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They laughed at Captain Scott’s ugly little riverboat ... at first.

He came to the steamboat companies asking for a job, and they laughed him off. So he built his own boat on a shoestring budget — then used it to eat their lunch on the upper Willamette run.

Passengers arrive and disembark on the riverboat City of Salem someplace on the mid-Willamette River. One of the silhouettes in the wheelhouse is almost certainly Capt. Scott.
Capt. Uriah B. Scott’s second steamboat, the City of Salem, takes on
passengers at a dock somewhere near Salem, probably sometime in
the 1880s. The image is marked as copyright 1920, but that is probably
the date this print was made; the City of Salem was not in service at
that time. Capt. Scott liked to boast that the City of Salem could run on
“a heavy dew.” (Photo: Salem Public Library) [Larger image: 1800 x
1178 px]

In the summer of 1874, the executives of Oregon’s two big steamboat companies were watching Uriah B. Scott’s progress on the riverboat he was building — watching and laughing.

They were probably also congratulating themselves on not having hired him when he’d come to them, newly arrived in Oregon, asking for a job and babbling on about “shallow-draft hulls.”

They’d turned him down, of course. And now the poor, naïve fool was apparently planning to go into competition with them.

Ugliest steamboat on the river

What the other riverboat men were seeing wasn’t exactly making them quake with fear. The scow Scott was building was an ugly little thing, like a shoebox with a smokestack sticking out of the top and a home-made sternwheel hanging out over the back. It didn’t much look like a boat, either — its hull was wide and flat, not deep and curvaceous like the hulls of the other steamers on the river.

The five men who had lent Scott $3,000 to build this mousetrap became objects of pity among the steamboat men of the two big firms — the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. and People’s Transportation Co. The company men were confident that Scott’s backers would never see their money again, and weren’t afraid to tell them so.

An unnamed sternwheeler makes its way through the swift currents of the Willamette River at Albany.
This hand-tinted postcard picture from the 1910s shows an unnamed
sternwheeler on the Willamette River at Albany. It’s unknown whether
this particular riverboat is one of Capt. Uriah B. Scott’s, but its hull is
certainly of the shallow-draft type he developed several decades
before. [Larger image: 1200 x 758 px]

Scott didn’t mind. He knew that his boat, which he’d dubbed the Ohio, was ugly. He didn’t have enough money to make it pretty. He’d lost almost everything in a bank panic the previous year, which was why he’d left the Midwest and come to Oregon in the first place. No, he hadn’t built the Ohio for looks. They’d see what he was up to when he got it in the water.

Two busy rivers, two lazy monopolies

In the meantime, the other steamboat companies weren’t losing any sleep over the upstart. The bigger of the two, Oregon Steamship & Navigation Co., was a bloated and arrogant monopoly that had achieved total dominion over the Columbia River by buying out everything in sight. Like many such firms, it took comfort in its bigness and didn’t regard its inflated ticket prices and haphazard service as a serious problem.

The People’s Transportation Co., as its populist-sounding name suggests, was originally a scrappy upstart steamboat line created to challenge this monopoly and to tap into the frustration of the traveling public. But after a few successful years, it lost that competitive fire and made a cozy deal with OS&N, which basically gave each company a monopoly on one of the two rivers – People’s on the Willamette, and OS&N on the Columbia. With this arrangement in place, People’s had settled in as a sort of junior monopoly, and both companies worked to avoid any kind of profit-killing competition on their routes.

Thus, neither major riverboat company had much of an interest in improvements to service unless they wouldn’t cost money to implement. After all, they already had all the business on the river. Building a new shallow-draft boat, like Scott had suggested, would cost money without generating any new income. So why should they be interested?

Willamette Valley farmers, however, were very interested. The People’s Transportation Co. steamboats couldn’t get far enough up the river to pick up their crops until deep into the rainy season, when the river levels were quite high. By that time, unless the grain was very carefully stored, the valley’s famous fogs had often soaked it and opened the door for molds and mildew to ruin it. There was most definitely a market for the boats Scott was talking about, and Scott knew it. It was that market that the Ohio was designed to fill.

Launch day arrives

The Bailey Gatzert at cruising speed on the Columbia, decks full of passengers, probably sometime early in the 20th century.
Capt. Uriah B. Scott would go on to found the company that operated
the Columbia River's most famous sternwheeler, the speedy and
sumptuous Bailey Gatzert, shown above. (Photo: WCPA) [Larger
image: 1800 x 1318 px]

Soon the Ohio’s launch day arrived, and crowds of steamboat men came to look and laugh. Not only was the Ohio ugly, it had certain features that looked distinctly under-engineered. Scott, watching every dime, had used steel gas pipe for the steam engines’ connecting rods, or “pitmans.” And then there was that home-made paddle wheel. It was the kind of creation that, if duct tape had been around in the 1870s, would have been covered with the stuff, and probably would have involved a blue tarp somewhere in the upper works.

The boat, with its strange saucer-shallow hull, went into the water, and the watching steamboatmen watched. Confidently they waited for it to fill and sink. It floated like a water skipper. Confidently they predicted it would never make headway against the current. Scott rang for steam and left the dock; soon it was out of sight. Confidently they predicted it would never make it back.

You have to wonder if the other steamboat men started having second thoughts at this point. Could it be that this ignoramus from back East actually knew what he was doing?

If any of them harbored this secret question, they got an answer a week or so later. The Ohio had steamed 185 miles up the Willamette River to Eugene City, taken on 70 tons of wheat and brought it back to Portland.

Suddenly nobody was laughing any more.

Scott’s disruptive innovation

The secret of the Ohio’s success was that wide, flat, ugly hull. It could float on nine inches of water when it was empty, and with 100 tons of wheat on board, 18. There are stories of boys out wading in the river having to be shooed out of the way so the ugly little steamboat could get through.

The other steamboat men considered their designs shallow-draft, but they were water hogs compared with the Ohio. No other boat on the river could get within 40 miles of Eugene City even empty, to say nothing of getting back downstream with cargo.

Scott’s next boat was the City of Salem, which was a gorgeously appointed, elegant riverboat, as unlike the Ohio as a pheasant is unlike a starling … except, of course, for its draft, which was even shallower than the Ohio. Scott liked to claim it could run on “a heavy dew.” He demonstrated this by paying a call at Jefferson, well up the Santiam River where no steamer had ever gone, crossing easily through shallows that would stop many rowboats.

From laughter to panic

Caught utterly flat-footed, the two steamboat companies that had until this moment enjoyed a total duopoly on the river scrambled for their lives. Of course, they got busy building their own shallow-draft craft — but the only man in the state who really knew how to do that was now working for himself, so it took them a while to solve the engineering issues.

Of course, they tried to buy Scott out. It must have been rather satisfying for Scott to have the same guys who’d blown him off when he asked for a job, and laughed him off when he was building the Ohio, now coming to him with hats in hands. But the time for that sort of thing was long past, and Scott was now in a position to raise all the capital he’d ever need. A third steamboat company had been born.

(Sources: Wright, E.W. Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Portland: Lewis & Dryden, 1895; Newell, Gordon. Pacific Steamboats. Seattle: Superior, 1958; Hulme, Kenneth S. “The Ubiquitous Captain Scott,” A Place Called Oregon, https://guesswhoto.com)

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