Sunday, January 22, 2017

Portland's Last Great Steamboat Race

Once upon a time, during the heydays of steam riverboats in the 1800s, racing was a big deal. Most riverboats were operated as individual businesses, rather than by a line, and the Captain was usuallly the owner. Most operated regularly between city pairs, and there was usually fierce competition with the faster boat generally attracting the most paying passengers and freight. Rivalries were intense, and Captains would often schedule their runs to coincide with a competitor's boat, just to demonstrate that their's was the faster. Informal races were frequent, and the rivalries built to support more formal races as well. It was such a big deal that riverboat racing became a substantial part of riverboat lore, so quite naturally races were a thing to be remembered, and reenacted nostalgically, including one race on the Columbia River held 65 years ago this week between two notable sternwheelers.
Note the seaplane in the upper right corner

The Race

Thus in 1952, when the Jimmy Stewart/Rock Hudson motion picture Bend of the River was about to be released (release date was February 13th), a steamboat race on the Columbia River was staged as a publicity stunt. The film is primarily about settlers in the Oregon frontier, but a riverboat is featured as the means to bring much needed (and much fought-over) winter supplies to the settlement, so a riverboat race seemed to be an appropriate media-attracting event.
The Henderson (foreground) cuts cleanly through the water while the Portland plows through it.
The race, held on January 24, 1952, featured two sternwheel tug boats (rather than packet boats), the 51-year-old Henderson which had played the part of River Queen in the movie, against the Port of Portland's five year old sternwheel tug Portland. Several of the movie's stars, including Jimmy Stewart, were onboard the Henderson during the race, and Stewart's race narration was broadcast live by radio station KEX.  Because both boats were built as towboat/tugs, they were designed for heavy lifting, not speed, so that race didn't feature the kinds of speeds seen once-upon-a-time between packet boats, but nonetheless, it made for great publicity.

The 3.6-mile course was from St. Johns Bridge to Sauvies Island, and though the Henderson was favored due to the shape of her hull, she fell behind early in the race when she started loosing steam from a blown gasket in her high-pressure cylinder. The Engineer was able to shunt live steam directly to her low pressure cylinder, and with her wheel turning at 30 rpm, the Henderson came from behind to win the race by a full length-and-a-half.

The Henderson

The 159-foot Henderson was launched in 1901 as the M.F. Henderson, owned by Shaver Transportation, and was a combination towboat and freighter. The opening of the Cascade Locks in 1896 had opened up the Columbia from Portland to the Dalles for freighting, which created demand for new boats.

In 1911, the M.F. Henderson was towing a Standard Oil barge when she was rammed by the tug Daniel Kern, which was hauling rock barges. The M.F. Henderson capsized to her side in shallow water. Shaver had the steamboat dismantled, and rebuilt the following year by the Portland Shipbuilding Company, and renamed simply HendersonShe got a new locomotive boiler built by James Monk, providing twice the capacity as the old boiler, but kept her original single-cylinder engines, until in 1929 when the Henderson was re-engined with tandem-compound engines, adding low-pressure cylinders to increase her power and efficiency.

When President and Mrs. Warren Harding sailed from Tacoma to Alaska in the early 1920s, it was on the Henderson.  She later made a name for herself during World War II by handling over 5,000 ships on the Columbia and Willamette.

She sunk and was raised again in 1950. It was in December, as Henderson and the Diesel tug Chinook were moving the decommissioned steamship Pierre Victory from Portland to Tongue Point. While lashed to the starboard side of the Pierre, Henderson ran over some submerged pilings of an old Cottonwood Island dike, tearing a 20-foot gash in her wooden hull. Captain Sydney Harris had the tow line cast off, and Pilot Don Weik directed the rapidly sinking tug towards calmer water near the shore. The hole was later patched and the hull pumped out, refloating the Henderson.

By the time of the race, Henderson was one of only two wooden-hulled steamboats left on the Columbia. In December 1956, she was towing a grain ship near the mouth of the Columbia when Henderson encountered some large swells, which beat her hard against the hull of the bigger grain ship. Her old wooden hull failing, the Captain had no choice but to beach the tug. The derelict hulk sat on the river bank until it was burned in 1964 to salvage the scrap metal. The Henderson's wheel was saved by local boat builder John Hounsell who also restored it to its current condition on display at the Hood River Museum (a photo can be seen here).

The Portland

The Portland is a steel-hull tug launched in 1947 (replacing a predecessor of the same name), and holds the distinction of being the last sternwheel, steam-powered tug built in the US. Designed by Guy H. Thayer for the Port of Portland Commission, Portland was built in the Gunderson Brothers yard by Northwest Marine Iron Works. She had originally been intended to be a Diesel-powered, screw-driven tug, but the Columbia River Pilots Association insisted on the more traditional drive, believing that a sternwheeler would be better suited for maneuvering large ships within the narrow confines of the Willamette. At 219 feet long, the tug was powered by two single-cylinder horizontal non-condensing steam engines. Owned by the Port of Portland, she was operated for twenty years by Shaver Transportation, and then after 1966 by Willamette Tug & Barge. The insistance of the sternwheel propulsion turned out to be a wise choice.

Not long after losing the race to the Henderson, the Portland was called upon to help full a heavily-laden Standard Oil freighter off a sandbar on Sauvies Island. Other screw-powered tugs had tried and failed (the Henderson had also taken part in the effort). The Portland was secured to the S. G. Follis, and her wheel was put into reverse. It created so much wash that the sand holdng the Follis firm was flushed away and the freighter freed. Five years later, the Portland again did what other tugs couldn't. Two derelict ships had broken free from their moorings and had hit the Hawthorne bridge. Lodged there, the strain threatened to damage or even destroy the bridge. Again, other Diesel-powered tugs had tried and failed to budge the derelicts, but the Portland was able to tow them away and secure them.

In the 1960s, efforts were attempted by the Port Commission to replace the Portland with a newer, more efficient Diesel tug, but the regional pilots and ship owners were insistent that the sternwheeler had an important role to still play. However, twenty years later, the ships using the port had grown larger, and were now equipped with bow thrusters, so the usefulness of the unique Portland declined as her age increased. When the Portland was finally retired in 1981, she was the last steam sternwheeler tug in commercial service. The Port Commission didn't want to scrap her, and initially sought to convert her into a tourist excursion steamer. A lot of politics played into this, including some fairly strong objections from the Port of Cascade Locks, who owned and operated the modern-day purpose-built Diesel-powered tourist sternwheeler Columbia Gorge, ironically setting off a rivalry of sorts between the two boats that would manifest itself later.

After languishing for a decade, she was finally sold to the Oregon Maritime Museum for $1, intended to be a static display. However, there was so much interest in her - which translated into donated dollars - that a full operational restoration was possible. Today, she houses part of the museum and is open for tours at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and is operated occasionally at special events. Because of her distinctions, she is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2008, the 1952 race was supposed to be recreated as part of a Portland-sponsored civic event, "Sternwheeler Days and The Great Steamboat Race". Portland was to race her rival Columbia Gorge, but just before the race, the Portland suffered a mechanical fault to her steering system, and hit a bank, damaging her paddlewheel. Drifting without power or steering, she was headed for the Bonneville Dam before being secured by another tug. Since then, though, the two riverboats have raced three times, with the Portland taking the prize twice.

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