Cowlitz (sternwheeler)

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Steamer Cowlitz.jpg
Name: Cowlitz
Owner: Columbia & Cowlitz Transportation Company; Smith Transportation Company; Shaver Transportation Company; Columbia River Navigation Company
Route: Columbia, Cowlitz, and lower Willamette rivers.
Builder: Portland Shipbuilding Company.
Completed: 1917
Identification: U.S. 214769
Fate: Sunk in Columbia River, near The Dalles, July 30, 1931
General characteristics
Class and type: riverine towboat
Tonnage: 99 gross; 72 registered.
Length: As built 102.9 ft (31.4 m) over hull (exclusive of fantail)
Beam: 26.6 ft 9 in (8.3 m) over hull (exclusive of guards
Depth: 4.8 ft 0 in (1.46 m)
Decks: two (main and passenger)
Installed power: twin steam engines, horizontally mounted, each with bore of 14 in (360 mm) and stroke of 6 ft (180 cm); 390 indicated horsepower
Propulsion: stern-wheel

Cowlitz was a shallow-draft sternwheeler built for service on the Cowlitz River in southwestern Washington State. The vessel also served on the Columbia River. Cowlitz was in service from 1917 until September 1931, when, not far from The Dalles, Oregon, it sank in the Columbia river in a storm.


Cowlitz was built at Portland, Oregon in 1917.[1] Cowlitz was constructed by the Portland Shipbuilding Company for Milton Smith (1874–1951)[2] doing business as the Columbia & Cowlitz River Transportation Company.[3][4]

During construction, there was a strike at the Portland Shipbuilding company[5] 24 men walked off the job when the company manager, Charles Nelson, refused to reinstate an employee who had been recently discharged.[5] There was talk that the men would also demand an increase of pay from $4 per day to $5 days per day.[5] Marine carpenters were then in demand because of a boom in wooden shipping construction.[5]

Work on the vessel was completed by March 8, 1917, and on that date the steamer was issued an inspection certificate.[3]

Dimensions and engineering[edit]

Cowlitz was 109.2 feet long exclusive of the fantail, which was the extension over the stern on which the stern-wheel was mounted.[1] The vessel's width, called beam, was 26.6 feet, exclusive of the protective timbers, called guards, extending out from the hull at the level of the main deck.[1] Cowlitz's depth of hold was 4.8 feet.[1] The overall size was 99 gross and 72 registered tons, which were units of volume, not weight.[1] The twin horizontally mounted single cylinder steam engines developed 350 indicated horsepower.[1] The official merchant vessel registry number was 214769.[1] The cargo capacity was 100 tons.[6]

Cowlitz was equipped with two horizontal non-condensing engines, each with a 14-inch bore and a 6-foot stroke, producing 390 estimated horsepower.[3]

Reduction in measured tonnage[edit]

By 1919, the sides of the lower deck had been removed; this was a means to bring the ship’s measured size below 100 tons.[7] This permitted a reduction in the required crew by one less officer (mate) position.[7]


Stern-wheel steamers Service (center), Cowlitz (center), and Nestor (right), tied up at a dock, probably at Rainier, Oregon, some time between 1917 and 1929.

In June 1917, the newly built Cowlitz took the place of another steamer owned by Milton Smith, the Nestor on the Cowlitz River run, while Nestor was taken to a shipyard in Oregon for a thorough overhaul.[8] On December 2, 1921, the steamer La Center, en route from Kelso with a load of cattle for the Portland stockyards, capsized in a storm.[9] Thirty-five of the 40 head of cattle on board were drowned.[9] Cowlitz however was able to rescue the crewman of La Center.[9]

In early December 1922, Earl Weir, then age 26, and pilot of the Cowlitz, was arrested by the Portland police, and charged with complicity in a murder of a 15-year-old girl by his father, with the killing said to have occurred on his father’s houseboat in the Willamette river.[10] The specific charge against Weir was that he had helped his father conceal the body.[10]

On September 12, 1928, Jack Alfred, a crewman on Cowlitz, was injured while making fast a line from a log raft.[11] Alfred brought an action against Smith Transportation Company, the owners of the Cowlitz, in the U.S. District Court, seeking $15,000 in damages.[11] On April 16, 1929, Judge George M. Bourquin gave a directed verdict for Smith Transportation Company, ruling that no negligence had been established by Alfred and the only negligence that had been shown was that of Alfred himself.[11]

Rescue work at the Allen Street bridge disaster[edit]

Cowlitz rescued survivors when the Cowlitz River bridge at Kelso, Washington collapsed on January 3, 1923 in what became known as the Allen Street Bridge disaster.[12] Cowlitz picked up nine survivors on the steamer’s first trip, including a small boy, but three or four others drifted by clinging to wreckage, but the steamer was unable to reach them.[12] According to one survivor, A.J. Bryant, who had been driving an automobile across the bridge at the time of the collapse:

I thought I was done for … Less than a minute more would have finished me. I was ready to quit. Then the steamer Cowlitz was beside me, and someone through me a rope, and I was shivering on deck. I noticed that I had hurt my arm.

Upstream there were men, women and children in the water. Some drifted by, riding on wreckage, or just managing to swim. The crew of the Cowlitz could not help them all. They could only take those that were nearest. Just beyond reach a man was struggling. They threw a life preserver to him and he tried to touch it. He tried and he couldn’t. I guess it was all the strength he had left, for he slipped under the water without a sound and was gone.[13]

Part of the Shaver fleet[edit]

Capt. Milton Smith (1874–1951), long-term owner of Cowlitz.

In February 1930, Milton Smith’s company, Smith Transportation, which had been incorporated in 1926, merged with the Shaver Transportation Company.[14] The president of the new organization would be Capt. Delmar Shaver and the vice-president would be Capt. Milton Smith.[14] The headquarters of the merged company would be in Portland, at the foot of Fessenden Street in St. Johns.[14]

Sale and transfer to Columbia Gorge service[edit]

Cowlitz depicted in The Oregonian, September 1930

In early September 1930, Cowlitz was purchased from the Shaver Transportation Company by the Columbia River Navigation Company.[6] The new owners placed Cowlitz on a route on the Columbia River, running under J.W. Exon, as captain, between Portland, Hood River, White Salmon, and The Dalles.[6] Exon had organized the Columbia River Navigation Company and was its president.[6] The first trip on the route was made on September 8, 1930, with the boat departing from Supple’s Dock in Portland, at the foot of Belmont Street, at 7:00 p.m.[6]

Captain Exon’s business plan was to charge rates lower than rail transport, and match truck rates.[6] Reportedly the demand for steamer services was so great by September 1930 that it would probably be necessary for the line to purchase another steamboat in the near future.[6] Freight was to be picked up, hauled to the dock by trucks, and delivered to the consignee when the boat reached a landing.[6]


On July 30, 1931, Cowlitz departed The Dalles at 11:40 am, with Captain Exon and 11 members of the crew.[15] While proceeding down river from The Dalles, Oregon, with a full load of 100 tons of wheat on board, Cowlitz encountered a 25-mile per hour headwind and large waves.[4][16] The wind from the west was described as the worst on the river in years.[15] Water flooded the engine room.[4][15]

Captain Exon tried to turn the boat towards shore, but then another wave hit, reportedly causing the cargo to shift.[15] The steamer then capsized so suddenly that only two men were able to grab life preservers.[15] About five miles west of The Dalles, the boat sank in about 50 feet of water.[15] Only a few of the men could swim.[15] The boat came to pieces, with the hull sinking almost immediately and the superstructure floating free.[4] All the members of the crew were able to survive, by hanging on to the floating wreckage, although some were in the water for more than an hour.[4]

Acting as chief engineer on Cowlitz at the time was George E. McClure, who had been an engineer on northwest steamers since 1878.[4] Some of the many vessels McClure had served on were Altona, Leona, Pomona, Lurline, Harvest Queen and T.J. Potter.[4] This was to have been McClure’s last trip as an engineer, and he was making the voyage as a favor to Captain Exton.[4]

Captain Exon was then 68 years old, and his grandson, George Kitzmiller, was serving as acting mate.[15] Kitzmiller, a cousin of the well-known University of Oregon football player Johnny Kitzmiller, had donned a live preserver when he first noticed the boat in trouble.[15] Captain Exon went into the river when the boat capsized, but his grandson was able to save him.[15] No one was drowned, largely because of the amount of wreckage, including spars, stove wood, oil drums and other loose articles, that the men could cling on to.[15] The Rowena ferry launched a boat to rescue the men, and a motorist on the highway, who witnessed the capsize, found a telephone and placed calls to Rowena and The Dalles for assistance.[15]

Both the boat and the cargo were fully covered by insurance.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Navigation Bureau (1919). Annual List of Merchant Vessels (for fiscal year ending June 30, 1918). 50. Washington, DC: GPO. p. 94. 
  2. ^ "Obituary … Milton Smith", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 91 (28,386), p. 19 col. 2, Nov 1, 1951 
  3. ^ a b c "Steamer Cowlitz Finished", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 57 (17,565), p. 16, Mar 9, 1917 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Newell, Gordon R., ed. (1966). H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, WA: Superior Pub. Co. pp. 290, 324, 404. LCCN 66025424. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Ship Labor Strikes", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 56 (17,428), p. 14, Sep 1916 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Steamer Cowlitz Starts on Columbia Route — Points as Far as The Dalles to be Served; Second Ship May Be Employed Soon", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 69 (21,789), p. 26 col. 3, Sep 9, 1930 
  7. ^ a b "Ship's Appearance Strange — Sides of Lower House of Steamer Tahoma Removed", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 58 (18,283), p. 22 col. 2, Jun 2, 1919 
  8. ^ "Towboat Nestor Being Overhauled", Sunday Oregonian, Portland, OR, 36 (22), p. Sec. 2 p. 5 col. 1, Jun 3, 1917 
  9. ^ a b c "Gale Sinks Two Vessels — Thirty-five Head of Cattle Are Drowned Near Columbia City", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 60 (19,044), p. 1 col. 2, Dec 3, 1921 
  10. ^ a b "Weirs to Face Murder Charge", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 56 (19,374), p. 4 col. 1, Dec 23, 1922 
  11. ^ a b c "Smith Transportation Company Gets a Directed Verdict", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 68 (21,352), p. 22 col. 2, Apr 17, 1929 
  12. ^ a b "Victims Battle River Torrent", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 56 (19,384), p. 3, Jan 4, 1923 
  13. ^ "Kelso Is Numbed by Disaster Toll — Whole City Grimly Watches Work of Searchers", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 56 (19,385), p. 8 col. 1, Jan 5, 1923 
  14. ^ a b c "2 Tow Boat Firms Merge Interests — Shaver and Smith Companies Consolidated", The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, OR: ., 49 (8), p. 16 col. 1, Feb 23, 1930 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "River Boat Sinks, 12 Aboard Saved — Steamer Cowlitz Lost Near The Dalles", Morning Oregonian, Portland, OR, 70 (22,058), p. 1 col. 4, Jul 21, 1931 
  16. ^ Marshall, Don (1984). Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland, OR: Binford and Mort Publishing. p. 205. ISBN 0-8323-0430-1. LCCN 84071477. 


Printed books[edit]

On-line newspaper collections[edit]