John McNulty (steamboat captain)

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John McNulty (fl. c. 1860) was a pioneer Columbia River steamboat captain.


John McNulty was born in Dublin, Ireland on March 21, 1830. He went to sea as a boy. After years of sailing the seas of the World, John McNulty landed in Portland, Oregon in 1852. Almost immediately upon his arrival, he began steamboating the Pacific Northwest’s rivers on the Fashion. From its founding in 1860, John McNulty was a steamboat captain for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. For some 3 decades, Capt. McNulty was entrusted with the companies’ steamboat runs on the treacherous middle river of the Columbia. There, then, the Columbia River’s two most significant and dangerous rapids, the Cascades and The Dalles, followed one upon the other. Capt. McNulty was the first master of the R.R. Thompson on the middle river, and the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, near, continuously, entrusted its Idaho to Capt. McNulty's able command during its term on the middle river. It has been said that the U.S. state of Idaho, itself, was named for this formidable draft.[1] In addition to the preceding biographical data for Captain McNulty there on same page noted, it is also said of Capt. McNulty in the Marine History of the Pacific Northwest that “His career has been exceedingly fortunate and free of accidents.”[2]

Decline of River Transport[edit]

It was never thought safe to transport passengers, their property, ores or other freight over the Columbia River rapids. Portage of such cargo around the rapids was required, while the steamboat’s captain and a skeleton crew slowly navigated the steamboat through the dangerous Casacades and Dalles. Towards the end of the 19th century, as the railroads began to span along the length of the Pacific Northwest’s rivers and about their rapids, the heyday of the more risky and otherwise expensive steamboat river transport came to a close.[3]

Record Run of the R.R. Thompson through the Cascade Rapids[edit]

After the advancement of the railroads, the first steamboat to be taken off the River to operate in the still financially lucrative shipping on the lower Columbia River, Willamette River and Puget Sound was the R.R. Thompson. Capt. McNulty was ordered to take her through the Cascades to the lower Columbia River on June 3, 1882. Capt. McNulty took his trusted first officer, William Johnson, engineer, William Doran, and assistant George Fuller as crew.

John McNulty, then, in transiting the Thompson to the lower river, showcased his astonishing talents as a seaman, really, riverboatman. No longer encumbered by his duties to passengers and freight shippers and theirs or their property's continued safe transport, John McNulty entered the treacherous Cascade rapids with the 215 foot long and 1158 gross ton R.R. Thompson, which was also not a shallow craft, but, rather, had a significant hold depth of 9.5 ft exposed to the rapids submersively concealed rock hazards and embankments, at full engine stroke. With its 38 ft beam and great girth, the Thompson was built for passenger comfort and to house a maximum of cargo. It was not built to be a fast driven boat even in calm waters.[4]

Capt. McNulty, though, ran the behemoth and clumsy R.R. Thompson through the hazards of the 6 mile long Cascades without incident in just 6 minutes and 40 seconds or at the then astounding water speed of about a mile a minute (60 mph).[4][5] This was an astonishing nautical feat. John McNulty’s record set that day for minimal steamboat transit time through the Cascades rapids was never later equaled, let, alone, bested, by any steamboat captain, even, by captains in command of smaller, swifter and more nimble steamboats. Captain James W. Troup was unsuccessful in his attempt to best Captain McNulty's record while Troup was in command of the far more nimble Hassalo.


John McNulty's grave in St. Helens, Oregon has a historical marker. The U.S. community of McNulty, Oregon is named for this pioneer Pacific Northwest riverboat captain.


  1. ^ C. Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest, c 1996 University of Nebraska, Lincoln, p 186 ISBN 0-8032-9228-7
  2. ^ Lewis and Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, E.W. Wright, ed., © 1895 Lewis and Dryden Printing Co., p. 93 (including importantly footnotes thereof), available on demand historically replicated in reprint as ISBN 9785884013193
  3. ^ R. Mills, Sternwheelers up Columbia, c 1979 University of Nebraska, Lincoln ISBN 0-8032-5874-7
  4. ^ a b Newell, Gordon R., H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, at 12, 103, Superior Publishing, Seattle WA 1966 ISBN 0-87564-220-9
  5. ^ a b Timmen, Fritz, Blow for the Landing - A Hundred Years of Steam Navigation on the Waters of the West, at 131-32, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, ID 1973 ISBN 0-87004-221-1

External links[edit]

  • [1][permanent dead link] Here, for view, is an 1890 travel brochure of the Union Pacific Railroad, which paints a romantic and most favorable portrait of the, then, already legendary riverboatman Capt. McNulty.