The first boat to carry the name Idaho was a sidewheeler built in 1860 to run on the Columbia River. The Idaho had the state’s name first since Idaho Territory wasn’t created for another three years. Some claim the state was named not only after the ship but for it. It is one of many plausible versions of Idaho’s naming history.
In 1882, railroad tracks along the Columbia put the Idaho out of business. The boat made a perilous crossing of the famous Columbia Bar on its way to a new life in Puget Sound. It ran a route between Port Townsend and Tacoma for a few years, then took on a Seattle to Everett route under new ownership. In 1894 the boat’s life on the water ended. She was sold by junk dealers to a doctor in Seattle who placed the remains of the steamer on top of a pier to serve as a hospital. The Idaho played that role until 1909.
The next Idaho, was built in Bath, Maine in 1866. She was an ocean-going boat boasting both a steam engine to drive a single propeller and masts for sails. The Idaho’s first trip was from Bath To San Francisco, where she went into service. At first, her route was between there and Portland. The Idaho then took on the San Francisco to Hawaii route for a few years. Ownership of the vessel changed several times, as did its routes. Eventually, it fell to sailing up and down the coast to Alaska.
The Idaho was the first steamer to sail into Glacier Bay in Alaska. After the captain ran the boat aground in an Inlet on Chichago Island, that geographical feature became Idaho Inlet.
While most of its cargo was legitimate, passengers and freight, the owners of the Idaho got in trouble a couple of times with customs officials over large quantities of opium found on board. In the 1880s, opium was perfectly legal, but someone was trying to beat the steep import fees. We’re not talking about a paper sack full of opium found in someone’s luggage. In one incident, 14 barrels of the drug weighing 3,012 pounds were seized.
The Idaho seemed to be back in legitimate service on November 29, 1889, bound to Portland from Port Townsend, Washington. The boat was carrying 370 barrels of salmon, 150 barrels of fish oil, 65 bales of hops, 200 tons of coal and, to make the whole thing more combustible, 800 barrels of lime. Navigating in the fog at three in the morning, the ship ran into rocks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, puncturing the hull. The seawater flooding in caused the lime to burst into flame. The crew began throwing barrels overboard, but the fire was raging. They drilled holes in the hull to drown out the flames, flooding the entire cargo deck.
Salvage operations took care of the remaining cargo. That lightened up the troubled ship, which bobbed free of the rocks. Efforts to tow it back to Port Townsend were partially successful. The Idaho sunk within sight of the port.
Then, there was the Steamship Idaho of the Guion Line, a boat that brought immigrants to America from the Old World for a few years in the 1870s. It was part of a fleet of ships Guion operated on a regular schedule, almost like a bus line. Some of its sister ships were named Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. Built in 1869, the Idaho had a carrying capacity of 3,150 tons. It made the trip back and forth uneventfully but finally came to an end in 1878. Here's how a local paper in Ireland described the wreck:
“During a dense fog yesterday evening the Idaho one of the Guion line of steamers struck on the Corrigmore Rocks off the Saltee Islands and immediately went down. Fortunately no lives have been lost.
The Idaho left New York on the 21st May having on board 151 passengers, 51 horses about 1,000 tons of beef and some cotton. She called at Queenstown on Saturday at noon and landed the mails and some passengers.
During the evening a fog sprang up and about ten minutes past seven she struck the rock and commenced to take in water. The captain immediately ordered out the boats and the first one to enter was a lady and her little child who had no gentleman with her. The first officer stood by and then the ladies fifteen in number were first put into the boats. The boat containing the ladies was the first to leave the ship and the last man was Capt Holmes. His boat was only about thirty yards from the vessel when she disappeared. She went down twenty-two minutes after she struck. The passengers speak very highly of Captain Holmes he was on the bridge with the first officer and pilot when she struck.”
This barely gets started on the story of ships named Idaho. There was a ferry in New York that ended in conflagration. Then, there were four USS Idaho’s and a submarine that carried the moniker. Read about them here.