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Negotiating the waters: canoe and steamship mobility in the Pacific Northwest.


Due to notorious rain and melting snow, the relatively short rivers flowing from the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound grow large in the Pacific Northwest. They descend from the mountains in steep draws through rock, past forested hills and onto the flat alluvial plains. Before EuroAmerican settlement, rivers with Salish names like Nooksack, Skagit, Stillaguamish, and Snohomish meandered through the plains in a tangle of weedy riparian vegetation, tall cottonwoods, maples and large woody debris. (1) The Nooksack River, near the present border between the United States and Canada, begins in steep valleys created by fluvial incision into glacial deposits and ends in the broader Pliestocene valley formed by subglacial runoff. The Skagit River to the south descends from the mountains more gradually into a more expansive valley. The valleys attracted farmers, while the conifercovered slopes above attracted loggers and miners. Between 1860 and 1890, these complex river systems were radically changed by levee construction, draining of agricultural fields, and eventual dam building. These activities had a tremendous effect on the hydrology of the rivers and the development of their floodplain. But early on, at the time of the first dikes, and before the clearcuts and dams, when EuroAmerican settlers first established small towns along the shores of Puget Sound and the rivers, the adoption of new (to the region) modes of transportation was the catalyst for future landscape change.

For centuries, mobility in the Pacific Northwest centered on the canoe: canoes for sea travel, canoes for the placid lowland rivers, and canoes for rapids. Although EuroAmerican settlers encountered this effective, adaptable mobility supported by local resources, they eventually rejected it (and the relations it was based on), preferring a more mechanised and scheduled mode of travel. To understand the beginnings of landscape change that occurred in the Pacific Northwest, we will examine the settlers' perspective of the landscape and mobility at the time of the shift from canoe travel to steamship. It is this perspective that drove change, resulting in thousands of small and large decisions that altered the riverine landscape. It is a perspective rooted in a 'civilised' view of mobility and community. In contrast to the thesis of the individualistic American explored by Turner and others, (2) a close reading of the diaries and accounts of western settlement reveals settlers who were intimately bound in a web of mobilities and relationships ranging from their immediate neighbours to the family they had left in the eastern states. Despite their remoteness, they were not individualistic. Mobility and relationships were linked in the secondary settlement of the Pacific Northwest and this link influenced the landscape of Washington territory. Rivers were the highways of the forested regions of the Pacific Northwest due to the immense effort it took to clear a road through the forest. What then was the relationship between canoe travel and the landscape? Why did people gradually switch to steamship travel? And how did steamship travel influence the landscape?

To explore mobility and the network of relationships the settlers relied upon, we will examine canoes and steamships, their construction, infrastructure, navigation, and experiential qualities. In this case, mobility means not just movement, but the meanings and experiences of that movement. Early historic accounts of the settlement of the west focused on the technology of transportation, particularly the steamship and railroad, (3) either from personal accounts or from a geographic perspective of settlement. (4) There is a significant body of literature on transportation geography, the movement of goods, services and people across regions. (5) Yet, these studies often define movement as the antithesis of place or rootedness, neglecting movement as a producer of identity, ideas and social relationships in its own right. Geographers have now delved into mobility as experienced by participants. (6) A mobility perspective offers a more nuanced examination of the historic record as it relates to the movement of people, the formation of societies and the relationships developed between people and place.

After establishing the context of mobility in nineteenth century Pacific Northwest, I primarily draw from two accounts of settlers who moved to the Nooksack River in the most remote section of the lower forty-eight states. The accounts were selected for their well-written descriptions of one of the last regions of the country to embrace mechanised transportation. In examining the accounts, I paid particular attention to discussions of mobility and feelings about transportation. I supplement the main accounts with other diaries and local histories to evaluate if an event or perception was a common experience or was peculiar to the author. Their journeys to the region, their selection of a homestead, and the gradual introduction of mechanised means of travel did not happen linearly, but grew out of the tension between 'civilised' and frontier life.

Canoe travel

Pre-1842 explorers/trappers

European explorers/trappers entered the Pacific Northwest overland for the first time at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They traveled by canoe, horse or on foot to reconnaissance new territories for procurement of furs (MacKenzie, Thompson) and expand the reach of the State (Lewis and Clark). At times, they were completely dependent on Native Americans for food, transportation, knowledgeable guides and shelter, all requiring translated negotiations. In Alexander MacKenzie's journals (a record of his 1793 traversal of the North American continent in present-day Canada), more than half of the narrative of his journey is devoted to discerning Native American intent, befriending them, giving gifts, receiving hospitality, negotiating passage, and procuring guides. (7) Even in the relatively inhospitable terrain of the Rocky Mountains, MacKenzie encountered Native Americans traveling, gathering, hunting and constructing temporary shelter. Instead of an exploration of virgin wilderness, they moved through a peopled territory.

During his forays across the North American continent to establish new trading posts, David Thompson of the Hudson Bay Company found it imperative to the success of his journeys to adopt the customs, food and transportation of the Native Americans. (8) He hired indigenous guides, mapped tribal territories as well as physical features, and learned to construct and repair canoes from local resources. The historian Richard White links the understanding of local cultures to mobility in his history of the Columbia River quoting from David Thompson's autobiography. Thompson describes a river journey as a social and political act:

   My reason for putting ashore and smoking with the Natives is to
   make friends with them, against my return, for in descending the
   current of a large River, we might pass without much attention to
   them; but in returning against the current, our progress will be
   slow and close along the shore, and consequently very much in their
   power; whereas staying a few hours, and smoking with them, while
   explaining to them the object of my voyage, makes them friendly to
   us. (9)

White deftly contrasts the power of the river with the power of the natives, as experienced by Thompson. Explorers had to submit to both, but viewed the river as the safest and most expedient route of travel, despite the topographic and navigational challenges. This exploration period was one of direct relational mobility--movement was possible only through direct relationships with people who could show the way. Rivers in the American West were too difficult to navigate to travel without help. Movement required 1) a common language or the use of translators, 2) spending time with people exchanging gifts and rumours, 3) rudimentary understanding of different cultural norms, and at times 4) displays of power (i.e. MacKenzie twice portrayed whites as beings with supernatural power to ensure a safer passage down river or more cooperative guides).

Scattered direct relationships between different peoples from different cultures gave way to a regional system of movement where trade blossomed, distances shrank and the idea of 'nation' first took hold. Donald Creighton described the prior transformation of the Saint Lawrence River as a binding element for new economies of fur and trade, penetrating the heart of a continent and inspiring a common identity for its scattered people. (10) The Saint Lawrence River way meant access to immense land and resources. It represented possibilities, common ground, and abundance. As fur traders and explorers moved further west, they failed to find the mythic northwest passage that could be to the Pacific Ocean what the Saint Lawrence was to the Atlantic. While rivers continued to be routes to the mountain passes, sources of water and wood, as well as boundaries, barriers to crossing and threat to life and property, (11) further west the rivers defined regions and valleys--not nations--for groups of tribes and meeting places.

The explorers' initial beachhead of colonialism on the rivers created few lasting physical changes in the landscape. They adapted their host's shifting dwellings and modes of transportation to a lifestyle devoted to trade, leaving little of physical permanence, sticking to the water. However, ideas about the western landscape were shifting. The maps, stories and correspondence they left contributed to the representation of the Pacific Northwest as a natural and open landscape ready for colonisation, despite the established people they encountered. [right arrow] In many ways, these representations of a natural, open landscape had a more powerful and far-reaching influence than any material changes they could have made in the physical landscape. (13) These constructs empowered the next generation of mobile immigrants in their occupation of the region.

Settlers arrive in the Pacific Northwest

From 1842 to 1850, white settlers intent on living in the Pacific Northwest arrived, first in the Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory, gradually spreading north of the Columbia River. After the United States Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act in 1850, the trickle of settlers emigrating to the Pacific Northwest increased significantly. The Act released 640 acres of unclaimed, federally-held lands in the Oregon Territory (present day states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and part of Wyoming) to each married couple who had moved to the territory before 1850. New immigrants could claim 320 acres. Settlers endured the months-long emigrant trail journey for adventure, gold mining and a desire to start over in life, but the promise of free land held the greatest appeal. Phoebe Judson is representative of these settlers and their search for a new home. At the beginning of her autobiographical account, Phoebe Judson and her new husband, Holden, decide to leave Ohio where they live with his parents and travel west 'to obtain from the government of the United States a grant of Land'. (14) They left a bustling community on Lake Erie connected to eastern cities of the United States by steamship, canal and railroad, and chose to settle in a region with simpler transportation modes based on animal and human energy.

After train and steamship travel to Missouri, they join a small group of pioneers to set out on the Oregon Trail in a wagon pulled by two oxen. It was 1853; road improvements, stage coaches and railroads were decades away. She describes her seven-month journey as devolving into a constant search for grass, water and wood. (15) Across the plains of Midwest America, animal-assisted travel by horse, mule or oxen-pulled wagon made great sense. The openness of the landscape lent itself to the fairly rapid development of dirt roads from the scrawling trails of the 1840s. Yet, when travelers on the Oregon Trail reached the Columbia River at the Dalles, they often disassembled their wagons and rafted them downstream, as the lone road to the lower Cascades was at times impassable (Figure 1). 'It was simply no road at all. Along the banks of the river we drove, bounding and bumping over large and small boulders ... the roughest of all our rough journey.' (16) The Judson's rafted and portaged their belongings to the Fort Vancouver area on the Columbia River where her pent up frustration with the slow pace of travel spurred her to abandon the wagon to more quickly be reunited with her sister. 'How could I wait the steps of the slow plodding oxen to carry me to my sister's home? ... I felt I must fly. I ran on ahead of the team.' (17) Upon reaching the west side of the Cascade Mountains--for many of them the journey's end--settlers found that wagons pulled by oxen were not practical. There were no roads and the dense forest and steep topography prevented making new trails.

Existing canoe travel patterns

And so, they entered the river. By raft, steamship and most of all, by canoe, the Judsons' travels through the Pacific Northwest for the next twenty years followed the natural waterways. They loaded their wagon on a flatboat to the mouth of the Sandy River (near present day Portland), waited two days while their cattle came by trail, took a ferryboat across the Willamette River, a steamship to Rainier in the new State of Washington, a skiff to the mouth of the Cowlitz River and then hired a canoe to take them up the Cowlitz. By 'Indian muscle, making about the same speed against the strong current as did our oxen when pulling up a steep mountain' (18) and stopping frequently to portage around log jams, they eventually reached their (first) destination, Grand Mound, south of Olympia in the newly established Washington Territory.

What were their expectations for travel when they reached their destination? Many settlers believed they had found their ideal home, as Judson puts it, but travel and mobility were just as important after they arrived. The term 'settler' may be a misnomer for many of the newly-arrived EuroAmericans who found their first parcel of land did not meet their needs. The Judsons settled in Grand Mound, only to discover the sandy soils were not conducive to farming. They had few initial neighbours and had to travel by trail to the small settlement of Olympia for supplies and companionship. In 1850, only 1200 settlers lived in the area of Oregon Territory that would become Washington State (number does not include Native Americans who were not counted in the census). (19) Despite (or because of) the low numbers, small settlements cropped up along the Columbia River, the Cowlitz River and around the shores of Puget Sound. The physical landscape, notably the presence of navigable waters, determined settlement location.

With the exception of steamships on the Columbia River, initially canoes were the predominant mode of travel, because they were fast (going downstream), responsive to changes in terrain and were not dependent on extensive infrastructure. For many northwest tribes at the time of contact 'the river was their road'. (20) Canoes were more than a means of travel: they were central to work, social connections and celebrations. The Shoalwater Bay tribe described traditional Chinook peoples using canoes for ceremonial burials, weddings, visiting, stalking sea animals, war raiding, hunting, traveling, fishing, races and ceremonies. (21) Each tribe had distinctive cultural marking and traditional methods of constructing canoes. In the northern arboreal region of present day Canada where birch trees predominate, canoes were constructed of wooden frames overlain with birch bark to form light river-craft, easily portaged, easily damaged, but easily repaired. In present day Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia, tall conifers are the climax forest species. There, Native Americans made canoes out of spruce, fir and western red cedar. Different canoes would be made for different water conditions: large, long canoes for ocean voyages, narrow fast canoes for the Sound, and the nimble, shovel-nosed canoe for rivers. (22)

Explorers of the fur trade adapted the Native American canoes for their own purposes. Trappers encountered a range of canoes from the giant, seafaring cedar war canoes that held a small band of Haida warriors to the small shovel-nosed canoes of the Lummi Tribe designed to navigate the turbulent rivers and tributaries of the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers. (23) They purchased canoes from Native Americans or adapted a particular canoe type to suit their purposes. In contrast, settlers predominantly hired Native Americans to provide transportation via canoe, choosing to rely on native expertise.

Experience of canoe travel

To paddle a canoe downstream on the Columbia or on the rivers of the lowland western Oregon Territory, the traveler entered the fastest flowing centre of the river and let the current do the work. Even this relatively easy travel required knowledge of the river or a constant attention to river conditions to hear or see rapids in time to paddle the canoe to shore. Portages were frequently encountered at rapids or log jams where baggage was unloaded and carried along the shore. Moving upstream, the canoe stalled against the current without constant effort from two paddlers. A skilled paddler could negotiate along the river margins where eddies and back currents reduced the expenditure of human energy. Canoe travel, then, was embodied movement or skill. Like Ingold's description of a man sawing a wood plank, the canoe, water, paddle and person cannot be divided into separate components of canoe travel. (24) A canoe paddler's skill resides in the tuning of his or her movements to the changing waters and environmental conditions. It was not mental knowledge of a technique that makes one paddler better than another, but a physical muscle-memory gleaned from experience on the water. The movement of the canoe upstream could not be separated from the people involved and the dipping and pulling of the paddle through the water, the negotiation around obstacles and through opportunistic eddies.

James Swan described his perceptions of Native American canoe travel and their preferences unique to their culture:

   When in the canoe, all hands will paddle vehemently, and one would
   suppose the journey would be speedily accomplished, the canoe
   almost seeming to fly. The speed will be kept up for a hundred
   rods, when they cease paddling, and all begin talking. Perhaps one
   has spied something, which he has to describe while the rest listen
   ... or they are passing some remarkable tree or cliff or stone,
   which has a legend attached to it, and which the old folks can
   never pass without relating to the young, who all give the most
   respectful attention. When the tale is over, the steersman gives
   the word "Que-nuk, que-nuk, whid tuck" (now, now, hurry), when all
   again paddle away with a desperate energy for a few moments, and
   then the same scene is again enacted. (25)

A canoe trip, then, is not only a means of getting from one place to another, but a time for family stories intimately linked with the landscape. It is a time of intergenerational learning--navigation and naming intertwined.

Newly arrived settlers with no such learning or familiarity with canoes, nevertheless, had to initially adopt canoes as the best means of navigating a forested landscape very different from the forests of the East. Along the Bow River in present day Alberta, for instance, explorers and settlers traveled over the flat prairie; rivers were primarily crossing points and meeting places, not aquatic highways. (26) Here in the Pacific Northwest, the forest floor was covered with snags and downed trees, making clearing and road-building impractical. George Savage, who settled along the Skagit River, described the forest as 'monotonous, interminable, gloomy and somber' filling 'you with an unspeakable dread and terror'. (27) His dismal view of his surroundings may have been influenced by the loss of his canoe, supplies, cow and steers in various Skagit River floods. Other settlers in the area, such as Robert Hawley, considered the Nooksack River valley a 'never-ending panorama of beauty'. (28) For Judson, the trees could be a 'sweet influence' or bring about an 'oppressive solitude'. (29) The impenetrable forest compelled them to rely on the canoe for travel and the navigation skills and muscle power of the Native Americans who were paid to ferry passengers and goods. (30)

When Phoebe Judson and her family decided to leave the relative comfort of life in Olympia, they took a steamship up the Puget Sound to the settlement of Whatcom to become the first EuroAmericans to reside along the Nooksack River, the most northwestern of rivers and the last to see development. They reached Bellingham Bay, but the landing canoe was stranded on the mud flats. A Native American man named Joe carried her on his back across the mud, a somewhat awkward mode of travel. (31) The next day they traveled by three 'salt-chuck' canoes, sea-faring canoes with upright prows, to the mouth of the Nooksack. To go upriver, they and their baggage were switched to shovel-nose canoes, smaller canoes without the vertical prow that could get caught in the currents of the river resulting in an overturned canoe. (32)

The Judsons ascended the Nooksack winding through a flat, forested plain that soon gave way to much steeper topography. Unlike large rivers farther east, such as the Missouri or the Columbia, the Nooksack is a relatively short and steep river. Explorers did not use it for travel inland, as the Nooksack did not lead to accessible mountain passes--the more accessible Skagit Valley did not see a paved road to the east side of the mountains until 1972. Canoe and pack horse were the only viable mode of transportation used to access the interior forests of the Nooksack River. Yet, it was obvious to the settlers that this was a 'goodly land'. (33) The valley's lower stretches provided good timber, agriculture and places for settlement.

Settlers experienced canoe travel in different ways. Some placed their complete confidence in Native American guides to navigate, remarking upon their paddle and navigation skills. Judson depended on the Native Americans, in whose hands she felt 'completely safe' whenever they traveled by canoe. (34) Hiring a canoe was informal, spontaneous and dependent on the willingness of the Native Americans to canoe, which was dependent on the condition of the weather and the river. Both Judson and Hawley tell the story of two state legislators from Olympia who asked the Indians to paddle them up the Skagit River. The Native Americans refused, citing an on-coming storm and the swollen river conditions. The legislators eventually convinced the two guides to take them. They made it part way upriver before all were overwhelmed by the waters and drowned. The two legislators not only lacked knowledge of river dynamics, they also lacked the requisite flexibility and trust required for travel based on personal exchange.

Other settlers procured a canoe and learned to paddle themselves. George Savage used a canoe to transport his logging supplies to his camp until he ventured out at high water and lost his boat. (35) Maud Shinn and her family decided to settle on the south fork of the Nooksack River, taking a canoe, but gave up after they found it difficult to manage. (36)

Even among those with complete trust in their Native American guides, there was condescension. On her first canoe voyage on the Cowlitz River, Phoebe Judson started to learn the Chinook jargon, the common trade language of the Pacific Northwest region, to relieve the monotony of paddling up the Cowlitz River. The first word she learned was 'hiak' meaning hurry. She recalled the other travelers saying 'hiak' whenever they thought the Cowlitz guides were getting lazy. James Swan contrasts the different style of traveling between the two cultures when he describes a canoe trip where he was the only EuroAmerican:

   We could have reached home easily, but, as there was no occasion
   for haste, I preferred to travel just as the Indians were used to
   going, without hurrying them up continually, which only vexes them
   to no purpose. Indians can be hired to go as quick as a person
   desires, but when they are traveling with their families, they
   dislike very much being obliged to go faster than a very moderate
   pace. (37)

Despite the apparent condescension, the canoe allowed for direct interaction between cultures in close confines while undertaking long journeys. Different languages were learned; customs were observed.

As in early exploration of the Pacific Northwest, canoe travel did not significantly affect the physical landscape. The infrastructure needed to construct and operate canoes was minimal: access to tools, forest, water and storage, particularly at an estuary or river mouth where canoes were exchanged for a different type. Minimal infrastructure was needed because the canoe relied upon human ingenuity, energy and local resources. Canoe travel responded to the existing landscape conditions, conditions that determined potential routes, speed of travel and time of departure. The landscape was named and given meaning through the movement of the canoe.

Steamship travel

By 1872, the westward journey had changed. Robert Hawley's account of his trip west describes a scenic ride on the train to Oakland, California, a ferry across the bay to San Francisco, and then a steamer to Seattle. (38) The Columbia River hosted its first steamship in 1836, regular steamer traffic in 1850, and an incorporated steam company by 1860. (39) Steamer transport decided the fate of towns. Salem, the principal town of Oregon before 1850, receded in economic importance as steamships could not navigate the shallow riverbed downstream to get there.

Context of steamship travel in Washington Territory

Yet, the northwest corner of Washington Territory remained the province of the canoe. On the Puget Sound, a large protected inlet ideally situated for steamship travel, the slow adoption of steamship travel was due to a lack of people, not environmental conditions. The first regular steamship routes were operated by the Hudson Bay Company in service to the dwindling fir trade. (40) In 1852, A. A. Denny, an early founder of Seattle, traveled for three days entirely by canoe from Seattle to Olympia to participate in the first celebration of the Fourth of July north of the Columbia River. Mail traveled by canoe as well; the Moxley Canoe Express contracted with the federal government to bring mail from Olympia to Seattle.

Environmental conditions did slow the adoption of steamship travel on Washington Territories rivers. There were so few settlers on the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers that few goods needed transport. As people moved in to the area, during the Fraser gold rush of 1858 and later to establish farms, it was the riverine environment that made steamship navigation impractical. Where the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains meet the alluvial planes of Puget Sound, enormous logs carried by the river would accumulate in massive jumbles of wedged wood that spanned the river. These log jams stretched for a mile in length, making water navigation impossible. In fluvial geomorphology, these accumulations of large woody debris serve an important ecological purpose of shaping rivers and providing fish habitat. In the nineteenth century, however, settlers viewed the jams as menacing impediments to efficient navigation. 'Their ugly shapes haunted me like a spectre, barring our only avenue of intercourse with the outside world.' (41) While the log jams remained, canoes were the only viable means of water travel because travelers could portage the canoes and baggage around the log jams.

Steamship infrastructure

Steamship travel requires a body of water that is deep and clear of obstruction. Along the Columbia River, steamboats operated from Vancouver to the Cascades, a series of rapids and falls that could not be navigated by the steamships, and from above the Cascades to the Dalles. At first, gaps in steamship service were linked via portage. Passengers and freight would unload and walk or be carried to the next waiting steamer. Eventually, a railroad skirted the Dalles to provide quicker transport through the gap--the Dalles Falls were eventually eliminated with the opening of the Bonneville Dam in 1937. Whereas the Columbia River was an important overland route and link to the interior of the Pacific Northwest, the Skagit and Nooksack Rivers did not connect to well-traveled mountain passes and thus, saw little traffic at first. Along the Skagit River, settlers discovered a 0.8 km long log jam at present day Mount Vernon and a 1.6 km log jam a short ways up stream. The latter jam had been there for over 100 years and had accumulated enough soil in the tangle of wood that mature trees grew on top. (42) On the Nooksack River, in addition to several smaller log jams, a large jam stretched one kilometer along the river approximately five kilometers upstream from the mouth. The large jam required a canoe portage around it that took three hours (with people, guides and baggage).

In 1874 coal was discovered in the mountains just south of the upper Skagit River. Pressure to remove the log jams along the Skagit increased. (43) The first attempt at removal that same year by a team of loggers failed. Attempts by local citizens to get the necessary funding from Congress were also fruitless. Locals started collecting subscriptions from residents to pay for the work. Disassembling the log jams took several years of dangerous work over the swiftly moving water to cut a narrow channel through the debris before the logs could be removed and widened. (44) Logs varied in size from one to two meters in diameter and were stacked five to eight deep, so that workers had to cut through at least eight meters of wood to clear a narrow corridor. Navigation first occurred through the jam in 1879, but it took another ten years to clear the entire jam. The steamboat Wenat made the first trip to the settlement of Mount Vernon as soon as a corridor was clear.

On the Nooksack River fewer people had settled in the valley, the river and log jams were smaller and there was less pressure for removal. In 1873, residents first requested money from Congress to move the log jam. While the bill passed, no money or action made it to the community. In 1875, another bill passed, but no money came. Finally, following the Skagit community's lead, local residents raised over $500 to pay a contractor to remove the jam, including $200 from the Judsons. Judge John Plaster and his crew, working from the downstream end, disentangled the logs over the next six months. Once completed 'there was rejoicing from one end of the river to the other and the dawn of a new day and a better life for the valley was at hand'. (45) It was still some years before steamships arrived, but the rate of immigrants to the valley increased dramatically. 'The beautiful Nooksack, our only thoroughfare, was at last freed from the terrible incubus that had so long rested on its bosom ... no more camping out on our trips up the river.' (46)

In addition to a cleared river, steamship travel required construction of steamships, maintenance and the procurement of replacement parts, along with fuel and supplies for operation. The first steamships on the Columbia River originated in shipyards on the east coast, often saw service there, and then were towed by ships around Cape Horn. (47) The Major Tompkins, the second American steamship on the Puget Sound, was first assembled in Philadelphia, towed to California where it saw service on the Sacramento River, and then bought by entrepreneurs in Washington for the Puget Sound mail run. (48) The used steamships required significant maintenance to keep running. Replacement parts were cannibalised off older steamboats. In 1854, the first steamship on the Puget Sound replaced the canoe express on the Olympia to Seattle mail run. The Fairy was small, slow and cranky. There were 'no machine shops to repair her primitive engines when they broke down, which was frequently'. (49) When the Fairy's boiler exploded and the ship sank, settlers were not disappointed. In remote areas, a steamboat owner or captain had to maintain direct connections with iron works and shipyards to provide parts they could not find. Until the first shipyards on the Willamette River in Oregon were built and had the capacity to meet demand, the infrastructure required for steamship travel was national in scope.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, steamship travel declined in the United States, requiring their operation and maintenance to be supplemented by government support and publicly-financed river improvement projects. (50) The two exceptions to this decline were the luxurious steamboats on the Mississippi River and the small steamships plying the rivers of western Washington Territory. The first steamship run on the Skagit River in 1876 and the first steamship run on the Nooksack River in 1884 occurred after railroads had usurped steamships in the eastern states. (51) While subsidies were required elsewhere to keep steamships carrying freight, it appears that government assistance was not available or not used for the maintenance of steamship travel north of the Columbia River. For two decades after 1876 when the Nellie and the Fannie Lake ran regular service on the Skagit River, at least one steamship ascended the river weekly. The less-developed Nooksack River accommodated one steamer until the short railroads of the Cascade valleys and improved roads replaced river travel.

Experience of steamship travel

Like paddlers, steamship captains needed a similar knowledge of river banks, snags, river depth and rapids to navigate the river. Yet, unlike canoes, the mechanised power of a steamship meant the engines must be fed and maintained and the crew supplied with wages and food. Although piloting a steamship required bodily engagement with the river mediated by the ship and engine, it also required a mechanical knowledge. How much fuel was needed? How would the engine respond to higher waters and stronger currents? How could the engines be engaged to extricate the boat from a sand bar? Depending on the size of the steamship, this requisite expertise took the form of a captain and several crew who tracked weather and river conditions, took tickets, loaded freight and passengers, maintained the engine and piloted the craft.

Informal negotiations with Native Americans required in canoe travel gave way to advertisements of steamboat schedules. Except during high water events, steamship travel took on a regularity not found when traveling by canoe. A regular schedule was more in keeping with the weekly rhythms found on the east coast where the settlers' families had originated. Robert Levine describes this rhythm as the switch from 'event' time to 'clock' time. (52) In event time, things happen spontaneously by mutual consensus; events are negotiated by direct relations. In clock time, we use a clock to schedule predetermined activities.

Settlers preferred traveling by steamship more than coach or wagon. There was more room, less hardship as the ride was so smooth. Later, as steamboats lost traffic to the efficiency of the railroads, surviving steamships centered on the Mississippi River and New Orleans developed luxurious boats to cater to leisurely travelers where speed and efficiency were not a concern. The smooth ride was a factor in Robert Hawley's decision to begin another steamship service up the Nooksack. In 1884, Hawley determined that 'Indian canoes and corduroy roads were no longer adequate'. (53) He bought the Edith R, a steamship operating on the White River, and hired its captain to begin regular service from Whatcom Bay to Hawley's Landing on the Nooksack River. It took three days to pilot the craft from the Bay to Lynden (the home of the Hawleys and the Judsons) and back, roughly the same amount of time it took for a canoe. He charged seven dollars a ton for cargo and one dollar per passenger. Although he attempted a regular schedule, weather, variable tides, snags and low water prevented it. At one point, he ran into a snag that punched a hole in the boat, forcing him to stop on a sand bar to patch it and then pump water from the partially submerged boat. (54) His income could not meet the unforeseen expenses and boat payments and he soon sold the vessel back to the original owner.

Subject to the whims of the river and weather, steamboats could be dangerous. They could run aground, be trapped in ice, collide with other steamboats as they raced or the boiler could catch fire. Despite the dangers, steamboat travel represented progress, civilisation, and the developed world to scrappy homesteaders upriver. It delivered supplies, mail, visitors and news. Steamships' utility had a positive, aesthetic quality. While living in Olympia, Judson described the view of Puget Sound which reminded her of Lake Erie: 'the absence of the numerous steamers and sailing vessels which majestically floated over the bosom of Lake Erie adding life and beauty to the scene, greatly detracted from our enjoyment'. (55) For settlers missing home, the arrival of steamships brought 'a social touch to otherwise isolated river communities'. (56) Judson, Hawley and Savage never directly mention why they prefer steamship travel to canoe travel in their accounts, possibly because it was assumed to be a more progressive mode of travel. Steamboats could carry more freight, go faster (when conditions were right), require less human-power and be reserved for a certain time. Arthur Denny attributed his preference to cost and speed after steamers replaced Moxley's Canoe Express:

   In after years, I have paid as high as $10 steamer fare to Olympia,
   and when it got down to $6 we thought it very reasonable. It always
   cost me more than that amount by canoe, when traveling alone with
   an Indian crew, to say nothing of the comfort and time saved by the
   steamer, and time was quite as much of an object with us
   capitalists then as now. (57)

When describing the reaction of the settlers on Puget Sound to the sinking of the Fairy and the loss of their steamship run, Newell says they 'felt that civic dignity demanded adequate steamer service'. (58) 'Civic dignity' best captures this attitude of progress as the ability to stand with dignity on the bow of a steamer without participating in its locomotion. In contrast, canoe travel is too dependent on Native Americans, too physically immersive and certainly too slow for 'civilised' mobility.

Impacts of steamship travel on the landscape

Whereas canoe travel and the minimal local resources needed for its maintenance had little impact on the natural environment, the advent of steamship travel opened the river valleys of the Pacific Northwest to large-scale developmental changes. These changes included direct changes such as harbour dredging and the clearing of log jams, but also indirect changes such as access to the upper watershed for logging and increased development.

Before steamships were able to ascend the rivers, they sailed throughout the Puget Sound starting in 1854 and continuing through the Mosquito Fleet of the 1890s, from Olympia to Whatcom, stopping at small settlements along the way. At each settlement, a smaller boat would be lowered to carry passengers and goods through the shallow estuary. At low tide, the smaller boats could be stranded on the mud flats. Phoebe Judson was carried on a Native American's back as she entered Bellingham Bay for the first time, and Maud Shinn was carried over the river's mouth by her uncle. (59) This transportation dependent on tides and weather was not seen as a long term solution. They filled estuaries around their settlement, built piers out into the water, and dredged the harbours throughout Puget Sound, so that larger steamships could dock and unload passengers and cargo directly into town. This infrastructure of docks for regularly scheduled steamship stops spaced along the coast of Puget Sound reinforced concentrated development patterns. Similar to the patterns developed along larger rivers, such as the Mississippi, (60) communities were oriented around this point along the river, both spatially and temporally--the arrival of a steamship being the primary event of the week.

The clearing of log jams from rivers, necessary for steamship travel, had a direct effect on river hydrology and habitat. In the case of the Nooksack, the log jam at Ferndale had gradually diverted the river farther west to the edge of the present day Lummi Reservation. After the log jam was removed, local residents of the fledgling town of Bellingham used dynamite to redirect the river (and its lucrative logging trade) past their town and into Bellingham Bay. (61) Settlers believed the log jams caused flooding, a significant problem then and now. Log jams historically diverted flood waters away from the channel, spreading it thinly over the alluvial plain. When levees were built, the frequency of floods decreased, but the larger infrequent events damaged property when levees failed. The removal of jams may have decreased flooding potential upstream, but they did not have the impact of levees. Even after removal, large woody debris continued to enter the riverine system from upstream. In 1880 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began clearing wood from the river channels in a regular program called 'snagging', a program that continues to this day. (62) In addition to snagging, engineers eliminated oxbows, channel meanders and secondary channels in an effort to improve steamship navigation. This, along with the gathering of wood fuel for the steam engines from the river banks, reduced the amount of riparian vegetation shading the river, increasing water temperatures and changed the suitability of the aquatic habitat for fish and aquatic species. (63)

Perhaps the greatest environmental change resulting from log jam removal was the opening up of the watersheds' upper regions to logging and mining. The prospect of coal and timber upstream drove efforts to clear the Skagit River. In 1883, the coastal forests immediately adjacent to the Sound had been logged, yet the vast interior forests had not been impacted (see Figure 2 (a)). Once the rivers opened, logging teams quickly moved in to harvest the timber close to the river, taking advantage of the efficiencies and profits resulting from easy river access. Logs were sent downstream for eventual processing at mills located throughout the Sound. But there were only so many trees adjacent to navigable waters. A combination of opening up rivers to logging, consolidation of logging operations and companies, more demand from the building of the railroads, and the invention and implementation of the donkey engine to facilitate the movement of logs across large distances to get to the river, led to a tremendous logging boom in the 1880s. Lumber production in Washington Territory in 1879 was 160,176 million board feet (MBF); in 1889 that figure had climbed to 1,061,560 MBF. (64) The navigable rivers and the donkey engine meant loggers could reach forest stands far inland (Figure 2 (b)). By 1900, contiguous hardwood and coniferous forests of the lowland river valleys were gone.65 Logged valleys attracted farmers. The alluvial plains of the Puget Sound lowlands contain fertile soil ideally suited for agriculture and dairy farming. Farmers, now with access to cleared fields in the upper valleys, filled wetlands, constructed dikes and developed larger settlements.

The switch from canoe travel based on personal negotiations with Native Americans to steamship travel based on economic exchange with other settlers had profound impacts on new communities and lifestyles. Once mobility no longer depended on interactions with another culture, development became more segregated. John Jennings, in the introduction to his 2005 book Canoes: A Living Tradition, divides North America into three frontiers: the horse frontier in the south, the axe and plow frontier in middle America, and the canoe frontier in the north (present day Canada). Travel in the northern half of the continent was mostly by waterway. French trappers developed relationships with the native peoples based on respect and trade opportunities. This was a different method of colonisation than occurred in the other, more confrontational frontiers. Jennings speculates that at least part of the reason for political harmony in the north was the 'unique social dynamics of the canoe',a'forced intimacy'. (66) At the arrival of the steamship, this forced intimacy disappeared. Segregated development and the placement of Native Americans on small, localised reservations impacted the landscape in significant, but difficult to quantify ways. It meant that thousands of years of learning to live in a particular place were bypassed. The overwhelming numbers of settlers immigrating to the region applied their own Euro-centric knowledge and mechanised mobilities to the challenges of living in the remote region. Once settlers no longer needed to engage with other cultures, they did not need to learn the Chinook trade language, hear the traditional Pacific Northwest stories and negotiate the potential development of the landscape in a manner suitable to both Salish and EuroAmerican cultures.

When Phoebe Judson first moved to the Nooksack River, a Native American couple paddled them up river to the land they had purchased. (67) They reached Devil's Bend, a series of rapids upstream from the large log jam at Ferndale. Sally, a Native American and the lead paddler in the bow of the canoe, directed Joe, her husband, in the back by signaling him with slight paddle motions, deftly maneuvering the canoe through the rapids. As the river narrowed and twisted, the two zig-zagged across the water to avoid the swift current and reach their 'ideal home'. Sally and Joe, who lived directly across the river, befriended the Judsons as they moved in. Phoebe came to rely on them for transport, for food in difficult times, and for companionship, as she saw no other white woman for six months. She learns from Sally the customs of family, trade, and travel used by the Coastal Salish tribes in their interactions with others. Three years later, when the large log jam was finally removed, she rejoices, and ten years later, when the first steamship, the Gem, ascends the Nooksack River, Sally and Joe have moved away and Phoebe's account shifts to describing the other settlers and the founding of the town of Lynden.

Today, bound by levees and urban development, the Nooksack and Skagit rivers flow through open plains of fields unhindered by log jams. Steamships no longer travel between towns. People travel by cars or fly overhead. Those with the most rooted canoe traditions in the landscape were placed on reservations long ago, although they continue to maintain and use their fishing rights. Canoes still float the rivers, but it is for recreation and fishing, not for travel. The first recreational canoe clubs started in Great Britain and the Eastern United States around the same time as the Judsons were being paddled up the Nooksack River. It was a century later before recreational canoeing was organised in the Pacific Northwest; the Seattle Canoe Club was founded in 1969. Recreational canoeing follows industrialisation, division of the week into work and the weekend, and urbanisation, concentrated populations of residents who want to get away. Interestingly, present day boaters' perceptions have changed. No longer is the mechanised form of boating the most civilised; rather, canoeists rail against those with powerboats, unappreciative of the pleasures of the river 'wilderness'. (68)

The roots of environmental change in the Skagit and Nooksack river valleys can be found in the perceptions of settlers, who brought their ideas of a 'civilised' landscape with them from the Midwest and East. Upon arrival, they perceived a wilderness in need of roads and towns to transform it into something beautiful. Yet, roads were difficult through the dense forests, so they turned to the steamship for its 'civilized dignity' to counter the unregulated and spontaneous nature of travel they found. Settlers preferred mechanised solutions even when not well adapted to regional needs and landscapes. The steamship appeared faster (even in places like the Nooksack River where that was not the case), more reliable and regular, and more cultured. With mechanised transport, the territories would be wilderness no longer. They would be the equal of any eastern town. It is perhaps this identification of mechanisation with progress that explains much of the development and large-scale landscape change in the Pacific Northwest. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.3

Cory Parker

University of California, Davis


(1) Brian D. Collins et al., 'Reconstructing the Historical Riverine Landscape of the Puget Lowland', Restoration of Puget Sound Rivers (University of Washington Press, 2003).

(2) Frederick Jackson Turner, 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', Report of the American Historical Association (1893), 199-227. For a critique, see William Cronon, 'Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner', The Western Historical Quarterly, 18:2 (1987), 157-76.

(3) See Carlos A Schwantes, Long Day's Journey: The Steamboat & Stagecoach Era in the Northern West (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1999); Oscar Osborne Winther, The Transportation Frontier Trans-Mississippi West, 1865-90, reprint (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974).

(4) Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 3: Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (Yale University Press, 2000).

(5) See William R. Black, Transportation: A Geographical Analysis (Guilford Press, 2003) for an overview.

(6) For an overview, see Mimi Sheller and John Urry's, 'The New Mobilities Paradigm', Environment & Planning A, 38:2 (2006), 207-26 and Timothy Cresswell's, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge, 2006). For examples of mobility research on the experience of movement, try Laura Watts', 'The Art and Craft of Train Travel', Social & Cultural Geography, 9:6 (2008), 711-26; Eric Laurier's, 'Doing Office Work on the Motorway', Theory, Culture & Society, 21:4-5 (2004), 261-77; or Peter Merriman's, 'Driving Places', Theory, Culture & Society, 21:4-5 (2004), 145-67.

(7) Alexander Mackenzie, The Journals of Alexander MacKenzie: Exploring Across Canada in 1789 & 93 (The Narrative Press, 2001).

(8) Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau (Washington State University, 2005).

(9) Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (Hill and Wang, 1996), 14.

(10) Donald Creighton, The Empire of the St. Lawrence (Houghton Mifflin, 1958).

(11) Christopher Armstrong et al., The River Returns (MQUP, 2009).

(12) David Thompson, David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America: 1784-1812 (Nabu Press, 2010).

(13) Bruce Braun, 'Colonialism's Afterlife: Vision and Visuality on the Northwest Coast', Cultural Geographies, 9:2 (2002), 202-47.

(14) Phoebe Goodell Judson, A Pioneer's Search for an Ideal Home (Bison Books, 1984), p. 2.

(15) Ibid., 44.

(16) Ibid., 46.

(17) Ibid., 48.

(18) Ibid., 51.

(19) 'Washington--Race and Hispanic Origin: 1850 to 1990' (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002), online:

(20) Vi Hilbert, Traveling by Water, Vol. 1 (Skagit Valley, 2003).

(21) Heritage Committee, ' The Canoe Indians of Shoalwater Bay' (Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, 1984).

(22) Steven Brown, 'Vessels of Life: Northwest Coast Dugouts', in J. Jennings (ed.), The Canoe: A Living Tradition (Altona, Manitoba, Firefly Books, 2005), pp. 74-95.

(23) Ibid., 47.

(24) Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (New York, Routledge, 2011).

(25) Swan, The Northwest Coast, 80.

(26) Armstrong et al., Ibid., (note 11).

(27) Robert Bunting, The Pacific Raincoast: Environment and Culture in an American Eden, 1778-1900 (University Press of Kansas, 1997).

(28) Robert Emmett Hawley, Skqee Mus: Or, Pioneer Days on the Nooksack (Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1971), p. 31.

(29) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, p. 96.

(30) Lottie Roth, History of Whatcom County, Vol. 1 (Chicago, Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1926), p. 211.

(31) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, p. 134.

(32) Ibid., 135.

(33) Ibid., 147.

(34) Ibid., 139. See also Caroline Leighton's Life at Puget Sound (1884), p. 118 for similar opinion.

(35) George Savage, Life and Adventures of George Savage: Reminiscence, University of Washington manuscript.

(36) Percival Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails. Historical Stories of Whatcom County Washington (Ferndale, WA, Sedro-Wooley Courier Times, 1949).

(37) Swan, The Northwest Coast.

(38) Hawley, Skqee Mus.

(39) Randall Mills, Stern-Wheelers Up Columbia (Palo Alto, CA, Pacific Books, 1947).

(40) Gordon R. Newell, Ships of the Inland Sea: The Story of the Puget Sound Steamboats (Binford & Mort, 1960).

(41) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, 148.

(42) Noel Bourasaw, 'Documents about 1870s Skagit River Log Jams', Skagit River Journal of History and Folklore (25 March 2006).

(43) Ibid.

(44) William Sidney Shiach and Harrison B. Averill (eds), An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, Washington: Their People, Their Commerce and Their Resources with an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Interstate Publishing Co., 1906), pp. 113-14.

(45) Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails, 128.

(46) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, 148.

(47) Mills, Stern-Wheelers Up Columbia.

(48) Newell, Ships of the Inland Sea.

(49) Ibid., 10.

(50) Winther, The Transportation Frontier, 84.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Robert Levine, A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently (New York, BasicBooks, 1997).

(53) Hawley, Skqee Mus, 114.

(54) Ibid., 117.

(55) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, 182.

(56) Winther, The Transportation Frontier, 91.

(57) Arthur Armstrong Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound (Nabu Press, 2012).

(58) Newell, Ibid., (note 41), 11.

(59) Jeffcott, Nooksack, Tales and Trails, 12.

(60) Andrew F. Burghardt, 'The Location of River Towns in the Central Lowland of the United States', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 49:3 (1959), 305-23.

(61) Kari Shaw, 'The Bellingham Herald', Researchers: Dynamiters Diverted Nooksack (20 October 2003), online: shtml, accessed 4 August 2013.

(62) Collins et al., Restoration of Puget Sound Rivers.

(63) James R. Sedell and Judith Froggatt, 'Importance of Streamside Forests to Large Rivers: The Isolation of the Willamette River, Oregon, U.S.A., from Its Floodplain by Snagging and Streamside Forest Removal', Verb. Internat. Verein. Limnol., 22 (1984), 1828-34.

(64) Thomas R. Cox, Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber Industry to 1900 (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1974).

(65) Collins et al., Restoration of Puget Sound Rivers.

(66) John Jennings, 'The Canoe Frontier', in J. Jennings (ed.), The Canoe: A Living Tradition (Altona, Manitoba, Firefly Books, 2005), p. 30.

(67) Judson, A Pioneer's Search, pp. 136-40.

(68) See in particular the research on the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in Minnesota: i.e. Bonnie Jane Eizen Adelman et al., 'Social Psychological Explanations for the Persistence of a Conflict between Paddling Canoeists and Motorcraft Users in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area', Leisure Sciences, 5:1 (1982), 45-61. And in an ironic twist, the story of Native Americans being prosecuted for operating a motorboat illegally in the Boundary Waters: Eric Freedman, 'When Indigenous Rights and Wilderness Collide', The American Indian Quarterly, 26:3 (2002), 378-92.


Cory Parker is a landscape architect studying geography at the University of California, Davis. He lectures at the University of Washington. For the past twelve years he has provided design leadership at Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, Ltd. in Seattle. E-mail:
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Author:Parker, Cory
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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