- Historic Sites
Man, Land, and History in the Deepest Gorge on Earth
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Hunt never returned to the canyon, but one of his party, a gargantuan Scotsman named Donald McKenzie, did. In April, 1819, several years after the ill-fated Astor project had collapsed, McKenzie made history by poling loaded canoes upstream all the way through the waters of what he called the Narrows of the Great South Branch. Pronouncing the stream “practicable, for loaded boats with one single carrying place or portage,” he wrote jubilantly to his friend Alexander Ross: “The doubtful question is now set at rest forever.” But nobody—including McKenzie—ever repeated the voyage. Fifteen years later the canyon was still so unfamiliar that apparently no one whom Captain B.L.E. Bonneville spoke to knew it was there—a circumstance that almost led the dapper, French-born army captain turned fur trader to disaster.
Traveling to Fort Walla Walla on business, Bonneville arrived at the canyon with three companions in mid-January, 1834. Here they made the same mistake that Wilson Price Hunt had made: they stayed with the river. Soon they were deep in the canyon. Awed by the scenery, but determined, the four men pressed forward until they reached the neighborhood of what is now the Hells Canyon Dam. Here the narrowing, deepening gorge became too tight to let them proceed. They attempted to climb out, struggling up the west wall for most of a day; but that way proved too rugged, and they were forced to descend back into the canyon. Four miles upriver they tried again, and this time they managed to keep going, up the wall, along a great broken terrace perched halfway between rim and river, and finally up and over the 7,000-foot west rim to descend into the smiling valley of the Imnaha River. From grim Snake to spring-green Imnaha the distance is just over twelve miles. It had taken them more than a week.
The discovery of gold in the central Idaho mountains in 1860 brought a sudden, drastic change to the canyon country, which had been slumbering since the death of the fur trade, shortly after Bonneville’s travels. Thousands of men poured into the drainage of the Clearwater River, where the first strikes had been made. These men needed supplies. Soon steamboats from distant Portland were bulling their way up the Columbia and the lower Snake to the bluff-enclosed mouth of the Clearwater, thirty miles downstream from Hells Canyon, where the town of Lewiston quickly took shape. Just as quickly, the Clear-water mines were overshadowed by new discoveries in the Boise Basin, upstream from the canyon. The big ditch therefore enjoyed a sudden boost in strategic importance. Lewiston could remain the supply center for this new mother lode only if water transport could be established to it. Could this be done? Could steamboats ascend safely through that incredible canyon to the mouth of the Boise?
A small party of Army Engineers was sent to find out. This team, consisting of what the Golden Age , Lewiston’s neophyte newspaper, called “three reliable men,” left for the Boise mines on September 20, 1862. By October 24 they were back in Lewiston, with a report somewhat longer on optimism than it was on facts. “They found nothing in the river to impede navigation, whatsoever, and pronounced it feasible at any season of the year unless it be by ice,” crowed the Golden Age . “The examination of the river shows the fact that Snake River is navigable for steamers and will be much safer to travel than the river is from Lewiston to the mouth of the Snake. …”
In the light of current knowledge about the canyon, it is easy to doubt that those “three reliable men” were ever on the river at all; and surely such doubts must have been uppermost in steamboat captain Thomas Stump’s mind as, in the summer of 1864, his valiant little Colonel Wright became the first vessel to test the accuracy of the engineers’ report. Clawing, winching, and grinding her way upstream through rapid after angry rapid, the Colonel Wright managed to reach the neighborhood of Pittsburg Landing, some fifty-five miles into the cany on. Here she smashed her bow and then her stern against a large rock, destroying her paddle wheel and sending her careening downstream out of control for several miles. Captain Stump directed emergency repairs, turned the boat around, and brought her back to Lewiston, covering the seventy-live miles downstream in a little over three and one hall hours. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which owned the Colonel Wright , decided prudently against any further attempts.
But Captain John Ainsworth, the flamboyant president of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, was reluctant to give up all claims to the wealth of the Boise Basin mines; and in 1865. the year after the Colonel Wright ’s failure, reordered a boat built at Fort Boise strictly for trade on the upper river. It was a fiasco. The Shoshone , as the new boat was christened, ran up such an embarrassing deficit in her three years of sporadic operation that Ainsworth seriously considered abandoning her completely. But then he had a better idea. If the Shoshone couldn’t run at a profit where she was, why, take her to where she could run at a profit. In the summer of 1869 he ordered Captain Cyrus Smith to bring the boat down through the canyon to Lewiston, or, failing that, as he put it bluntly, to “wreck her in the attempt.”