling through the Willamette Falls Locks in 1873. (Photo courtesy Clackamas County Historical Society)

The Maria Wilkins was by all accounts not a ship of beauty or luxury, but she had done her job and now quietly sat with her steam chambers being allowed to cool down. That had not been the case a few hours earlier as the crew had run her steam chambers past the normal pressure level of safety in an attempt to overcome strong current at the junction of the Willamette and the Clackamas Rivers. Known as the Clackamas Rapids, this point had often been the final destination for ships heading up the Willamette River to Oregon City. The rapids were the result of rocks and silt from the Clackamas settling in the junction of the two rivers which created shallow, fast running rapids. Even under normal conditions this point was shallow and the rivers ran swift. It often took the right combination of added power, finding the right channel passage, and having a boat that had a shallow draft before passage was achieved.

Today, in addition to the less than perfect river conditions, the weather had seemed against the cruise. It had been raining heavily all morning and was very windy with the wind heading down the river towards Portland. If this was just any cruise the combination of the rapids and the weather would normally have sealed its fate as an outing with too many factors against going up river! For most there would always be tomorrow when conditions were better. Not for this group! They were driven to get through. A great deal of money rested on the success of this trip. Repeated attempts to get past this watery intersection were met with failure. Time after time the Maria Wilkins had made a run at the rapids only to be pushed back down river. The call had come from the Captain that they needed more power to overcome the current. The boilers of the Maria Wilkins were then heated to the maximum safety level and a bit beyond. The possibility of an explosion due to an over pressurized steam engine had been on everyone’s mind. But they pushed on.

Confidence in the crew was universal. This was no regular or inexperienced crew. In fact on board was the who’s who when it came to experience on the river. The pilot was Captain Charles Kellogg, well known and respected river captain (son of investor Captain Joseph Kellogg) and long time Engineer George Marshall. In addition, Mr. Lewis, one of the boat owners, had come along “to handle the throttle valve on the steam engine” but was in reality keeping an eye on his investment. He had also supplied two crewmen who regularly worked on the Maria Wilkins.

For over an hour the boat had struggled against Mother Nature. Then suddenly the wind had changed direction and blew upriver. Quickly as not to miss an opportunity the captain had laid on the steam and by hugging the west shore the boat was able get past this watery blockage. Success had been short lived however when traveling only another 500 yards they ran into an additional strong current pushing them back. This was the joining of the Abernethy Creek and the Willamette River. It had been raining on and off for some days and the rivers and streams were running high. Again by hugging the western bank the boat had been able to get past this problem as well.

As they turned the final bend in the river, they could see Oregon City ahead and off to the left but there were no plans in stopping there. It was about 11AM well behind the anticipated and announced schedule. (3) However, aboard the Maria Wilkins the group had been in no hurry. A champagne lunch was served to all onboard guests courtesy of their host Bernard Goldsmith. This had been in addition to the food, brandy and other spirits that had been provided all morning to the elite roster of passengers. More than ample supplies of the best Havana cigars had also been made available to each guest. Now, despite the somewhat cramped and basic accommodations of the Maria Wilkins, an air of pride and wanting to savor the moment seemed to overtake the group. This moment had been a long time coming. They had done it! What had seemed almost impossible was now complete. They were on the verge of changing transportation and shipping for people throughout the entire Willamette Valley.

From its conception to its completion of the Locks and canal it had taken over four years and close to a reported $450,000.00. Those years had included changes to the original group of investors that filed in 1868 and the 1871 reincorporation of the company that now included the right to build steam boats of their own and operate them in competition with those already on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and their tributaries. The company had hoped to use one of their own boats then under construction for the opening days festivities but had to make other arrangements as construction delays pushed the launching off for at least two more weeks. A minor issue when compared with the events of the day. In a short time the locks would be open and The Willamette Falls Canal & Lock Company was ready for business.

During lunch the boat had moved slowly up river arriving at the lower level entrance to the gates of the first lock. Before entering the lock they had paused to take on board additional passengers. This included one young woman, Sarah McCombs, she being the wife of the Attorney for the City of Oregon City, F.O. McCombs. She was joined by her husband and Oregon City Mayor Walker, also A. Noltner, the publisher of the Oregon City Weekly Enterprise Newspaper and Charles E. Warner.

At 11:55 the Maria Wilkins had entered the first lock. When the gates closed behind her and the water started coming in from the second lock it became obvious that this was going to be a different ride than most had expected. The water bounced the boat around within the lock as the deck hands worked to stabilize the little craft in the quickly changing currents. Once stabilized and secure the boat rode up easily as the water leveled out for the second lock, then the third and finally the fourth. At each of the locks the boat ran into accumulated river trash which required removal before the boat could pass. It had taken approximately one hour and forty-five minutes to clear the locks but once accomplished the Maria Wilkins steamed into the upper Willamette River. Now the final part of the conditions that had been required by the State of Oregon for “certification of completion” which called for the passage of a steamboat through the locks by January 1, 1873” had been met.

The Governor’s Board of Commissioners charged with “inspecting the locks” had visited them the previous Saturday for an up close look at the equipment and the workmanship. They were satisfied the company had met its construction obligations.(4)

Once in the open river the Governor had been encouraged to offer a few words for the occasion. He mounted a box so as to be seen as all the guests had crowded up on the upper deck. He did so and finished with asking everyone to join him in three cheers for the company and the president. This they did and included a number of other cheers.

Then the Maria Wilkins had turned around and re-entered the locks becoming not only the first boat to go through the locks but going both ways, up and down. The down lock trip only took one hour. Retracing their route they arrived at the first lock where the Oregon City group disembarked.

Running with the current the trip back to Portland was easy but it was getting dark as the boat was finally secured to the wharf. It was here that the remaining crowd had joined in a number of rounds of cheers for individuals, the company and one special cheer for the Maria Wilkins. History was hers!

So there you have it. “The Maria Wilkins Story”. Not an exciting swash buckle tale of adventure but as the Morning Oregonian stated, she had “the distinguished honor of being the first boat which ever passed in safety from the lower to the upper Wallamet”.

This story has a few loose ends that seem elusive to clarify. Such as:

The case as to what time the boat actually entered the locks. The Oregonian says the boat entered at 11:55 AM. The Oregon City Enterprise indicates that the boat “came into view “down river at 12:17 PM. Under this second scenario, time would have to be added for the boat to get to the locks and load the Oregon City passengers. My guess is that this would put this in the locks scenario at closer to 12:45. Is it possible the Oregonian was an hour off due to all the food and drink on board as one possible answer for the difference? There are no archived copies of the other newspapers on board that day so we have no way of cross checking this information.

Then an additional issue, that of having difficulty finding a boat is referenced in the Morning Oregonian article. (1)

“Some difficulty was experienced in procuring a suitable boat with which to make the experiment. None of the large and commodious steamers belonging to either the Oregon Steam Navigation, or the Oregon Steamship Companies could be obtained on the occasion, although strenuous efforts were made both by Mr. Goldsmith and Colonel Joe Teal. The splendid steamer Annie Stewart, undergoing repairs and not having her new boiler, could not answer the requirements of the occasion. After considerable delay and trouble the little steamer Maria Wilkins was chartered by the company to carry the officers and invited guests to Oregon City and also to have the distinguished honor of being the first boat which ever passed in safety from the lower to the upper Wallamet”.

Note that on board the Maria Wilkins that day was Jacob Kamm, investor and one of the founders and major owners of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company owned and operated a large fleet of boats operating on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. You would wonder why Jacob Kamm was not able to secure a boat among his fleet.

Then there is the possibility of skullduggery. The fact that the opening of the locks was going to have a tremendous impact on Jacob Kamm’s rival Ben Holladay should not be missed. At the time, Ben Holladay owned the Oregon Steamship Companies (competitor to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company) as well as other transportation operations including control of portage and shipping facilities at Oregon City. Shipping rates were going to drop due to the Locks being open, something Holladay did not want to see happen. Rumors later emerged that Ben Holladay played a possible role in tying up all the available boats so the final requirement for completion of the locks could not be met. For those unfamiliar with Ben Holladay, he was a very hard business man who believed in creating monopolies in all types of transportation. His experience in controlling the shipping and transportation market is legendary. The only indirect reference on this subject that I was able to find referencing Ben Holladay is that from a speech given by the son of Joseph Teal, also named Joseph, some forty-two years later.

“I remember very distinctly hearing of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that beset the enterprise one after another, and which made the completion of the work on time appears impossibility. Some of these hindrances were inevitable in a work of this character while others were carefully planned by some who for one reason or another hoped to delay if not prevent the final completion of the locks and canal. During this period Ben Holladay was building a railroad up the Willamette Valley, and was a powerful factor in the state both in politics and business. As was but natural he did not look with favor on the completion of the locks. Politics were politics then, and politics entered into everything. Under the law the locks had to be completed by January 1st, 1873, and their completion would be marked by the passage of a steamer through them. A bond of $300,000 had been given that the work would be completed by the date mentioned”. (6)

As a final note: The other person of note also on board that day was Harvey W. Scott of the Bulletin Newspaper. Scott had just recently left (fired) from The Morning Oregonian as editor and had just joined the new Bulletin Newspaper as its editor. The Bulletin Newspaper was owned by Ben Holladay. There was no love lost between editors of The Morning Oregonian and the Bulletin. It must have been a fun day for both.

While no photo exists of the Marie Wilkins, this vessel, the Restless, is an equivalent size and style (Photo courtesy Old Oregon Photos)

A little bit about the Maria Wilkins.

The Maria Wilkins was built in 1872 by F. M. Warren. In researching for information about the builder, I only found an F. Warren Company located in Cathlamet, Washington, who did occasionally build boats. The reference indicated that the boats built were in conjunction with their fishing and processing operation so there is some question if this is the builder.

The life span of the Maria Wilkins would be about 8 years. She sank at least two times, was raised and refurbished. Finally, with her hull rotting, she was beached and her engine reclaimed to be used again in some other application. (5) This was not considered unusual as most boats were built on the basis of a life span of less than ten years due to rotting. Steam engines however seemed to last for a very long time and some may have been in multiple vessels. Some engines were retired from the river to be installed as the power for sawmills and other operations. There appears to be no record where the engine of the Maria Wilkins ended up.

As for size, she measured a mere seventy-six feet six inches in length. Most towboats at the time were built in the one hundred feet plus range. Also, at seventeen feet six inches in width versus the twenty feet for most boats, she was considered extremely narrow. For depth she drew only four feet of water. Her overall size made her good for work in shallow, narrow rivers or steams. There was a “passenger cabin” when needed but most often the space was used to haul freight or supplies. Because of her size the Maria Wilkins was considered as a “light service” towboat and often worked in tandem with another tow boat on larger loads. The towing of ships and barges was a big part of the marine trade on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. At the time there were still many “sailing ships” depending on a tow to get up the river from Astoria. A towboat could have a small string of sailing boats and barges they would tow up river at one time. In addition, towboats of the Maria Wilkins size would often work the shallower areas of the river and streams and get to landings where the bigger boats would have trouble. On the Oregon coast ships of this size were often referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet”. This size vessel was also used extensively on the Cowlitz River.

  • 1. The Morning Oregonian Newspaper – January 3rd 1873, page 3, column 1.
  • 2.The Oregon City Enterprise Newspaper – January 3rd 1873, page 3, column 2.
  • 3.The Morning Oregonian Newspaper – January 3rd 1873, page 3, column 1.
  • 4.The Oregon City Enterprise Newspaper - January 10th 1873, page 2, column 4.
  • 5.Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Antiquarian Press, Ltd, 1961 page 201. E. W. Wright, “Remarkable Trip of the 'Shoshone,' Willamette and Columbia Transportation Enterprises,” Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Antiquarian Press, Ltd., 1961. P.201-205
  • 6. “Address of Joseph N. Teal at Dedicatory Exercises On The Formal Opening Of The Oregon City Locks And Canal At Oregon City, May 6, 1915” JSTOR-Internet Archives