Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Claire and Other Beauties

The Claire in 1951, Ben Maxwell Collection, 7990, Salem Public Library

From time to time one hears the indescribably lovely sound of a steam whistle echo from the river to the West Hills. Usually this is a vintage railroad locomotive, or, if it is the month of December, the Columbia River Sternwheeler pulling away from the dock at Caruthers Landing (by OMSI) for a holiday cruise. Of course I am prejudiced, but I think the most beautiful of all the whistles is the one on the steam tug, Portland, the home of the Oregon Maritime Museum—rarely heard, but a real treat.

Now consider this, around the year 1900 there were riverboats arriving from (or embarking to) all points on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers throughout the day and night. At that time Union Station had about 100 trains passing through every day. Portland was alive with the sound of steam whistles, the same way the area around the Brooklyn rail yard is treated to the constant blasts of switch engine horns today. It may have been an irritation to some folks, but the riverboat lovers were given a little thrill with each echoing whistle.

It is obvious to history lovers that some things should have never been changed. In Portland this includes things like: the excellent trolley system (that we are now struggling to rebuild), the area between S.E. Water Avenue and the river (which should never have been made into a freeway—ruining the eastside riverfront), and steamboat travel. Twice I have had the opportunity to travel on the steam tug Portland. It is remarkably quiet, the only sound being a soft “whoosh, whoosh,” like soft breathing, coming from the smoke stack. It is also remarkably smooth—a refined and elegant way to travel. At one time steamboat travel between Portland and other cities along the two rivers was so regular and swift there were people who owned businesses in Astoria and lived in Portland. 

Vacationers would take the steamboats to Astoria or Ilwaco; from there they would take one of the trains running on the narrow gauge lines up and down the coast. Many of the coastal hotels had campgrounds as well. This sounds so inviting I don’t dare dwell on the picture for too long, or I will turn into one of those muttering old geezers who curse every modern aspect of tarnation. 

If you have read my posts called, “How Deep is my River?” you will know that up into the 20th century both rivers had long stretches of sandbars that would become exposed in low water seasons. This made it impossible to reach Portland in the windjammers of the day, so freight was “lightered” to Astoria via steamboats—some of which had only a 2 foot draft. Smaller steamboats could go through the locks at Oregon City and on to the cities on the upper Willamette and Yamhill rivers. 

I once knew an old Episcopal priest whose fondest memories were the days of his youth when he could ride trains all over the Willamette valley. He cursed the freeways, calling them “truck ways,” and cursed the evil, conspiring oil and rubber barons who put the bullet in the head of travel by train and trolley. I don’t want to turn into that man, but I would have liked to add steamboat travel to his rant.

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say, these steamboats were beauties—even if they were designed with a purely utilitarian purpose in mind. They might not look like much from a distance, but go take a tour of the Portland steam tug, tied up at Waterfront Park, and you will see how utterly charming these beauties were (and are). 

One of the favorite beauties of the steamboatmen was the Claire, operated by Western Transportation Company. The Claire was well-known for her unique three-chime whistle, which she had from a famous old time steamboat, the Hassalo. She was a working boat, built to haul paper products from the mills at Oregon City, and spent the later part of her life as a tug. (May I add, these steam tugs were very useful for their steadiness and strength. The Portland was used as a tug up into the1980s.)

The Claire in 1941, Ben Maxwell Collection, 1515, Salem Public Library
The Claire was one of those cheerful sights that gladdened the hearts of old timers. Seeing her churning up the river, and hearing the cheerful blast of her whistle made people think that the world was still a good place (lark’s on the wing, snail’s on the thorn, God’s in his heaven,[i] sort of thing). 

It was a sad day for riverboat culture on the Willamette when the Claire was put out to pasture. Of course, I don’t remember that day, being at the time a suckling babe; but my overactive imagination feels the pain. Early on a Sunday morning in June, 1951, the Claire pulled away from the docks and headed upstream, stopping midstream by the Steel Bridge while a freight train crossed over. The Claire was headed to Champoeg with a passenger load of 150 steamboatmen and friends heading to the 27th annual Veteran Steamboatmen’s Association reunion. Taking turns at the Claire’s enormous wheel were three longtime steamboat captains, who had for many years lovingly piloted the Clair (and her sisters) on these waters. These captains William A. Reed, Amil F. Cejka, and Fritz Kruze combined service would represent over a century of steamboat work—from their time as deck hands on up to captain.

Captain William A. Reed on the Claire's last journey

(Redrawn from a newspaper photo)

When the Claire moved through the government locks at Oregon City on her return trip it marked the end of steamboating on the upper Willamette. The three remaining working steamboats—the Jean, the Henderson, and the Portland—were too large to fit through the locks. The retirement of the Claire ended a century of steamboating on the upper Willamette, dating back to 1851 and the steamboats, Hoosier and Canemah. The steamboat Henderson was retired in 1957 and I have been unable to discover whether she is still in existence somewhere. In the 1960s the Jean was sent upriver to Lewiston, Idaho for awhile where it was hoped she could find a home as a museum. The money was never forthcoming, and now she sits forlorn on the Columbia River near the Expo Center—empty and without a plan for her future. Fortunately for Portland, the steam tug Portland is in beautiful repair and open for all to enjoy.

The Claire did not end so well. After about a decade serving as a floating shop for Western Transportation, on October 10, 1961 she was towed down to Hayden Island and set afire. Her decks had been soaked with oil from the years as a machine shop, and she was deemed a fire hazard. 

Time and seasons change, and old methods are often resurrected. My grandchildren will see a city that is once more traversed with trolley cars. They may see the freeway along the east bank torn down or buried underground. They may see the return of economical and eco-friendly wind power to the high seas, and they may see powerful steamboats one again plying the waters of these rivers.


[i] Song, a poem by Robert Browning