A Steamboat of Firsts is Launched in Oregon

October 24, 1858

In what is now central Oregon, entrepreneurs E.F. Coe and R.R. Thompson launched their newly built steamboat Colonel Wright at the mouth of the Deschutes River. The sternwheel-propelled vessel proved to be a reliable means of transporting freight and passengers in the Pacific Northwest. She also played a pioneering role in the successful navigation of the farthest reaches of the some of the region’s major inland waterways.

The introduction of the Colonel Wright marked a significant step in the increased settlement of the vast Oregon Territory, which encompassed the current states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho as well as sections of present-day Wyoming and Montana. The 110-foot (34-meter)-long vessel was named after Colonel (later General) George Wright, a U.S. Army officer who served in the region during the 1850s.

The Colonel Wright made her first trip the spring after being launched, traveling up the Snake River – the first steamboat to do so – and then the Palouse River. The Colonel Wright subsequently became the first steamboat to reach present-day Lewiston, Idaho, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.

The Colonel Wright was also the first steamboat to operate on the portion of the Columbia River above the city of The Dalles in north-central Oregon. Previously, the vessels making their way on that upper section of the river were for the most part either Native American canoes or shallow-draft, flat-bottomed sailboats known as bateaux. While several steamboats frequently traveled on the lower Columbia River by that time, none of these vessels had ended up in the waters north of The Dalles. The Colonel Wright, by reaching that stretch of the river, set the stage for the operation of other steamboats there. 

About seven years after being launched, Colonel Wright – worn down from numerous upriver trips – was dismantled. For more information on the steamboat Colonel Wright, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonel_Wright_(sternwheeler).

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