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Volume Four Number Seven

Maritime Transportation of Wheat

Pacific NW 1850s-1880s
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Milestones in Maritime Shipping of Wheat
--Willamette River Steamer Ohio--
An innovation in Willamette River steamboating was witnessed in 1874, when the steamer Ohio made her appearance at Portland. She was built by Capt. U.B. Scott, a practical steamboat man, who had recently arrived from the Ohio River. Capt. Scott was not overburdened with wealth, and endeavored to secure employment on some of the steamers of the Peopleís Transportation Co. and of the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. The managers of these companies were inclined to be skeptical in regard to his abilities, and would not employ him. Undismayed by this lack of appreciation, Scott interested two or three Portlanders, secured some machinery from an old dredge, and proceeded to build the Ohio, the first light-draft steamer in the Northwest.

The steamboatmen who had underestimated his talent watched the progress of the steamer and pityingly informed his financial backers that their experience would not be costly as they would not lose much more than they proposed to put into the vessel, as she was going to be a cheap affair. The steamer made her initial trip Dec. 12, 1874, going up the river light as far as Eugene City on a draft of eight inches. At Eugene, she loaded 70 tons of wheat and returned to Portland, where on arrival the man who had surmounted innumerable difficulties in securing money, enough to build his new steamer, found that he could then command unlimited capital to construct any kind of steamboat he desired.

Astoria Farmersí Wharf Company

Another Willamette steamer destined for a long and useful career was launched at Portland in 1874 by J.F. Steffen for the Willamette River Transportation Company, making her trial trip March 23d. She was called the Willamette Chief, and was intended to run through from the head waters of the stream for which she was named to Astoria, where some of her stockholders were interested in the Astoria Farmersí Wharf Company.

The Willamette Chief left Corvallis on her first trip in March with 200 tons of wheat and 30 passengers receiving 130 more at Albany and Salem, nearly all of them farmers, who went through to Astoria with the wheat. Col. Joe Teal of the wharf company accompanied them and on the way made a speech in which he said that in the future the entire wheat crop of the Willamette Valley would be transported from Corvallis to Astoria for $4 per ton and that all of the grain ships would load at that city.

With the completion of the docks at Oregon City a number of corporations were organized to handle the wheat crop of the Willamette Valley. The Columbia and Willamette Barge Company was incorporated at Astoria in July by Col. Joe Teal, and seven other men. The capitalization was $30,000, shares $100 each. They built two barges of 850 tons each. The first, the Columbia Chief, launched at Steffenís yard in November, carried on her initial trip 767 tons of wheat to Astoria. The Astoria Farmersí Wharf Company was incorporated by some of the same stockholders. Joe Teal was president. With the addition of the Willamette Chief, the Willamette River Navigation Co. was well-equipped for business.

Columbia River Grain Fleet

The wheat fields of Oregon and Washington were producing crops which could no longer be handled by the few vessels which had in former years comprised the grain fleet. Among the foreign-bound vessels sailing from the Columbia River in 1873 were the Lieutenant Maury, Fletchers, Otago, Windermere, Edith, City of Paris, Spirit of the Dawn, Theresa Behn, Romeo, Lord of the Isles, Disco, Fifeshire, Santa Rosa, Eskdale, Electra, Mariana, Alloa, David Brown, Professor Ariey, Cupwater, Barracoota, Cariboo, North umbria, Victoria Cross, Gemini, Tomaka, Hermina, Felix Mendelssohn, Illiome, Penang, Canadienne, Wittington, Sarah Scott, Middlesex, Roswell, Sprague, Puritan, and Confidence.

The experiment of shipping wheat from Astoria was first made in 1874, R.C. Kinney & Sons dispatching the British ship Vermont. The British ship, Aliquois, the City of Dublin and the Frank N. Thayer also loaded cargo at the salt water port. The Columbia River grain fleet was much larger than ever before and included 50 British barks, 15 British ships, five American ships, five American barks, one Norwegian ship, four Norwegian barks, and five French barks. The river at this period had a bad reputation, and none but small vessels were sent there. Of this fleet, the largest was the British ship, Prince Charlie, registering 1,346 tons, but eight of the arrivals were over 1,000 tons, twenty under 500 and 44 under 600 tons. The smallest being the British bark, Reindeer, 291 tons burden. These vessels were handled on the river by the steamers Ben Holladay, Annie Stewart, Favorite, and Shoofly.

The Columbia River grain fleet for 1875 was smaller in number, but the total tonnage was much greater than the year preceding. It included 29 British ships, 10 British barks, two Norwegian barks, two German barks, five American barks, and four American ships including the Oregon built Western Shore, making a total of 52 vessels. The most important of which was the British ship Baron Abedare, 1,708 tons, the largest ship that had yet visited the port.

The farmers of the Willamette Valley, from the days of the Hoosier and the James Clinton, were hostile to anything that bore the appearance of a monopoly, and, as a result, it was always an easy undertaking to form a steamboat company along the waters of that stream. The first organization of this nature after the collapse of the Willamette Transportation Company, was the Farmersí Transportation Company, incorporated of July 1876 at Oregon City, by Capt. J.W. Cochrane, F.O. McCowen, and F. Dement. The new company made contracts with the farmers by which they agreed to carry wheat from November 15, 1876, until June 1, 1877 at a rate of 10 cents per bushel to fulfill this agreement the steamer S.T. Church was launched at Portland in November, departing on her first trip December 19 and returning a few days later with 173 tons of wheat.

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All stories on the Front Page were extracted from the pages of Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, edited by E.W. Wright (1895). We were fortunate enough to have a copy loaned to us for the duration of this publicattion's research. Donor was Bryson Moore, famous clock & watch maker who I met during the latter part of his life. Throughout our wheat series we have used original artwork by Chigusa Otsuka, a Japanese artist, to illustrate our wheat stories. Some archival photos are used when available, often from the Oregon Historical Society's photo archive. Our series was sponsored by The Wheat Marketing Center.

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More history of wheat awaits in Our Number Eight

Of the series: Pacific NW Wheat (1840s-1900s) Grist Mills on the Calapooia River.

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Bridget E. Smith, editor & publisher

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