Wilson G. Hunt (sidewheeler)

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Wilson G. Hunt
Wilson G. Hunt
Name: Wilson G. Hunt
Owner: many, including Oregon Steam Navigation Company
Route: Puget Sound and Sacramento, Fraser, and Columbia Rivers; Long Island Sound
In service: 1849
Out of service: 1884
Fate: dismantled 1890
General characteristics
Type: inland passenger/freighter
Tonnage: 461 tons gross[1]
Length: 185.5 ft (57 m)[2]
Beam: 25.8 ft (8 m)[2]
Depth: 6.75 ft (2 m) depth of hold[2][3]
Installed power: steam engine, low-pressure boiler, single-cylinder, 36" bore by 108" stroke, steeple type[2], 250 horsepower nominal[1]
Propulsion: sidewheels
Speed: 15 knots[1]

Wilson G. Hunt was a steamboat that ran in the early days of steam navigation on Puget Sound and Sacramento, Fraser, and Columbia Rivers. She was generally known as the Hunt during her years of operation. She had a long career on the west coast of the United States and Canada, and played an important transportation role in the California Gold Rush.

Namesake - Wilson G. Hunt

The ship was named after a wealthy New York businessman who was a prominent merchant and philanthropist founding the firm of Wilson G. Hunt & Co. in 1833. Among other endeavors, Hunt was connected with Peter Cooper and involved himself in many of Cooper's institutions including Cooper Union and Cooper-Hewitt. Hunt was born in 1804 as simply Wilson Hunt but attached the middle initial 'G' to distinguish himself. He died in 1892 at age 88.[4][5]

Design and Construction

The steamer Wilson G. Hunt was built in New York in 1849 for the excursion trade to Coney Island. She had an old style "steeple engine" with an enormous single cylinder of 36" bore by 108" inch stroke. The Hunt had a low-pressure boiler,[6], which at the time was advertised as being safer then high-pressure boats. The most unusual feature of the Wilson G. Hunt was the unusual steeple housing for her engine, which looked like an enormous slice of cheese:

Between the wheels and rising high above the cabin was a tall steeple-like frame in which the piston rod rose and fell in guides and moved a pair of connecting rods or pittmans that turned the wheel. Such engines had been common on the Hudson but were becoming rare when the Hunt was built. Normally left exposed, on Hunt the engine was housed, so that the boat appeared to be carrying a tall wooden wedge amidships, thereby not improving the appearance of an otherwise graceful steamer.[7]

The Hunt's steeple engine was the only recorded use of this type on the West Coast.[6] With this type of engine, as well as the more common walking beam type, there were special mechanical dangers. If the engine, powered by a single piston, should ever hang at dead center, the only way to move the piston to discharge the steam was to lever the paddle wheel forward with a long bar. This was extremely dangerous, as should the piston start pumping again, the bar could be flung out of the control of the men pushing it, killing them or breaking bones.[6]

California Gold Rush steamer

For a while the Hunt ran on the New York to Haverstam route.[8] Shortly after her completion word of the California Gold Rush reached New York and the Huntwas sent round the Horn to San Francisco. The vessel nearly sank on the way.

She joined the rush of ships and men to the Pacific Coast in the great gold rush, and December of 1849 saw the Coney Island excursion steamer wallowing off Cape Horn, her big paddle wheels alternately flooded with icy, deep-sea rollers or racing through unsubstantial foam.[9]

Hunt finally arrived in San Francisco early in ?1850[2][10] The journey took 322 days.[11] On arrival in San Francisco Hunt was immediately placed in the Sacramento River trade, and proceeded to make a fortune for her owners, the California Steam Navigation Company, clearing in a single year over ?$1,000,000.[2][10] Her first owners were Richard Chenery and R.M. Jessup. Competition was fierce on the California rivers, and while "racing" as such was forbidden, steamboat captains were expected to "do their best" which in practice amounted to the same thing.[12] A boiler explosion occurred on board the sidewheeler New World just above Benicia, California during a race with the Wilson G. Hunt. The resultant lawsult generated a clear picture what such a contest was like during the gold rush times in California:

[The Hunt]was then about a quarter of a mile astern of the New World, and that the boat first arriving at Benicia got from twenty-five to fifty passengers. The pilot of the Hunt says he hardly knows whether the boats were racing, but both were doing their best, and this is confirmed by the assistant pilot, who says the boats were always supposed to come down as fast as possible; the first boat at Benicia gets from twenty-five to fifty passengers. And he adds that at a particular place called 'the slough' the Hunt attempted to pass the New World. Fay, a passenger on board the New World, swears, that on two occasions, before reaching 'the slough' the Hunt attempted to pass the New World, and failed; that to his knowledge these boats had been in the habit of contending for the mastery, and on this occasion both were doing their best. ... Haskell, another passenger, says, 'about ten minutes before the explosion I was standing looking at the engine, we saw the engineer was evidently excited, by his running to a little window to look out at the boat behind. He repeated this ten or fifteen times in a very short time.' [12]

Later Hunt's owners combined with Charles Minturn, Capt. David Van Pelt, and others to form the California Steam Navigation Company, with the objective of forming a monopoly on river transport on the Sacramento river system.[6]

Fraser River Gold Rush

When news of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush reached California, Hunt's owners sent her north to take advantage of the situation. Hunt arrived in Victoria in the middle of August, ?1858.[13] Because there was a shortage of British vessels, the colonial government at Victoria had decided to license American steamers to move the resultant gold rush traffic up the river.[1]. and ran for a short time on the New Westminster route. Another vessel running on the same route was the Sea Bird, which on September 7, 1858, caught fire en route and was destroyed, with the loss of two lives.[11] Fortunately the Hunt was not far behind her and was able to take off her surviving passengers and crew.[13]

Mails and early rate war on Puget Sound

In October 1858, Wilson G. Hunt was withdrawn from the Fraser River service and the following year plied on Puget Sound under Capt. A.M. Burns, with Daniel B. Foster as purser. Hunt had been chartered by the Olympia steamboat agent John H. Scranton, who held the mail contract for Puget Sound. Previously the mails had been carried by the steamer Constitution but she had been taken off the route to be repaired preparatory to being transferred to San Francisco. The shallow-draft inland steamer Hunt was regarded as being more suitable for the route than the deeper-draft ocean-going Constitution. In July 1859, the sternwheeler Julia Barclay was brought around to Puget Sound from the Columbia River, arriving on July 9 in Olympia, Washington. John H. Scranton had arranged to have her carry the mail contract which he continued to hold. For about a month Captain Burns tried to complete against the Julia on the Olympia to Victoria run, but Julia's mail contract gave her an advantage and when there wasn't enough business to sustain both boats, the Hunt was tied up in Victoria for about a year.[13][2]

Columbia River service

File:Oregon Steam Navigation Company 1865 schedule.jpg
1865 advertisement in Walla Walla Statesman for Wilson G. Hunt and other steamers

Gold had been discovered in Idaho in the early 1860s, which led to the Hunt being bought in 1862[10] by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and taken to the Columbia. There the Hunt operated on the route from Portland, Oregon to the lower Cascades in command of Capt. John Wolf. On the Columbia, Hunt was part of a chain of steamers that transported traffic between the portages around the rapids at the Cascades of the Columbia and the second longer set of rapids to the east of The Dalles. Each set of rapids enforced a requirement to portage traffic around the obstacle and control of the portages and ready transport across them was the key to control of the river traffic.[14] Hunt's role in this system was to carry traffic up to the first portage at the Lower Cascades. She continued running on the Columbia until 1?869, and during that time enjoyed a flourishing business, repeatedly carrying from ?50 to 300 passengers, ?100 head of stock and plenty of freight on a single trip. Her operating costs were high, but the demand for transport on the Columbia during the 1860s was so great that she was a very profitable boat. In ?1869 the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, having achieved a monopoly on the Columbia River, decided to extend their steamboating ventures to Puget Sound.[2]

Renewed rate war on Puget Sound

The monopoly sent the old steamer around to run in opposition to Duncan B Finch and the Wright family, who were operating the Eliza Anderson, reputedly one the slowest but most profitable vessels ever to traverse the Sound. Hunt arrived in February[15] 1?869 in command of Capt. W. I. Waitt, with Josiah Myrick, purser, Frank Dodge, freight clerk, Thomas Smith, chief engineer ; James Gallegher, assistant, J. Smith, mate, and J. J. Holland, carpenter. The Hunt had been rebuilt in Portland in I865 and was in good condition, but the company could not do much with her, and to save themselves from further loss sold her to Finch in October 1869. Finch and the Wrights had, in the meantime, built the steamer Olympia, afterward called the Princess Louise, and when the competition ended, the Hunt was sent to San Francisco where she remained for ten years.[2]

Return to Canada

Fraser River service

In 1878, the Hudson's Bay Company was running the Enterprise on the Fraser River run from Victoria. The Company's rival on this route was Captain John Irving, who held a monopoly on steamboat traffic on the upper Fraser routes but was hindered by the Company's activity on the lower river. In early 1878, Captain Irving travelled to San Francisco, where he found the Hunt and bought her for a cheap price. In February 1878 she was brought up by Captain Stoddard, cleaned up, repainted, and placed on the New Westminster route against Enterprise. New Westminster's newspaper, the Mainland Guardian was impressed by the appearance of the then 30 year old steamer:

The appearance of the vessel is undoubtedly most imposing. The wheels appear to be much larger than those of the Enterprise, and the new paint and gilding make her look as trim as if she'd just been turned out of a mould. The main saloon is 130 by 26 feet; ladies saloon 35 by 20 feet. The engine, 250 h.p. nominal ... She has 12 staterooms and can dine 100 at one table.[16]

In July 1878 the Canadian government announced its decision that the transcontinental railroad would run down the Fraser River valley. There were over 5,000 tons of rails that had been piled up at Esquimalt for the construction of the Canadian Pacific's extension on Vancouver Island. On July 23, 1878, Wilson G. Hunt transported the first shipment of these rails to New Westminster, where they were loaded on Royal City and taken up to Yale. During 1878 the Hunt , under captains Irving, Insley, and Rudlin, continued to do well against the Enterprise. In October 1878 Hudson's Bay Company bought Hunt's old rival, Olympia, renamed her Princess Louise and after a put her on the New Westminster run against the Hunt Princess Louise was a far superior boat, and by the fall of 1879 the Company forced Captain Irving to come to terms, under which he and the Company operated Princess Louise, Wilson G. Hunt and Enterprise jointly under Irving's management as the Royal Mail Line.[1][2][17]

Vancouver Island service

File:Joseph Spratt (steamboat captain).jpg
Capt. Joseph Spratt, last master of Wilson G. Hunt when the vessel was operational

Hunt was extensively repaired in 1879, and in 1881 was sold to Joseph Spratt, who was running the steamboats Maude and Caribou and Fly on the east coast of Vancouver Island as the East Coast Mail Line. Captain Spratt replaced Maude with Wilson G. Hunt on the route from Victoria to Comox[2] and Nanaimo by way of the Gulf Islands and Chemainus. By the end of 1883, Captain Spratt was forced to sell his East Coast Mail Company to Captain Irving's Canadian Pacific Navigation Company, in part because of serious mechanical problems with Wilson G. Hunt. While the public announcement by Captain Spratt, issued in the Victoria Colonist on December 8, 1883, was that the Wilson G. Hunt was only being withdrawn for repairs, in fact she had broken a shaft and was probably beyond repair. There was a story that Captain Spratt had two men bailing her out to keep her from sinking at the dock in Victoria while he negotiated the sale to Captain Irving This may have been true, but Spratt surely did not intend thereby to attempt to fool the astute Irving, who as Spratt well knew, was an excellent steamboat captain and had owned and commanded the Hunt before him. Irving replaced Hunt on the east coast route with Yosemite, another former California Gold Rush sidewheeler.[1][2]

Scrapped and burned for metal

in 1884, Hunt was laid up in Victoria's inner harbor. She stayed on the beach in front of Cook's shipyard until 1890, when she was broken up where she lay by the San Francisco junk dealers Cohn & Co., and burned for her metal.[1][2][18]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Hacking, Norman R., and Lamb, W. Kaye, The Princess Story—A Century and a Half of West Coast Shipping, at 55, 75, 77, 83-84, 101-103, and 338, Mitchell Press, Vancouver BC 1974
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Wright, E.W., ed. Lewis and Dryden Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, at 72-73, 97, 171, 287, 297, 377-78, Lewis & Dryden Publishing, Portland, OR 1895
  3. Hacking, at 338 gives 8.0 ft (2 m) feet.
  4. Death of Wilson G. Hunt; Once One of the Foremost of New-York Merchants. New York Times, December 8, 1892
  5. The Rich men of the world, and how they gained their wealth: Wilson G. Hunt
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 MacMullen, Jerry, Paddlewheel Days in California, at 20, 50, 75, Stanford Press, Palo Alto, CA 1944
  7. Mills, Randall V., Sternwheelers up Columbia—A Century of Steamboating in the Oregon Country, at 48, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE (1977 reprint of 1947 edition) ISBN 0-8032-5874-7
  8. Newell, Gordon R., Ships of the Inland Sea—The Story of the Puget Sound Steamboats, at 20-21, Binford and Mort, Portland, OR (2nd Ed. 1960)
  9. Newell, Ships of the Inland Sea, at 20-21
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Timmen, Fritz, Blow for the Landing—A Hundred Years of Steam Navigation on the Waters of the West, at 158-59, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, ID 1973 ISBN 0-87004-221-1
  11. 11.0 11.1 Downs, Art, Paddlewheels on the Frontier—The Story of British Columbia and Yukon Sternwheel Steamers. at 27-29, Superior Publishing, Seattle, WA 1972
  12. 12.0 12.1 The Steamboat New World, Edward Minturn, William Menzie and William H. Webb, Claimants and Appellants, vs. Frederick G. King, 57 U.S. 469 (1854)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Carey, Roland, The Sound of Steamers, at 42-43, 49, Alderbrook Publishing, Seattle, WA 1965
  14. Asay, Jeff, Union Pacific Northwest—The Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company, at pages 7 to 21, Pacific Fast Mail, Edmond, WA 1991 ISBN 0-915713-21-7
  15. Carey, Roland, The Steamboat Landing on Elliot Bay, Alderbrook Publishing, Seattle, WA 1962
  16. Hacking, at 84
  17. Turner, Robert D., Pacific Princesses—An Illustrated History of Canadian Pacific Railway's Princess Fleet on the Northwest Coast, at pages 4 to 11, Sono Nis Press, Victoria, BC 1976 ISBN 0-919462-04-9
  18. Timmen, at 159, clearly states that the Wilson G. Hunt proceeded to San Francisco in 1890 under her own power and was there broken up by Cohn & Co. This is contrary to Hacking, at 103, who states just as clearly that she was broken up and burned where she lay on the beach in Victoria.

Further reading

  • Faber, Jim, Steamer's Wake—Voyaging down the old marine highways of Puget Sound, British Columbia, and the Columbia River, Enetai Press, Seattle, WA 1985 ISBN 0-9615811-0-7
  • Gibbs, Jim, and Williamson, Joe, Maritime Memories of Puget Sound, Schiffer Publishing, West Chester PA 1987 ISBN 0-88740-044-2
  • Newell, Gordon R., and Williamson, Joe, Pacific Steamboats Bonanza Press, New York, NY 1958