Crossing the Columbia River

Colleen Bauman – Clark County History
1988 – Published by Fort Vancouver Historical Society of Clark County- With permission from Clark County Historical Museum

In the early years of exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest, rivers – in particular, the Columbia – were a vital means of transportation. As settlements grew into towns and cities, and later as railroad and automobile usage grew in necessity and popularity, the rivers became a frustrating obstacle – a break in the chain of road systems linking one city with another. In such a remote isolated area of North America, far away from modern technology of the time and with transportation of building supplies from the East an impossibility at that time, bridges were out of the question. Ferryboats – hand and river powered or motorized – became floating extensions of man’s route to his destination.

Ferries Enjoy Monopoly

Long before auto and rail and long before even the Hudson’s Bay Co. and its nearby settlements had a need for any regular sort of ferrying system across the Columbia, Indians had criss-crossed it for centuries. Carrying in their dugout canoes varied cargo such as berries, fish, fibers, and skins – they traded up, down, and across the Columbia. Elk hides were ferried across, traded and manufactured into skin armor and worn to protect their proud owners from enemy missiles.

Human slave “cargo” were imported from as far south as California and were forced to ferry their owners across the river and were traded as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Because of their importance in conquering the rivers, canoes became a sign of class distinction. Upon marrying, a young man gave a canoe to the parents of his prospective bride. Shamans “ferried” the sick to the other world in order to rescue their souls from the dead; and after death, people were “ferried” to the other world in canoes.

At the time of white contact, Indians often established rates and managed a “business”, also charging their white customers – taking their gold, and later, coin, which brought them white men’s goods for their services. As the settlements grew, so did the cargo. With precious and weighty flour, sugar, and molasses sinking a canoe’s hull deep into the water, the crossing could be hazardous -to both the cargo and ferryman- and arduous, especially if the current were strong and the crossing necessitated paddling against it. Often many trips or canoes were needed.

The white populace, concerned for its goods and the dollars they would bring, decided a better system was needed and stepped in to provide it, much to the chagrin of the Indians who feared the loss of a profitable means of obtaining white goods. Downriver from Vancouver, for example, the Chinooks jealously guarded their monopoly near the mouth of the river, coldly receiving the American Winship party, who sought in 1810 to establish a trading post some thirty miles from the Pacific.

The following year, when the Astorians established their post on the left bank, their welcome by the Chinooks was anything but enthusiastic. Had they not wanted manufactured goods the white men brought, the welcome could have been much cooler. This usurping of the Indian “ferries” by white ferryman became the rule at Vancouver as well.

In the early 1840s, as American settlers came to the Oregon country, the Hudson’s Bay Co. -serving as agent of the British government – tried to discourage them from ferrying north into what it regarded as British territory. They hoped the Columbia River would form the Anglo-American boundary line. Up until the boundary was established in 1846, the company watched with growing alarm the American influx which their own boats helped shunt south across the river to what, for all intents and purposes, the company came to regard as the American shore.

In 1847, the American-dominated Oregon Provisional Government’s legislative body was empowered to pass laws for raising revenue either by the levying and collecting of taxes, or the imposing of licenses on merchandise, ferries, “or other objects.” As ownership of the Columbia was unsettled, the Provisional Government seemed to have concerned itself primarily with the regulation of ferryboats on the Willamette. On Sept. 27, 1849, the Oregon Territory legislature passed “An Act regulating Ferries” authorizing county courts to grant licenses and establish rates and taxes and the duties of licensees and penalties for non-compliance. At face value, the thirteen section document was imposing, but considerable leeway under these laws was possible depending on the disposition of the county courts. For instance, considerable variation was possible in the determination of the law specifying a ferryman to keep “a good tight boat.”

Although mention has been made of supplies ferried in the 1840s from Fort Vancouver across the Columbia en route to the Willamette Valley – probably on the same crude log rafts that brought the settlers down from the Dalles and Cascades – no regular public ferry service was run by a white American until John Switzler Jr.’s in 1846. Switzer Jr., an 1845 immigrant from Virginia, settled on his land claim – present day Hayden Island – on the South Bank of the Columbia River opposite Fort Vancouver on the North Bank in September, 1846.

His first crude row ferry, probably equipped with a sail, was to carry mainly foot traffic of Oregonians trading at the HBC post. This ferry was run sporadically by Mr. Switzler Sr. and his sons for nearly a decade.

Although ferries on the Columbia should have some under federal regulation, a general act “of the Regulation of Ferries”, passed Jan. 27, 1854, makes no mention of such a thing. In 1854, The Washington Territory passed an act regulating governance of such craft. Patterned after the Oregon law, the law would be changed little over the next several years. Despite provision for local regulation, the territorial legislature granted many charters establishing many rates of ferriage – granting eleven authorizations from 1854 to 1859 and nine from 1865 to 1869.

Indeed, as early as 1850, Mr. Forbes Barclay licensed himself with the government to run a ferry upriver a short way from Vancouver at what was called the upper landing at the Indian Village.

On Jan. 19, 1885, William Ryan was granted a franchise to establish a ferry in the same area. In 1851, on December 2nd, a license was “granted” to William Goodwin to establish a ferry from the head of Lady Island to above the mouth of the Washougal River. Other licenses granted in that period were to David C. Parker on June 10, 1854, for the same area; James Carty, on Lake River slough and O.W. Bozorth on the Cathlapoodle – present Lewis River – on March 7, 1855.

In 1855, with John Switzler Jr. taking over operation from his father, the Switzler ferry provided a more regular service for the next several years and was subject to some of the new licensing and regulations. On Jan. 19, 1885, a William Ryan was granted a franchise to establish a ferry in the same area.

On April 5, 1855, the county commissioners of Multnomah County established the following rates of ferriage across the Columbia River to Vancouver for the Switzler operation: “For each foot passenger 50 cents; man and horse $1.00; wagon and span $2.00; each additional animal 25 cents. Each cart of buggy and animal, $1.50; each head of horses or cattle 50 cents; each sheep or hog 25 cents; each hundred pounds of freight not on wagon, 25 cents.”

For these fees, Switzler was required to pay $10 per annum. To continue the trip from Vancouver to Switzler Island it was necessary to take the Love ferry across the Columbia Slough – also referred to at that time by the paradoxical name of Love’s Slough – to Portland. At that same meeting rates were set for Lewis Love as follows: “For wagon and animal 25 cents; man on horseback 10 cents; foot passenger 5 cents; loose animals 5 cents.” He was required to pay a fee of $5 a year.

$1.00 for a man and his team to be ferried across the Columbia and then an additional 25 cents to be ferried across the Slough seems a heavy fee for the times, but on July 3, 1855, Lewis Love made application for a new schedule of fees. “Foot passengers 12 cents; horse or mule 12 cents; man on horse 25 cents; wagon and one horse 37 cents; wagon with two horses 50 cents.” It was granted. Only July 31, 1855, John Switzler was allowed $250 for building a bridge along what was then known as the Columbia Bottoms.

After the Switzlers quit ferrying, Wesley Van Schuyver ran a service to the Oregon shore, charging fees of : $1 per person; $3 for man on horseback; $2 for horse, mule or cow; $3 for horse and wagon; and $6 for a team and wagon. Hogs and sheep did not carry such a lofty charge at only 24 cents each. Even at these prices – finding the run unprofitable – he discontinued it in a few months, after which there was no regular service across the Columbia at Vancouver for sixteen years.

In 1868, this lack of regular service was made apparent in the petition signing by some four hundred tax payers of Multnomah County begging “…their Commissioners to build a substantial plank road, above high water mark, between Love’s Slough and Switzler’s Landing on the Columbia River…” A preliminary agreement had been signed and entered into “…that a number of property holders in Vancouver and Clarke County pledge themselves to enter into bonds to the amount of $2,000, guaranteeing to build and maintain a good steam ferryboat on the Columbia River, to meet with the plank road, provided Multnomah County builds said road.” “Portland has given bonds to the amount of $250,000, not because she desires to make a display of her wealth or liberality, but in a wise consideration of her interests…” “Pleasure seekers should favor this scheme as it affords a much needed extension and variety to their present circumscribed limits for driving and pleasure seeking.”

“That Vancouver will eventually be a point of commercial importance, its peculiarly eligible situation, backed as it is by an abundance of the finest agricultural land, no reasonable man will for a moment doubt. Furthermore, the N.P.P.R. is sure to come down the Columbia, in order to gain the immense trade of the grain growing valleys of the upper country. Cheap overland travel helps a country in every way”

During this time steamboats took most all the traffic from Vancouver up the Willamette to Portland. As far back as 1850, Vancouver had been port for the little steamer “Columbia.” In 1854, the “Eagle,” a little iron propeller boat of ten tons that had been brought out around the Horn on the deck of a ship, was placed on the route between Portland and Vancouver. Under the command of Captain Woods, its fare was five dollars. In 1857, Vancouver became the terminus of a steamer operating on a regular schedule – the side-wheeler “Vancouver.” Beginning in 1870, and running for nearly a decade, the “Vancouver” made the run to Portland. She was joined by the “Wasp,” the “Carrie,” and “Oneota.” Several others were to follow in the years ahead.

The Dock

Although the steamboats were an integral part of Columbia transportation, they were capable of – and often did – travel to other areas besides the Portland-Vancouver. They often took passengers and freight up on the Willamette or up the Columbia to the Dalles or downriver to Astoria for pleasure seeking sightseers. So, they were not restricted in their usage just to Portland-Vancouver travel as the ferries and the bridges of the future were. What distinguished the ferries from the other craft plying up and down the river was the “crossing over.” “To travelers they were never ends in themselves – only means, but mighty important ones as any trans-Columbia traveler could have told you.”

Along with the Van Schuyver service, other ferry services died out. For some time, ferries had proliferated up and down the Columbia, with many men trying to cash in on the “riches to be made” from providing such a necessary service. But, the river was treacherous and most crafts were flimsy. A ferryman had to be quite knowledgeable at what he was doing or lose all, including the lives of his passengers or his own. Many could not make a go of it.

Also, in many areas competition was so fierce that feuds flared and sabotage was a rule – fires, boring of holes, disappearance of caulking, and boulder bombardments being among the tools of the saboteurs. If there were feuds at Vancouver or Portland, they were unspectacular ones; several recorded services seem to have just quietly faded away, probably victims of economics and the “flooding of the market” of ferry services.

By the 1870s, with the improvement of rail transport into Portland, there was an increasing need for a dependable ferry system. In September, 1875, the Independent reported that a ferry that had “…recently put on a run between the government wharf and the Oregon shore as a venture was continuing to run, making hourly trips from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.” On Sept. 13, 1878, the ferry was again made mention of in that “The ferry boat at Vancouver, tied to the bank, was sunk by alternation of the tides. Efforts to get it off the bottom failed due to mishaps. After three days she was raised and towed to Portland for repairs.” For however a short time, the ferry was out of service again. The Independent doesn’t mention whether this ferry was the “Black Maria,” the first steam ferry to make the crossing. Instead of being steered by a pilot at a wheel, he stood at the stern with along sweep and guided the boat. This is probably the same boat, as it went on the run in 1878 and saw only four months of service.

On May 7, 1879, franchise was granted to William H. Foster and Edwin A. Willis to operate a steam ferry on the Columbia River from the foot of “B” Street, Vancouver, to Switzler’s Landing, upon the payment of an annual license fee of five dollars.”

Also in 1879, a more enduring ferry service was put on the run with the “Salem2,” purchased by William Stevens and piloted by his son – Captain Frank Stevens. Captain Stevens was to be a Vancouver to Portland ferryman for thirty eight years.

In 1880, Captain W.H. Foster and E. Willis built the “Veto,” which operated for two years, and was then sold to Portland people and placed on the Jefferson Street run.

By October, the “Veto 2” – owned by Captain W.H. Foster of Vancouver and J.H. Moore of Portland – began making runs, piloted by Captain Foster. This craft was the nearest approach to a real ferry that had been constructed up to that time, built 90 feet long and nearly 24 feet wide with square stern and head. It was sold to the company that operated the old steam railway from the Stark Street ferry landing to the banks of the Columbia opposite the Vancouver Barracks military reservation. This company’s steam railway, whose cars were replaced with electric cars, carried passengers from Portland to Vancouver.

This ferry was constructed in such a manner as to facilitate the growing railways. Until this time, generally cargo on the ferries had been travelers and their paraphernalia, wagons, teams, livestock, supplies and buggies. Now came a need for railcar transport. Although the railway were much desired in the community, some ferry travelers were not – as the May 27, 1980, Independent complained of: “…pilfering tramps were coming into Vancouver by the ferry. They also looked for food; and in a couple of cases ‘borrowed’ horses, which they turned loose several miles north of the town.”

The “Albina No. 2,” which had been operating on the Albina run, was purchased by the railway company and replaced the “Veto No. 2” in 1883. Traffic in the summer of this year was very greatly increased over any other season. “It frequently happens that teams are left on the bank from the boat being filled, and too small to take them all. A larger boat will have to be put on another year,” reported the Independent of Sept. 13, 1883.

At about this time, work was scheduled to get underway on a bridge nearly two-thirds of a mile long across the Columbia bottoms to improve that roadway – a mess at the best of times, an impassable disaster in high water. Multnomah County was to pay part of the expense, Clark County was contributing lumber from the Lucia mills at Vancouver, and financial aid was provided form the Quartermaster Corps of the Army. Work began in late July and continued into the early fall. On the Vancouver side, improvements included installation of plank inclines at the ferry landing, “a very noticeable aid.”

But an Independent writer on Oct. 23, “complained that there had been so many accidents that the public is losing confidence in the officers and the line. Most recent mishap was the sinking of the boat at her moorings after a plank had been damaged or loosened by a snag. Vancouver’s new Fire Engine 1 had to be used to pump water out of the ferry’s hold.”

On May 5, 1884, privileges were granted to the Multnomah Railroad Co. to also operate a ferry from Switzler’s Landing to the foot of “B” Street in Vancouver for the annual license fee of $5. Travel to and from the ferry in 1885 continued at a good rate and was, in fact, too lively. Although less than a year old, the long bridge on the Columbia bottom was reported “badly injured” by fast driving. All teamsters were compelled by the road supervisor to walk their horses over the bridge thenceforth.

It was reported in the June 21, 1888, Independent that “The Portland & Vancouver Railway Company…have purchased all the property of the Multnomah Railway Company, including the Vancouver ferry franchise and the steamer “Albina No. 2,” paying therefor a sum of $25,000. This was the perpetual ferry right between the Oregon shore and Vancouver.”

In 1888, due to the increased rail usage and the increased need for more rapid transport over the river, the first solid rumblings of bridge talk were heard. The Independent stated that with many enterprising citizens and newcomers having “…thoroughly awakened Vancouver and endeavoring to tell the rest of the world that Vancouver is a city of promise …all sorts of rumors are afloat. At least seven railroads are planned, and two of these, it seems sure, will come…as Vancouver is on a direct line with these cities and Portland and the most available place on the Columbia for a bridge. A bridge company with a capital of $2,000,000 has been incorporated in Portland to bridge the Columbia at Vancouver.”

Earliest rumors had begun to fly as early as 1868, as noted in the Vancouver Register of Dec. 26, 1868. It was reported that at a Fern Prairie meeting, Thomas J. Fletcher gave quite a speech detailing eight separate reasons why a bridge should be built in that area rather the Vancouver area crossing. For example, the channel at the Lady’s Island crossing was not so wide as the Vancouver one; the span across the Slough is not so great as it is on the Slough at Hayden’s Island; and there was “…a huge reef of rocks midway between the island and the main land, forming almost a natural pier for a bridge.” He challenged any site on the Columbia with their site, not “…excepting the much vaunted site of Vancouver.” He especially took exception to the railroad’s “…using all honorable means to get the railroad to Vancouver, but we don’t think it exactly the clean thing’ to get up a petition asking Congress to grant you a special charter to build a bridge across the Columbia at Vancouver. This would be all right as citizens of the place, but, as a railroad company, it is all wrong.” In the summer months of that year and the preceding two, the daily average travel across the Vancouver ferry by stage and private conveyance had averaged 132 passengers.

In 1891, the “old” “Vancouver” was built in Portland for the Portland and Vancouver Railway Co. and came to Vancouver on Aug. 16, 1893. On July 28, 1899, the ferry caught fire and burned to the waterline, completely destroying the deck house. Even though the fire department promptly got the blaze under control, some $1500 damage was done and the ferry was laid up. On Aug. 19th, the Independent noted that “…the superintendent of the Portland-Vancouver Street Car Co. Came to Vancouver personally to thank the fire department and to present them with $50.” On October 5th, the badly burned 157-foot side-wheeler was taken to Portland for overhauling. The borrowed “Klickitat” was substituted for carrying the freight and the steamer “Annie” for passengers.

In 1919, the “City of Vancouver” was built to replace the tired “Vancouver.” A 398-ton side-wheeler – 142 feet in length with a beam depth of 9 feet – she had the capacity to carry 2,500 passengers and many more teams than formerly. She was a far cry from even the first steamboat, the iron “Allen,” that was not “…considered safe to trust more than three people on her at once.” “The City of Vancouver’ was given a royal welcome by all the steam whistles along the waterfront.”

During the run of the two “Vancouvers,” they landed at the foot of “B” Street – present day Washington Street – and until 1905, landed nearly ´ mile upstream on the Oregon side at Columbia Beach.

The ferries were depended on at all times and in all sorts of weather. If they were unable to run, a major portion of area transportation was – out of necessity – put on hold.

In 1880, ferry service was provided by the “Veto” in the high water of that year, carrying stock and farmers from flooded lands. Late in the year, a number of runs of “Veto No. 2” were curbed due to ice in the Columbia. By year’s end, the boat had to quit its runs because of “…the bottom having fallen out of the road in Oregon, causing the Vancouver-Portland stages to cancel their trips for the time being.”

In 1882, again high water was causing problems. Because of poor roads and weather, the “Veto No. 2” had to delay ferry trips, but finally got under way in early May. On June 1st, the Independent again remarked on the high water of the season: “The high water that kept wood piles on high ground resulted in a suspension of ferry trips and of travel on the Vancouver-Portland road…condition lasted more than a month and possibly longer.”

About Christmastime in 1884, ice was again interfering with “crossing over.” The steamboats were unable to reach Vancouver and the ferry was not making regular trips. In early January 1885, ice was loose from the shore, but still was more than a foot thick. One steamer trip was made in mid-January, but the ice blockade closed in again, so that no stern wheelers could get closer to Vancouver than a mile above or six miles below and the ferry was also blocked.

Dec. 21, 1892 – Vancouverites awoke to a foot of snow and the snow continued to fall in sheets and was blown about by a powerful wind. By evening, eighteen inches were on the ground and it had not let up and the next day snow turned to sleet and rain, creating a crust of ice on the snow. On the river, ice was everywhere and the ferry was able to make only two trips before being forced to give up and tied up to the Oregon side to await an open river. By Dec. 28th, the ice and snow had pretty much broken and melted.

But on Jan. 18, 1893, cold weather again attacked the area and by the 25th, the ferry was once again dodging ice running in the river. The first day of February saw the area in the grips of a genuine blizzard, with severe winds and blinding snowstorms. It was the worst storm anyone could recall since the winter of 1861-62. “The river is blocked, and passengers arrive from the mouth of the Willamette, which point steamers from Portland reach with difficulty. The ice blockade is a heavy one and will no doubt result in the suspension of traffic on the entire river.”

On Feb. 8th, the Register’s headline shouted, “KING WINTER – Still in Possession of the Italy of America’.” The river was still blocked and several parties solved the problem of being cut off – by crossing the river on the ice. It was remarked that Jerome Smith was still ” Out with his stages, even if they are mounted on runners.”

On the 15th, the river was still clogged with ice and the ferry had not resumed any of the trips on her route yet. Finally, on the 28th, the ice had dislodged enough that the ferry began making regular trips. These harsh winter storms played havoc with the rivers, and spring flooding after the meltoff made the ferries’ jobs very difficult – if not impossible. Often, during high water, two ferryboats were needed. The severe flood of May and June, 1894, stood the Columbia at 4 feet, three inches above an 1876 high water mark and on June 6th showed no signs of stopping. Locals worried that, “Two feet more rise brings the water into every store on Main Street up to 5th, then all will be in it…The condition of affairs in this city is indeed deplorable.”

The flood badly wrecked the Portland and Vancouver railroad trestle and it would have to be completely rebuilt. The last trip over the trestle by the electric cars was made on May 31st, and the ferry came up and tied to the trees in one local’s yard. The flood also wrecked a large part of the elevated wagon road of the P &V road on the bottoms and the balance was under water. The entire road would have to be rebuilt and the teams could not cross for several months, cutting down on ferry loads. But the ferry still had plenty of work ahead of her carrying supplies for rebuilding back and forth.

The ruinous consequences of the flooding didn’t stop the local humorists from finding the light side of the situation, and even the Independent got into the act: “Everything has floated off some of the bottom farms except the mortgages that were on them. Nothing of that kind gets away.”

“Railroad boxcars commenced going down the river on Saturday evening, and it was no use to set the brakes on them either.” “Every boat between this city and Portland is crowded with people who ride to see how high the water is in that other drowned out town. Some other person’s town is always deepest in it, and they want to see it.

The old timers have quit talking about the flood of 1876, which is a back number, and are now and then referring to the time when steamboats landed at the snow line on Mount Hood. As usual the newcomers don’t believe it.”

Sense of humor of not, the city was greatly frustrated at continually having transportation problems between Vancouver and Portland, as it was again in Jan., 1895, when another snow storm hit. They desperately desired a permanent structure across the Columbia and the Register of Dec. 28, 1892, voiced the bold opinion that, “Vancouver will bid defiance to ice blockade when the big steel bridge is built.”

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