Colorado River Steamboat Travel

The Desert Lifeline

Hostile Indians weren’t the only danger in the hundreds of miles of southwestern desert country in the late 1800’s. No, you also had rattlesnakes, robbers and a few resentful Mexicans looking for some vulnerable early day settlers crossing this barren, unforgiving desert. There are some spots in that parched country that may not see any rain in some years-places were even cactus won’t grow. That’s dry!

But here, there is a lifeline called the Colorado River. So how does man harness this as a supply link for his use in trying to survive? Can he? Should he? And at what price? For early pioneers and entrepreneurs, no challenge was without consideration. Human life was valued according to the needs. During this time, a good mule was worth more than a man. This was always a factor in decisions made. And in one area, for a while, a camel was hoped to be worth even more, but I’m getting a little ahead of the story.

Now we all know that Arizona is landlocked, don’t we? But what if it weren’t? In fact, there was a water connection all the way between San Francisco and the southwestern desert for over fifty years. It’s true. And generally, it was a lot less hazardous than the arduous trek across the mountains to the west at that time.

Between 1853 and 1908, there were sternwheeler steamboats carrying supplies to the few towns and U.S. Army forts like the one in Yuma, Arizona, about 120 miles above the mouth of the Colorado River. The $500. per ton cost to bring supplies from San Francisco overland was too much for small military stations, so these shallow bottom boats were the answer, although not without a lot of resolve, faith and capital investment. Colorado River steamboats that drew less than three feet of water could pass over the many sandbars and carried tools, hardware, dry goods, mining machinery, and milling equipment to the settlements along the river. By river, the cost per ton was $75., much more affordable for the settlers and Army forts, and still profitable for the steamship company. Downstream loads were gold, silver, copper, and lead, as well as hides, wool, and pelts in season.

As it turned out, the early Indian tribes, especially the Cocopahs, soon realized they could gain employment along the river providing wood for fuel for the boats, and eventually even becoming river pilots.

One of the advantages of the sternwheelers was that when encountering a shallow sandbar, they could turn around and actually chew their way across the obstacle. Imagine that!

In January 1858, a steamboat exploratory trip above Yuma went approximately 450 miles from the mouth of the Colorado before needing to turn around due to lack of supplies mostly. How exciting this must have been. Going in an area in a manner never before attempted. This first trip proved the feasibility of river travel-and considering it was during low water made it even more remarkable.

On the return, as they passed the area near today’s Ehrenberg, Arizona (but western New Mexico Territory at that time), they were surprised to encounter a caravan of camels silhouetted on the ridge above before attempting to cross the river. The riverboat ended up ferrying the supplies across, while the camels could swim easily enough without their heavy packs. The camels were a convoluted experiment by the Army to find a better way to navigate the barren countryside.

While the U.S. was engaged in a war back in the east during the 1860’s, the war in this part of the U.S. was along the river with two freight companies competing to be able to haul the many tons of goods being unloaded at the mouth of the river waiting for delivery upstream. A new customer was Brigham Young who was negotiating for getting supplies to Mormons in Utah. Hauls were eventually made as far as to Callville, some 600 miles above the Sea of Cortez. The years through the late 1870’s were busy and profitable with many tons of commerce carried, along with passengers.

The establishment of the railroad in the area around 1879 severely limited the river freight business. Two of the remaining flat-bottomed boats were dismantled, and the other two mostly plied the upper Colorado. Freight was still going to Fort Mohave, which was along the river just north of the point where Arizona, Nevada and California connect.

Ironically, in May 1883, at today’s Needles, California, the railroad was only able to cross the 1600′ wide river by using one of the two remaining steamboats to put in the necessary pylons for its bridge. This, the same railroad that was putting the river trade out of business. A certain riverboat company was not too upset when river currents in 1884 washed out the bridge for a time.

Noting how the Colorado River Steam Navigation Co. had operated as many as five steamers and five barges during the heyday of the steamboat business, an editor of the Yuma Sentinel wrote, “How the mighty have fallen. From a powerful corporation it has been reduced almost to naught… Water transportation can never compete with railroads.”

In January 1900, the most majestic of the steamboats at 149.5 feet long and with double smokestacks, the Mohave 2, ran aground into Jaeger’s Slough, where the captain, and the company, left her to rot, a less-than-honorable end for such a grand workhorse. This became a monument of man’s intrusion into a challenging new area and symbol of the move to tame the west. Certainly the end to the grandest days of travel for the hundreds of miles along a wild west’s wild river’s days of being tamed.

Ron Kelley (2/12)