Hells Canyon


Cy Smith got into the upper end of the gorge as far as Copper Creek Falls—a roaring, churning, thundering white-water chute where the river dropped eighteen feet down in barely three hundred forward. Here he balked. Ainsworth replaced him with a new man, Sebastian K. Miller. Bas Miller took the Shoshone over the falls, lost eight feet of her bow in the process, tied up for two days for repairs, and reached Lewiston five days later. The company’s agent there treated him as an apparition returned from the grave; recognizable pieces of the Shoshone had been fished out of the Columbia River at Umatilla four days before, and the boat and her crew had been given up for lost.

The saga of the Shoshone sounds like the type of exploit that should go into the record books as a one-of-a-kind; oddly enough, however, the whole thing was almost exactly paralleled twenty-five years later by a boat called the Norma . Like the Shoshone , to which she was virtually identical in both size and appearance, the Norma was built on the upper river for trade there; also like the Shoshone , she was a dismal failure, and her owners, a successor corporation to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company called the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, decided to bring her down through Hells Canyon. With a well-known daredevil pilot named William Polk Gray at the controls, the Norma eased out of her berth at Huntington, Oregon, above the canyon, on the afternoon of May 17, 1895. A pair of accidents in the upper river delayed them somewhat, and it was noon on the twenty-second before they reached Copper Creek Falls. Here is Gray’s own highly entertaining account of the trip over those falls, set down many years lateral the request of the U. S. Geological Survey:

When I returned to the boat I called the carpenter, who had been foreman on construction for many-years with the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and had asked to go with me for the excitement, and putting my foot on the starboard guard about ten feet abaft the stem said: “She will strike about there. I want you to run in a bulkhead six feet back ofthat to the midship keelson, then have the mate back it up with cordwood in case water should rush in hard enough to tear away your bulkhead.” He examined the falls and replied: “You ain’t intending to go over that place, are you ; you will drown us all.” I looked at him a moment and then asked: “Tom, you never had much notoriety, did you?” “No, why?” “They have all our names that are on this boat, and if you should be drowned your name would be in every paper in the United States and Europe.” His reply: “Oh! Go to Hell” sounded like the decree of fate. I replied: “Put in the bulkhead, Tom. We’ll chance the other place.” An hour later the sounds of hammer ceased and I heard mumbling. Walking softly to the bulkhead hatch I heard: “Damned old fool; going to be drowned for excitement because a damned fool wants notoriety.” But the bulkhead went in good. When we dropped over the fall we seemed to be facing certain destruction on the cliff below, but I knew my engineer was “all there” and would answer promptly. Backing slowly and within ten feet of rock to starboard her bow passed the mouth of Copper Creek, where an eddy, emptying, gave her a slight swing out and I backed strong with helm hard to starboard—the bow must take its chances now; the stern must not. Almost before one could speak the bow touched the point of the cliffjust hard enough to break three guard timbers without touching the hull, and we bounded into the still water below. The carpenter, who had stationed himself on the hurricane deck outside of the pilot house with two life preservers around him, stepped out in front of the pilot house and shouted: “Hurrah, Cap! You start her for Hell and I’ll go with you from this on.”

They spent the rest of the day negotiating the deepest, narrowest section of the canyon, where the crew, impressed by the perpetual twilight at the base of those 7,000-foot walls, reported seeing stars at midday. Tying up for the night at Johnson Creek, they ran the ninety miles on into Lewiston the next day—the second, and last, steamboat ever to make it all the way through the deepest gorge on earth.

The voyages of the Shoshone and the Norma , similar as they were, (differed in one important aspect. In 1869, Bas Miller and the Shoshone had plunged bravely into a nearly unknown wilderness canyon, inhabited by bands of Nez Perce and Shoshoni Indians, virtually unchanged for millennia. But the twenty-five intervening years had altered things drastically by the time Gray and the Norma came along. The Indians were gone.