Motor Boating in the Far West [1907]

"Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound save his own dashing"

The Oregon of Bryant's day, the Columbia of our day, the most favored stream on the American continent, no longer flows through the majestic solitude suggested by the famous line quoted above. Civilization has invaded the valley of the Columbia River in just the right proportion; there is enough to provide every modern luxury and convenience and not too much so as to efface the wild natural beauty of the region. The Columbia is a river tempered by civilization, not spoiled by it as the Hudson. A countless number and unending variety of motor boats are now found along this river among the other necessities of civilization. You will note that I say "necessities." not luxuries; because, to many of the farmers and ranchers who live along the river, a motor boat is as necessary as is the more prosaic horse and buggy to the farmer of the middle west. Furthermore, to him who seeks the cleanest, most wholesome, enticing sport of today is not a motor boat a necessity?

That we may see something of this river and its tributary and catch a glimpse of the host of gasoline craft hurrying here and there on errands of business or pleasure we will board one of them and go for an imaginary cruise from the Dalles to Astoria, turning aside on the way to visit Portland, Oregon City and the Willamette.

The Columbia is built on a grand, divine scale and even at the Dalles at the head of ordinary navigation it is nearly half a mile wide. We board our craft at the lower end of the portage at almost the precise spot from which Lewis and Clark embarked on the home stretch of their famous expedition but a little more than one hundred years ago.

Dalles is the home of numerous motor boats, some built for business, others for pleasure. The river is swift here and a noticeable feature of the boats is that they all have exceptionally clean lines and unusually high power in order to cope effectively with the current. The Dalles, a whirling, foaming unruly cataract not yet desecrated by one of those engineering necessities but artistic impossibilities, a water power plant, is left behind and we glide rapidly down stream. We arrive before long at the Cascades, the lowest and last of the several cataracts known by the general name of dalles.

Lewis and Clark spent many weary hours in a toilsome portage around the Cascades, but today we steer our boat into the uppermost of a series of magnificent locks and pass the falls and rapids without inconvenience. We have now passed the last barrier and have a clean, uninterrupted sweep for 160 miles to the bar at the mouth of the river. Proceeding down stream the river grows wider and quieter, we pass the mouth of the Hood River, famous for its strawberries, proceed aimlessly down stream and arrive at the end of a few hours at Vancouver.

Five miles below Vancouver we turn aside and head up the Willamette River. The Columbia, as every one knows, runs due west from the Dalles to the ocean; the Willamette, as every one does not know, joins the Columbia 80 miles below the Dalles and extends due south into the heart of Oregon. The two streams together form a great T, the Columbia 160 miles from the Dalles to Astoria forming the top of the T, the Willamette navigable for 35 miles from its junction with the Columbia forming the stem. We cruise eight miles up the Willamette, passing well-kept farms and homesteads on either side. Now the houses grow more numerous, long strings of freight cars line the river, bridges become frequent and we arrive at the heart of Portland, the rose city of the northwest.

Portland is the home and center of Columbia River motor boating. About 250 gasoline craft of various descriptions hail from this port. There are as fast boats and as fine boats here as any found in the east. Among the former may be mentioned John Wolff's Vixen, champion of the river; but little less swift and leader of her class is the Flirt, owned by Fred C. Lind. Flirt is a swift, steady, well-built craft fitted with a 20-horsepower Smalley engine, capable of 19 miles per hour without exertion and is representative of the better class of fast power-boats found on the Columbia. Rivalry between the various speeders is very keen and impromptu races are frequent, but being impromptu it is hard for an impartial observer to judge which boat is actually the fastest.

You may ask why these races are not conducted under the auspices and rules of the local power-boat association? The answer is found in the fact that there is no association. Motor boating in the west is a wild, free, unruly sport and excluding one notable exception which will be dealt with in the following paper, no attempts at organization have met with success. A year ago Portland had a power boat association, the Portland Motor Boat Club by name, but after many months of weary effort to hold the organization together the promoters of the club were reluctantly forced to give it up. Since that time however a number of new speed boats and cruisers have been built, new blood has been infused into the sport and it is the opinion of those who know that before long an attempt will be made to reorganize the Portland Motor Boat Club, this time, let us hope, with better success.

With hundreds of miles of river available for it, cruising forma an important feature of Columbia River motor boating and substantial cruisers form an important part of the motor boat flotilla. The river, except down at Astoria, is invariably calm, so most of these boats are built roomy with low free board and high glass cabins, many even of the better class, are open. A typical representative of the best of this class of cruisers is the Hattie owned by Geo. W. Kendall. This boat is fitted with a removable awning, is 30 feet long, 6 feet beam, draws 2˝ feet of water and is fitted with a 15-horsepower motor. The cockpit is neat and roomy and the fittings and furniture are exceptionally fine. The Hattie, although really a cruiser, is fast and can easily run 14 miles an hour.

For fifteen miles above Portland to Oregon City the Willamette River is navigable and during high water can be penetrated by a 30-foot boat for many miles farther.

Approaching Astoria the Columbia, now more properly an estuary, gradually widens, the steady current is displaced by tidal fluctuations and the influence of the sea becomes very perceptible. A long. low point extends far out into the stream from the south. Tongue Point it is called. You round it and Astoria lies before you. Long rows of canneries line the shore; Astoria is distinctly a sea town, a modern Gloucester, and owes its existence to the salmon canning industry. Columbia River Chinook salmon, famous the world over, is packed here. If it be in fishing season the motor boat enthusiast can find no finer sport on earth than to take a small boat, procure a trolling line and go fishing for salmon.

Every year the number of sail grows less; the gasoline motor is rapidly taking their place and it will only be a matter of a few years until all the fishing fleet of Astoria is motor driven.

The Astoria annual regatta held every September is an event worthy of special notice. It lasts three days, there are motor boat races of all sorts, between fish boats, cruisers, and fast speed launches. The town lives on the water for these three days; the regatta is an event widely known along the coast for the extent and variety of its clean, amateur water contests.

(Excerpts transcribed from Boating, October 1907, pp. 9-14. )

[Thanks to Greg Calkins for help in preparing this page. —LF]