The End of an Era

Steam-Powered Sternwheelers Departed the Dalles 73 Years Ago

By Rodger Nichols

Sternwheelers Georgie Burton and Anne Comings at the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Old Oregon Photos

The age of steam-powered ships on the Willamette and Columbia rivers began with the launch of the Lot Whitcomb in Milwaukie in 1850 and ended 98 years later in The Dalles. The demise of the sternwheeler Georgie Burton brought the age to a close.

Georgie Burton’s ancestry dates to 1886 when Oregon Pacific Railroad commissioned the construction of the N. S. Bentley, named for an officer in the company, Norman Seymour Bentley. Passengers would board the Bentley in Portland and travel upstream on the Willamette to Albany or Corvallis, then transfer to the company’s train to Yaquina Bay, where they would board an ocean-going ship to San Francisco.

In 1896, that ship was rebuilt and named the Albany. Twenty years later, the wheelhouse and machinery from the Albany were salvaged and used to build Georgie Burton. The ship was 175 feet, 8 inches long with a beam of 35 feet, 7 inches, and a displacement of 382 tons.

The vessel was named for Georgiana Pittock, née Burton. Also known as Mrs. H.L. Pittock, she was the wife of Oregonian publisher Henry Pittock. Henry was a director of Western Transportation, which commissioned the ship.

The ship might have seemed ill-omened, as it was launched on April 18, 1906—the same day as a San Francisco earthquake—but any trouble did not come until the ship’s retirement.

In a 1969 article in The Oregonian’s Northwest Magazine, reporter Fred Timmons wrote, “The Georgie Burton never gave anyone any trouble. She performed her workday jobs uncomplainingly, suffering no breakdowns or other temperamental ailments such as often plagued her sisters.

Georgiana Burton Pittock, for whom the Georgie Burton sternwheeler was named. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

“She towed 400 million feet of rafted logs and helped the Port of Portland’s steamer Portland and the berthing and moving of many ships in the harbor. She pushed hog fuel barges, towed hundreds of paper barges between Camas and Oregon City mills and the harbor’s docks, and during World War II handled fuel lighters for vessels outward bound over an ocean she would never ride.”

Despite a refit in 1923 that added 129 tons to Georgie Burton’s displacement and updated the power plant with more powerful dual engines, by the late 1940s, steam-powered vessels burning wood or coal were supplanted by diesel-powered ships that were easier to maintain and refuel.

It was then that Judge Fred W. Wilson of The Dalles, a former riverman, approached Capt. Stewart V. Winslow
with a long-held plan by The Dalles Yacht Club to establish a marine museum in The Dalles that would be anchored, so to speak, by a dry-docked ship.

Stewart suggested Georgie Burton. Western Transportation agreed to donate the ship, on the condition it would be given to the city of The Dalles and not a private corporation. The ship was valued at $25,000, equivalent today to more than $300,000, a nice tax write-off for a ship expected to be replaced anyway.

The company offered to haul the ship out of the water to a spot near the uncompleted Lewis & Clark monument, the site of today’s skatepark. It would charge an estimated $2,500 for that service but was willing to delay payment until funds could be raised. Plans were made to install a pool into which the sternwheel would fit and be able to churn the water, as she had done for more than 40 years on the river.

Once established, the marine museum would display a collection of materials assembled by Capt. Arthur Biggs, pilot of the first and only oceangoing vessel to dock at The Dalles, the Charles F. Wheeler.

Georgie Burton’s final voyage was March 20, 1947. In his book “Marine History of the Pacific Northwest,” author H.W. McCurdy described it this way:

“[She] pulled away from her Portland dock ... her whistle being the traditional three-blast farewell to sentimental Portlanders who waited on the riverbank to see her pass. At Vancouver, Washington, she tied up to take on a special crew of old-time river men. Capt. George M. Shaver, who had run the upper river to Big Eddy in the early days when the Shaver boats were on The Dalles run, was senior pilot. Veteran river masters took their turns at the wheel ... all great names on the river in the days of tall smokestacks and thundering paddle buckets. ... All along the river, groups of school children, and grownups too, came out to watch the Georgie Burton pass.”

The Georgie Burton after sinking in the 1948 flood also wiped out the city of Vanport. Photo courtesy of The Dalles Chronicle

Passengers on the final run were assigned temporary crew titles. The Dalles Mayor Howard Dent Jr. was designated paymaster. Edward C. Pease, who partnered in the Pease & Mays department store in The Dalles, was listed as a navigator. V. Barney Kenworthy, founder of KODL radio, was assigned radio operator duties.

The ship intended to arrive in The Dalles in the daylight, but early fog and other delays meant the arrival came in the early evening. As Georgie Burton rounded Crate’s Point, she was accompanied by a flotilla of other crafts. The Inland Chief was pumping a huge stream of water in the air, searchlights swept the sky, and a crowd of 3,000 waited at the dock.

That evening, there was a reception and banquet at Hotel Dalles, during which the ship’s ensign was passed to Mayor Dent. Following the celebration, the Georgie Burton was temporarily berthed near the lower end of the Celilo Canal.

But a happy ending was not to be. On May 29, 1948, the massive flood of the Columbia River that wiped out the community of Vanport also wrenched the ship from its moorings. She broke her keel, coming to rest against the north wall of The Dalles-Celilo Canal near Big Eddy.

The dream ended, with Georgie Burton victim of the river she had plied for so many years.