Steamboats once chugged up the mighty White River | Whale’s Tales

I often indulge in a harmless bit of reverie – trying to imagine the long bygone days of the White River Valley.

Before the old forests were cut to make way for cities, that is, and the forest floor was hidden under asphalt and houses and big buildings.

Of course that’s impossible. The White River itself, once the main artery for getting people and goods hither and yon, hasn’t flowed through Auburn since it was forever diverted after a major flood in 1906, and its channel, with a few exceptions, is lost to time.

Also, there are a lot of people here who weren’t here then.

But I am not deterred.

Not so long ago I was surprised to learn that steamboats once chugged up and down the White River. Steamboats! Immediately a fragment of pidgin English I had read once in a book on English popped into my head:

“Thlee piecy bamboo, two-piecey puff puff, walk along inside no can see.”

And images of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn chugging up the Nile River in Africa on a steamboat called The African Queen.

Interesting imagery. But I get ahead of myself.

Development — or degradation depending on your viewpoint — comes in stages, of course, and the steamship was not the first kid on the block, according to an article in the old Auburn Globe News. For ages prior, the canoe was the thing.

And when settlers came to this valley, enterprising Native Americans who had one of these beauties charged $1 to take stuff and people up to the big city of Seattle and back again for resale.

Its successor, the wagon scow, was a radical shift from the peaceful canoe. Sort of like a giant shingle on the river freighted with full wagons, it was a barge attached to horses that walked along both river banks to get things back and forth. Reckoned a wonder of its day, it must have been a sight to behold.

Then came the steamboats.

An early pioneer, Patrick Hayes, operated a steamboat on the White River, and had the following to say about their history:

“The first of all steamboats to travel on the White River was the ‘Traveller,’ with JG Parker at the helm. Built in Philadelphia, it was hauled up from San Francisco on the brigantine JB Brown and reassembled at Port Gamble. Its first trip up the White River, in 1856, was for the dual purpose of carrying supplies to Fort Dent on the Black River and Fort Thomas south of Kent and to explore other rivers in the Puget Sound area. These included the Snohomish, Nooksack and Black Rivers. His purpose was to determine the commercial possibilities of river transportation. In the years that followed, from 1856 to 1887 15 boats plied the White River.”

Credit for operating the first scheduled steamboat service on the White River, however, goes to Captain Simon P. Randolph, in a ship he built with his own hands, called the “Comet.” He operated other boats on the White River, too, the final one being the Edith R, which carried loads of iron up the river in 1883 and 1884.

Ironically enough, the iron loads the Edith R brought up the river spelled the end of the steamboat era — because that iron was destined for construction of the first railroad in these parts.

Robert Whale can be reached at