A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2005

The White River Valley Steamboat Era

by Stan Flewelling

Itâs hard to imagine now that steamboats once plied the waters of the Green River. Their reign (on what was then the White River channel) was a relatively short, but colorful era of dramatic transformation in the Valley. Steamboats helped bring on that transformation, running all the while in the shadow of their own demise.

Sketch of the Lily
Sketch of the Lily, owned and skippered by James J. Crow between 1883 and 1887.
WRVM #1773, drawn by Tu Nguyen

River of Livelihood

Probably the greatest asset of the Coastal Northwest environment is its bountiful water÷from the icy glaciers of its mountains to the salty froth of its ocean, and countless waterways in between. Within this cycle, the river systems were, for ages, the key resource for land-based life, livelihood, and mobility.

The first people to come to the White River Valley were drawn by the waterway. They quenched their thirst from it, ate its wild produce, feasted on its fish, and hunted animals that were lured to it. They clothed and sheltered themselves with the vegetation that grew nearby.

The River was also their main highway. They learned to carve canoes from huge tree trunks, float them on the River, and propel themselves into regions beyond home. Most Native American tribes in the area identified themselves as ãthe people of·ä their home river or stream basin.

European American pioneers sought out the River for many of the same reasons. The earliest land claimants along the Duwamish and White River waterways were all farmers, eager to clear the land and cultivate crops. The budding town of Seattle was the marketplace at the end of their ãhighway.ä Seattle bordered the Puget Sound inland waterway, and was the farmersâ gateway to the world beyond.

Native people with canoes helped transport White River farm families and their goods up and down the River. Canoes were sometimes paired up and crossed with planks lashed between them÷catamaran style÷to carry bulky cargo.

The Traveler
The Traveler, commanded by Captain J. G. Parker,
was the first steamboat to venture into the White River.
[Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries, Neg. No. 17919]

Steam Power

When pioneer settlers first took land in the White River Valley in 1854, steamboats were already in use around Puget Sound. The ponderous side-wheeler Beaver had been a workhorse for the British Hudsonâs Bay Company ever since 1836, paddling to and from Fort Nisqually. In 1853, the Otter joined the Beaver.

At least four American steamers reported for duty on Puget Sound between 1853 and early 1855. All four soon proved to be too small, unreliable, or dangerous for the hazardous waterways. In December 1854, the tiny 49-foot side-wheeler Water Lily began hauling barges up the Duwamish River to newly discovered coal veins along the Black River (todayâs Tukwila). It was the first steamer to venture up the Duwamish channel. A month into its new service, the Water Lily struck a snag and sank in over its guardrails. It was raised, restored, and reassigned to new routes, but went under for good in the Tacoma Narrows nine months later.

By then, a new star among Puget Sound steamers was ready to go to work. The Traveler, a sleek, 85-foot-long iron propeller boat, had been built in Philadelphia and brought to Puget Sound by way of Cape Horn and San Francisco. Her owner/captain was John G. Parker, who would eventually become known as ãthe dean of Puget Sound steamboat men.ä On Tuesday, October 23, 1855, the Traveler debuted on the prestigious Olympia-Steilacoom-Seattle mail and passenger route. The following Sunday, major hostilities erupted between Native Americans and White River settlers.

The Traveler was soon elected for new kinds of service. Chartered by the Territorial Adjutant General, Captain Parkerâs Traveler carried arms and soldiers where needed. One of her early missions (in November, 1855) was to transport Captain C. C. Hewittâs Company ãHä volunteers up the Duwamish River from Seattle, with six large canoes in tow. The troops were heading to their assigned post at the junction of the White and Green Rivers, but the Traveler could navigate no further than the mouth of the Black River.

In April 1856, the Traveler ascended the same route to Fort Dent (Black River) and continued on to Fort Thomas (south of todayâs Kent). The White River had finally been breached by steamboat. The Traveler repeated the trip several times. Local pioneer Nancy Russell Thomas said she was on two of those river expeditions to Fort Dent, hoping to see her husband, but the troops were out on scouting missions each time. The Traveler was also the first steamer on the Snohomish and Nooksack Rivers.

Seattle newspaper ad ca. 1880
Ads like these appeared regularly in Seattle newspapers ca. 1880.
[from Ships of the Inland Sea by Gordon R. Newell]


As hostilities ended and new waves of European American settlers came to the Valley, pioneers devised river craft of their own for runs to marketplaces in Seattle and waterfront logging camps. As much barge as boat, these flat-bottomed ãscowsä were usually propelled by long poles or ãsweepsä (oars). Some were outfitted with rudimentary sails. The downstream ride was relatively easy compared to the return trip against the current. Scow operators often hired horse teams to tow their craft upstream. Patrick Hayes, Thomas M. Alvord, and Levi Smith were newer Valley residents who operated scows in the 1860s.

The frequency of scow traffic on the White River gave birth to a series of boat landings at strategic farms fronting the River. The landings were little more than plank wharves jutting from the shore, but they made loading and unloading boats immeasurably easier. Had the River remained the main ãhighwayä much longer, the landings might have become the hubs of population. But there were no true towns at the time÷just farms and small scattered stores, schools, and churches, all preferably near the River. Landings were named for the farmers who developed them. The principal White River landing places became Van Dorenâs (todayâs northwest Kent) and Alvordâs (south of todayâs Kent). Between them was the official postal station at David Neelyâs.

The steamboat era on White River soon began in earnest. Shallower than today and unimpeded by levee improvements, the River was full of bends and sand bars. It flooded frequently in wet-weather seasons, hurling massive logs downstream and hiding them in its depths, creating treacherous snags and jams. A boat on the River could not be too big, or have too round a hull, or too deep a draft below the waterâs surface. And whatever propelled it could not be apt to catch snags. This gave preference to steamboats with stern-mounted paddlewheels.


Seeing a growing potential in the Duwamish/White River trade, Seattle scow and steamboat operator John S. Hill built a small sternwheeler specifically for the route. He named her Gem, launched her in late September 1865, and immediately took her on a trial run up the Duwamish. For several years the Gem maintained erratic service on the White River route, and was occasionally chartered for special excursions÷like a June 1868 ãcamp meetingä conducted ãon the banks of the [White] River near Brannanâs schoolhouseä (then located in todayâs southwest Kent, near West Valley Highway).

But the Gem was a round-bottomed boat, unable to ply the White in low-water seasons. In 1866, Captain Hill converted his Black Diamond, a flat-bottomed schooner (sailing scow) into a sternwheeler. Oddly, her two engines were unmatched. The Black Diamond did fine on the White River and logging camp routes, but even Captain Hill seemed to lack confidence in her abilities on the open water. When she made rare trips between Seattle and Olympia, he was known to go around town bidding plaintive farewells to everyone he knew.


In 1871, a new entry joined the growing competition for the White River transportation trade. Captain Simon Peter Randolph had been active in boating on the Duwamish and Black Rivers and Lake Washington since 1868, and was responsible for dredging much of the lower White River, clearing it of many logs and snags. He devised a unique new way to construct the relatively flat hull of his Comet. Randolph marked the outline of the hull in dirt above the shore, then had it constructed upside down. When it was finished and rolled to the water, he used heavy rocks to lower one side of the hull as the tide came in, then employed the outgoing tide to flip the hull over÷right side up.

Once its engines, stern wheel, and tall deckhouse were installed, the Comet was in commission. Changing hands several times during her 12 years of operation, she was considered the most successful steamboat on the White River. She could reach Alvordâs Landing above Kent at virtually any water level. Captain Randolph later (1883) built the sternwheeler Edith R. for the White River trade.


The mid-1870s and early 1880s were the heyday of steamboating on the River, and also the beginning of the hop-growing boom. Some five or six boats, all sternwheelers, simultaneously ran the route. Among the newcomers were craft named Wenat, Nellie, Lily, and Fanny Lake (and later, the Daisy, Glide, and Gazelle).

The boats would take around 12 to 14 hours to churn upriver from Seattle to Alvordâs Landing. They could sometimes push further to Brannanâs farm (todayâs northeast Auburn), but only in the highest water. They usually backed down the river, stern first, dragging heavy lengths of chain behind their rudderless bows to stay centered in the channel. They still got stuck from time to time. People on shore helped break them free with towropes. Steamboat boilers burned massive amounts of wood, dramatically increasing the demand for cut timber up and down the River. The boats were often leased for special events like meetings, weddings, and parties, becoming anchored, floating ãcommunity halls.ä

Puget Sound maritime historian Gordon Newell gives this apt description of a riverboat captain's stature in the mid-19th century:

Deep-water skippers are seldom at home, and so take little part in the affairs of their communities, but the American river captains had long been counted among the most distinguished citizens of their localities; the Puget Sound steamboat men followed the tradition. Their dignity was enhanced by impressive side-whiskers·handlebar mustaches, at the very least·blue serge, brass buttons and, when ashore, high silk hats. To the small-fry of the Puget Sound Country they took the place of modern jet pilots, locomotive engineers, and racing car drivers, with a dash of Hopalong Cassidy thrown in.


Steamboat crews were generally more affable than efficient in following their trade. When boat whistles blew, White River folks gathered at the landings to welcome them and see what news, mail, goods and newcomers had arrived. As they picked up produce for the markets, Captains were often given lists of items to shop for in Seattle and bring back on their next excursion.

The boats stopped almost on demand. One fabled anecdote was first told around 1875 by Captain Charles G. True, then skipper of the Comet. He was heading downstream with his cargo when a White River farmwife ran to the riverbank and yelled, ãStop! I have a large lot of eggs to send to Seattle, but need one more egg to fill the last dozen. Will you wait?ä

ãCertainly, madam,ä responded Captain True, ãbut please hurry up the hen!ä Forty-five minutes later, the hen delivered and the Comet resumed her trip.

James J. Crow
James J. Crow from Bagleyâs History of King County Washington


A local romantic hero among the captains was James Jeremiah Crow. Raised in Oregonâs Willamette Valley, 20-year-old Crow was at school in Seattle in 1862 when he met and eloped with Emma Russell, 17-year-old daughter of White River pioneers Samuel and Jane Russell. On their ãhoneymoonä trip, the couple rowed a canoe up White River to her parentsâ place (south end of todayâs Kent), where they resided for several years.

They took up their own homestead, and James Crow began compiling a remarkable record of achievements. He planted one of the first hops fields in the Valley. Hops made him (and many neighbors) rich. He discovered the Black Diamond coalmine and sold the rights. With their wealth, the Crows built a magnificent Kent mansion. They had 13 children. Kentâs first municipal water supply came from a spring above the Crow farm. In 1883, James Crow bought the sternwheeler Lily and earned his pilotâs credentials. He operated the Lily on the White River and Puget Sound for four years.

Captain James J. Crow and family
Captain James J. and Emma [Russell] Crow are at the center
of this family gathering with their grown children, in-laws,
and grandchildren, ca.1900.   WRVM #13


Another steamboat captain with a local connection was William Rankin Ballard, son of Auburn-area homesteader Levi Ballard (and step-brother of pioneering anthropologist Arthur Ballard). Already a young man when the family settled in the Valley, he tried his hand at various jobs around the territory. Ballardâs most successful years began when he entered the Puget Sound steamer business.

In 1876 he became a mate on the sternwheeler Zephyr, part owned by his brother, Irving. In 1877 Ballard was appointed captain, and in 1881 became a part owner of the vessel himself. He bought out his partners in 1886, and sold the Zephyr in 1887, when she became a logging tug. Built in 1871 and used mostly on the Seattle-Olympia route, it is unlikely that the venerable Zephyr ever plied the White River. But the boat had earned a sizeable fortune for Ballard, which he invested in property north of Seattle. When the area of his investment became a town (and later, a Seattle neighborhood), it was named after him.

By 1887 railroad construction through the Valley had made the steamboat trade obsolete. The last skipper to bring a steamer up the White River was Captain Brooks Randolph, son of local steamboat pioneer S. P. Randolph. His Edith R. hauled loads of railroad iron to rail construction sites, ushering in the new era of transportation.

by Stan Flewelling