Thursday, March 22, 2018

Benton County Water Levels

As mentioned in the last post, steamboats plied the Willamette to Corvallis from 1851 to 1918.  Water levels so low that the boats scraped bottom were a common problems, especially in the summer months. Winter's high water also created problems because there were no flood-control dams on the river prior to the 1940s. In years with especially heavy rains or rapidly melting snow cover, the volume of water increased and the river would overflow its banks as it did in 1916 and 1923.

In recent years, the peak flow of the Willamette River at Corvallis has been between 56,400 cubic feet per second  (cfs) in 2010 and 77,100 cfs in 2016.  Anything more than 83,000 cfs is considered a flood and anything over 142,000 cfs would result in a “major flood.”  In 1916, the peak flow in February was 165,000 cfs. The river flooded a section of the Oregon Electric Line near Corvallis.  This photo shows the extent of flooding looking east from the Van Buren bridge.

The water was even higher during the 1923 flood as the peak flows was 206,000 cfs.
1923 flood

The flood waters carried many downed trees into the river.  These snags could catch in the paddle wheel or puncture a hole in the bottom. Also, as the Army Corps of Engineers noted, “The water was so thick with mud as to render it impossible to discern the positions of snags below the surface.” Floods also changed the location of sandbars and relocated the main channel, causing difficulties for even the most experienced pilots. Beginning in 1870, the Army Corps of Engineers began removing these snags. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Monday, March 12, 2018

Steamboats on the Willamette

The current exhibition, Circa 1920, contains several examples of new technologies that changed the nature of war and of everyday life. But along with new technologies comes the abandonment of older ways.

Beginning in 1851, steamboats traveled up and down the Willamette River, transporting people and goods. The first steamboat to reach Corvallis was the Canemah, which carried grain downstream from Corvallis at 20 cents per bushel and served as a traveling post office carrying mail up-river. In the following years, other boats joined the Canemah so that by the 1870s as many as four boats might be docked in Corvallis in the months with adequate river levels.

Steamboat operators faced two problems: the river in some places was too shallow during the summer for most boats to pass and the falls at Oregon City prevented boats from traveling all the way to Portland.  The first problem led, in 1871, to the construction of boats with a shallower draft.  Boats with the paddle wheel at the rear where it was more protected from damage by snags in the river replaced sidewheelers. The second problem was solved by the construction of locks and a canal to by-pass the falls. The canal opened at the beginning of 1873.

The steamboat era for Corvallis ended on May 6, 1918 with the last run of the steamboat Grahamona. Both the Grahamona and her sister ship, Pomona, were designed for use during low water seasons (the Pomona drew only 15 inches).
Grahamona at Corvallis, Oregon

Sternwheeler Grahamona

 They were some of the largest river steamboats on the upper river:  the Grahamona was 150 feet long and could carry up to 300 tons of cargo at a speed of 15 miles per hour. It was licensed to carry 308 passengers.  Beginning in January of 1913, the two ships combined to offer daily service between Corvallis and Portland.   Soon that was cut back to three-times per week runs by the Grahamona alone and eventually to Saturday only.  The Grahamona was averaging only 35 tons of cargo a trip, far below its capacity.  Competition from newer technologies --railroads and trucks-- rendered the Grahamona and other steamboats unprofitable.  
 By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon