It occurred to some entrepreneurs that the river road to an inland port might extend far beyond Lewiston. What if a steamboat could navigate the Snake River all the way to its confluence with the Boise? That would save the drudgery of hauling supplies across country and enable reliable fortunes to be made.
In 1865 the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSN) decided to risk their workhorse steamboat the George Wright on an exploratory trip up the Snake.
The 110-foot Wright had been built in 1858 and was a veteran of Columbia and Snake passages. She was the first steamship to make it all the way to Lewiston from Portland in 1861. Now, seven years after its launch the ship was the old lady of the river, ready to be mothballed. The OSN directors decided it was worth the risk to send her upriver under the command of Captain Thomas Stump.
Stump and his crew fought for eight days, battering the old steamer against rocks, making desperate repairs, and nearly sinking her more than once to get 21 miles above the confluence with the Salmon. Climbing a mountain to see that a ribbon of rapids was ahead up the Snake, a dejected Captain Stump limped back to Lewiston.
The OSN was undeterred. They sent Captain Stump south to explore the river from that direction. He found a good stretch of navigable river that he thought would save 95 miles in cross-country travel, even if it might not be possible to get all the way to Lewiston. The vision was a water route that could navigate between Salmon Falls, above Hagerman, and Farewell Bend.
The Oregon company contracted with a Boise sawmill operator, Albert H. Robie (for whom Robie Creek is named), to supply lumber to build a steamboat at the mouth of the Boise River. The boiler and other machinery for the boat was redirected to Idaho from a planned Columbia River steamboat.
The Shoshone launched on April 20, 1866. On board for her maiden voyage from Boise Ferry, near present-day Parma, Captain Josiah Myrick, engineer George B. Underwood, and Idaho Statesman Editor James S. Reynolds.
Reynolds stayed with the boat for several weeks, writing frequent dispatches about its progress. Those who took the reins in his absence were amused by this editorial lark, writing “The editor of this institution and several other bon tons have gone to see the Snake River steamboat. The steamboat puffs them down the river and the editor will puff the steamboat up. If the paper should prove more interesting than usual our readers will please excuse us, for there is no harm intended.”
The Shoshone, as described by Reynolds, drew “20 inches of water, and carried 175 tons.” It was also a work in progress. Carpenters and painters were busy on the upper deck finishing up the boat during its first outing.
The downstream voyage wasn’t a challenge for the new steamboat. The captain opted to continue using wood to fire the boilers even though there was coal available from an ultimately unsuccessful mine near Olds’ Ferry.
On May 21, the boat swung around at Farewell Bend to battle the river upstream. They were hoping to cruise east as far as Hagerman, where trade goods could be loaded and unloaded on a freight route to and from Salt Lake. The going was “duck soup” for a while. Then, about six miles up the Snake from where the Bruneau dumps in the Shoshone smacked its prow into a low waterfall. There was no going forward, so the Shoshone swung around and drifted back down to Owyhee Ferry.
The dreamed of water connection between Farwell Bend and Hagerman remained just that. For a while the boat hauled some mining supplies on the stretch it could navigate. When that proved less than profitable the OSN parked it. The steamer bobbed on the river doing nothing for three years. The owners of the boat decided to cut their losses by taking the Shoshone down through Hells Canyon where it could eventually serve on the Columbia. That worked. Sort of. The steamboat bashed rocks right and left. Battered, it spent a year in Huntington, Oregon before the company continued their attempt to take it downstream in 1870. Finally, it arrived in Lewiston, a cripple, on April 27. They patched her up and put the boat to work on the Columbia, where she met her end in 1874 near the Dalles, smashed to bits. Reportedly, the cabin of the Shoshone floated downstream until some enterprising farmer fished it out and turned it into a chicken coop.
The vision of steamboat navigation in Southwestern Idaho was an expensive one. The Oregon Steam Navigation company had laid out $80,000 to build the Shoshone. That would be well over $2 million in today’s dollars.