The steamship Olympian operated from 1884 to about 1890 on the Columbia River, Puget Sound, and the Inside Passage of British Columbia and Alaska. Olympian and her near-sistership Alaskan were known as “Henry Villard’s White Elephants.”Olympian the large iron sidewheeler should not be confused with Olympian (ex Telegraph) a wooden sternwheeler, which also served on Puget Sound and was one of the last commercial freight steamboats operating on the Columbia River.
Olympian was built in 1883, at Wilmington, Delaware by Harlan and Hollingsworth. She was a sidewheeler driven by a single cylinder vertical condensing walking-beam steam engine, which gave her high speed. Her iron hull was 262 feet (80 m) long, 73' in beam over the paddle guards, and rated at 1419 tons. She was built primarily for service on Puget Sound, as her draft of 8' feet meant she needed too much water to be of much use on most of the Columbia other than the lower river from Portland to Astoria. Mills described her as follows:
Everything about her was the latest. Her grand saloon, reaching the length of the main cabin, was 200 feet (61 m) long, with mahogany furniture, upholstered in plush, resting on Wilton velvet carpet. Off the saloon opened fifty staterooms, each fitted with all the latest in polished mirrors and washstands; some cabins had brass bedsteads instead of the conventional berths. Incandescent electric lights shown in every part of the boat. From her dining saloon, seating 130 passengers, her fancy chandeliers and her ebony trimmed grand staircase to her wide guards and arching paddleboxes she looked elegant and expensive, and she was.
In 1884, Olympian was brought to the Pacific Northwest through the Straits of Magellan, all the way around South America; the Panama Canal would not be built for another 30 years.Olympian was built according to designs which had been popular and successful on Chesapeake Bay. When she arrived in the Pacific Northwest, these designs proved unsuited for the conditions, and the ship became a steady money-loser.
On arrival in 1884, Olympian was placed in service by the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company (then controlled by Henry Villard) on the Seattle-Victoria run that had previously been served by North Pacific. Olympian served on this route until 1886 when she was transferred to the Columbia River. There is a story that on one of the runs from Victoria to Port Townsend, five Chinese men seeking to enter the United States (apparently at a time when entry of Chinese nationals was barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act) hid within the paddle guards. Fortunately they survived (only to be deported back to Canada) although they were nearly drowned by the amount of water picked up by the paddle buckets.
Olympian ran for a while on the Columbia River mostly on the Columbia to Astoria run. Mostly she was unsuccessful, being too expensive and not much faster than her rivals, typically the crack sidewheeler T.J. Potter or Captain U.B. Scott’s express sternwheeler Telephone In January 1886, a severe snowstorm stranded passenger trains in the Columbia Gorge and also froze the Columbia River. Relief trains could not reach the stranded passengers and wooden-hulled steamboats could not navigate the ice-choked river. Olympian however had an iron hull, and was used to smash through the ice and rescue the passengers. However, because she was too expensive to run, as soon as the ice cleared, the wooden steamboats took over from her.
Unable to make money on either the Seattle-Victoria run or on the Columbia River, in 1887 the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company chartered Olympian out to be run on the Inside Passage through coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Olympian did not do well on this route either, being too lightly built for its conditions, considerably more challenging than Chesapeake Bay for which she was designed and best fitted.
In 1887, the same year that she’d been sent to Alaska, Olympian was brought back to the Seattle-Victoria route, where she stayed on the run until about 1890. Late in her career, Olympian engaged in a rather absurd race against the much smaller Fleetwood, described by Carey:
[T]he little steamer Fleetwood had raced the big Olympian all the way from Seattle to Tacoma. Both vessels left Seattle at the same time, and the Olympian was only 50 yards (46 m) ahead when they arrived in Tacoma. Seeing the race, a reporter for a Tacoma newspaper observed that it resembled a test of speed between a whale and a herring.
In about 1890, unable to find a west coast route on which she could make any money, Olympian was laid up in Portland where she remained for many years. Finally, sixteen years later, an effort was made to return her to the East Coast whence she’d came, in an effort to finally get her to turn a profit. Olympian never made it back, for on March 13, 1906, she was wrecked at Possession Bay in South America after passing through the Straits of Magellan under tow by the steamship Zealandia.
Faber, Jim, Steamer's Wake – Voyaging down the old marine highways of Puget Sound, British Columbia and the Columbia River, Enetai Press, Seattle, WA 1985 ISBN 0-9615811-0-7 (includes at pages 100-101, a large profile builder’s drawing of Olympian )
Olympian at a wharf in Puget Sound. This photo shows a juxtaposition of the inland steamer Olympia with the masts of several ocean-going ships at the same dock. In the foreground is a collection of floating logs, and on the left is a barge-mounted steam-driven pile driver, an essential tool in the construction of docks and wharves. A small vessel, possibly a tug or a logboat, can be seen just to the right of the pile-driver barge. It is possible that the building on the dock is a sawmill and the ships are loading lumber, cut from the logs floating in the sound.
Image from Washington State University on-line collection
Olympia, same photo as previous, but showing more background detail This photo shows Olympia moored oddly so that she could only be boarded from the stern, unlike all other known in-service photographs which show her moored parallel to the dock. There is no activity on the dock, and the photo shows that the photographer was D.G. Davidson, of Portland, Oregon. This is consistent with being a photograph of Olympian taken during the years 1890 to 1906 when she was laid up in Portland.