NW Steam Society on Columbia River

Do you work in a “high-pressure” job? Feel the need to “let off some steam” occasionally? Well, you might be ready to take a ride in a steamboat and find out where these expressions originated. Over a summer weekend, seventeen boats gathered in Cathlamet, Washington for the Northwest Steam Society’s annual on-the-water meet. The club last met on the Columbia River in 2006 at St Helens, so this was a rare chance to see so many steamboats and steam enthusiasts in our area.

As any boater who has visited this historic port 60 miles downriver from Portland knows, Cathlamet was a very appropriate venue for this event, since it still carries the feel of bygone times with its traditional waterfront and town center. And the sights and sounds of commercial fishing and logging, which were both steam-powered in the early days, can still be seen and heard along the shore.

Norm Davis of Astoria, was the organizer of this meet, and he encouraged the visiting boat owners from as far away as Kelowna, B.C. and Tucson, Arizona to make the most of Cathlamet’s backwaters, which are perfect for steamboat gunkholing–at high water. The Elochoman Slough is a beautiful three-mile long sidewater that runs through the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge, and the Elochoman River is a 15-mile long waterway that flows into the Slough, making an extended steaming adventure just waiting to be explored.

I quickly learned that speed is not an issue for these open boats that range in age from the late 1800’s to the 2000’s and are typically from about 18’ to 24’ long. They are all displacement hulls, so run at a sedate 5-6 knots, whether singly or in a group. One notable advantage of steam is the amazing torque at any rpm—you simply cannot “stall” a steam engine! A steam piston is always on a “power” stroke whether going up or down, as opposed to a gas engine that only fires every fourth stroke.

A few are fueled by propane or diesel, but the majority are wood burning, which provides a visual check on how much fuel is needed to keep pressure up. Depending on the size of the firebox, this is likely to be a chunk of wood every 5-10 minutes. This observation soon led me to ask if you could fuel a steamboat by picking up drift wood off the shore. It is possible, I was told, but you would need a chainsaw that would spoil the almost-silent running of a steamer, and it’s preferable to burn dry wood.

Indeed, that was just the first of many questions that came to mind, because steam boating is so low-tech compared to an internal combustion engine. The difference in operation begins before the boats are even launched–it’s normal to light the fire and literally “warm” the engine up in the parking lot! Although some of the engines use a common design, each owner has finished his with a unique set of controls, pumps and gauges to suit the type of firebox and boiler he has obtained.

So there is no owner’s manual for these engines—each one is unique. You could see this easily because the engines are never covered by a box, they run in the open air at 200-300 rpm—with no more than a plexiglass splashguard around the sides to make sure that everything is in good order and all the moving parts are well oiled. So whether he is “picking up steam” or “running out of steam,” the operator must always be aware of the status of his engine: the amount of fuel in the firebox, the steam pressure, water circulation etc.

Most important of all is the functioning of the safety valve should some fault cause the pressure to build beyond the safe working load. (Every boiler used in a club meet must be inspected and approved by the safety committee.) So running a steam boat requires pretty much constant attention to the care and feeding of the engine, which may sound rather laborious.

But in fact, the owners appear quite relaxed and are able to hail other boats, chat with their passengers, and of course blow the steam whistle as they chug along. After a while, I realized they are actually similar to sailors who pay equal attention to their sails, the wind and the trim of the boat.

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