Union Pacific's steamboat blows its boiler on the Snake River
With permission from the writer, Norman Olsen of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin newspaper of Walla Walla, Washington, we reprint this story of the “Annie Faxon.” We thank the Union-Bulletin and Norman for this historical account. — Ed.
Roads were bad and the railroads were just starting to expand. Crops could only make money if they could be shipped and the farmers and inhabitants of inland Washington, Oregon and Idaho were buying merchandise.
The year 1893 saw the Northwest as the last frontier of the adjacent states.
Overland shipping was slow and expensive. Water freight was both faster and cheaper. And the Snake River was the freeway to the interior.
The sunburned hills and woods once echoed to the robust chant of steam engines laboring their way to Lewiston as the fragile steamboats swished up stream in clouds of pitchy wood smoke and white rooster tails from beating stern wheels.
The flat-bottomed boats were able to “float on a heavy dew” as they poked their snub noses in places with far less than 18 inches of water to pick up their cargo and passengers.
From the wheel house of the old boats it was possible to see a long way and spot farmers standing by landings with bags of wheat, fruit or the hope some needed item was arriving.
In the pilot house stood the big wheel — big because it took considerable leverage to turn the rudder. There was the bell handle for engine room signaling and a well worn wooden handle for the whistle cord.
In the engine room the stokers’ constant companion was the smell of burning wood.
But firing a steamboat was no easy job. The engine had to push 120 feet of hull. Hour after hour stokers would heave long chunks of pine into the roaring firebox. When the ash piled up too far someone would have to take one of the long pokers and clean out the fire spreading the burning wood evenly over the grate for a better draft and more even burning area.
The clunk, hiss, rattle and slap of metal on metal were familiar sounds to crew and passengers alike.
For years the steamboats paddled their way up and down the Snake River sporting spindly black smoke stacks and angular architecture looking impressive to the people who needed them.
Annie Faxon was about as simple as a steamboat could get. She was built about 1873 at Celilo for the Oregon Steamship Navigation Company and by 1880 was working the Snake between Ceylah and Lewiston.
By 1893 she had been rebuilt and was then owned by the Union Pacific who in turn operated her between Lewiston and Riparia, a run of about 76 miles.
“Annie” made the trip to Riparia from Lewiston regularly and with no fanfare. When making her run she would leave in the small hours of the morning, calling at landings down the river, picking up freight, dropping off freight and transporting passengers.
It was cold the morning of August 14, 1893, as the Annie Faxon slipped her lines from the wharf at Lewiston. With the temperature hovering in the lower 50s the sternwheeler plodded downstream with the rising sun at her back, glistening from the broad, frothy wake.
Smoke hung around the stack reluctantly as a gentle breeze nudged Annie Faxon just a little faster down the Snake River.
The trip downstream was an easy one and as usual the boat was carrying less than a full head of steam. When starting back from Riparia the boiler would be brought up to full pressure, about 125 pounds.
The minutes ticked by, turning into long hours as the ship traced its path through the water.
The passengers were varied — all five of them.
One was Sue Macbeth, just coming out of the wilderness after 20 years service as a missionary to the Nez Perce Indians. She had compiled a 15,000-word dictionary of the Nez Perce language and was taking it to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Her sister, Kate, had missed the boat at Lewiston but her manuscript of “The Nez Perces Since Lewis and Clark,” was on board too.
Another passenger was the bride of the purser. They had been married just two weeks and she wanted to see what steam boating was all about.
By 7 a.m. the Annie Faxon had settled down to a day’s work and the supply of wood in her fuel bins was getting low. After pausing at Almota at 8:05, Captain Baughman decided it was time to put into shore and refuel at one of the woodpiles spaced down the river.
The next place he could take on cordwood was Alonzo Wade Bar — just three miles from Almota, downstream.
Annie Faxon chuffed on for a few more minutes, then, from the pilot house, Baughman could see the bar with people by the wharf. The stop wouldn’t be a loss, somebody had fruit to ship.
Following standard procedure, the Annie Faxon slowed her engine and drifted past the wharf while still in the middle of the river. Slowly, the big wheel in the pilot house was brought around to the left and the steamboat heeled to the right as Baughman rang for “Stop Engine.”
The only sound was the hiss of escaping steam and the creak of timbers as the bow slowly came around and pointed upstream, closer to shore and just a few yards off the pier.
Annie Faxon was set for another routine docking. In a few seconds the bow would edge alongside the wharf with the hull scraping against the piling.
Observers on shore could hear the deep ringing of the engine room gong for “Slow Ahead.”
Passengers stood on deck watching the wharf come closer. It was warmer — about 58 degrees and small patches of cloud were popping up in the gentle wind.
Below, the throttle wheel cracked open and the stern wheel began chewing slowly into the water.
Bystanders were a gawk as the steamboat began the final maneuver that would snug it against the wharf.
It was just 8:30 in the morning.
Deckhands were standing to the shore side to assist in tying the boat to the landing when there came a heavy “whomp.”
Annie Faxon had blown her boiler.
Men and women were thrown high in the air by the exploding vessel. The deck humped up and with a splintering crash the sides blew out, allowing the superstructure to settle into the hold while the boiler was catapulted from the hull in a shower of metal, planks and burning wood.
Wreckage splashed for 100 feet around as bodies and debris fell back into the water and what seconds before had been the deck of the Annie Faxon.
A table some deckhands had been sitting at just minutes earlier was smashed by the hot stack filled with burning embers.
With no power, the hulk began slipping backward down the river but uninjured crewmen snubbed the wreck to a piling as people swam for shore or tried to reach the smoking hull.
Shocked bystanders attempted to pull survivors and bodies alike from the water.
The injured were taken to nearby farm houses and given first aid. Pappen, the purser, searched for his bride of two weeks, but was unable to find her. Slowly it dawned on him she was dead and he was overcome with grief. Her body was not found till several days later — blown by the force of the explosion far from the Annie Faxon.
The box containing the Macbeth sisters’ manuscripts was also blown overboard but was recovered and eventually the books finished their trip to the Smithsonian Institute.
Meanwhile, Baughman walked back to Almota to telephone the news of the tragedy to Lewiston.
One doctor from Lewiston set off down river in a rowboat to reach the scene, while the steamboat Spokane started out with two more doctors on board. Other physicians came from Colfax and Pullman.
All through the cool afternoon crewmen and local people dived into the now sunken steamboat in search of bodies, while others treated the patients for burns from scalding steam.
By the time the Spokane arrived at the scene it was twilight and the other doctors had already arrived and had given treatment to the injured.
Eight crewmen and passengers perished in the blast that destroyed the Annie Faxon. Finally, the survivors were taken to a Walla Walla hospital.
At an inquiry it was said the boiler had been condemned by a marine engineer some time before. But crewmen said the boiler had been cleaned and found in satisfactory condition just before the steamship left Lewiston on her last run. Exact cause of the explosion was never determined.
There was only one serious incident with the Snake River steamboats and the dishonor fell on the Union Pacific’s Annie Faxon.
Local inland rivers haven’t heard the chug of steam engines and the rapid slap of paddles for years — not since 1940 when Union Pacific retired the Lewiston, its last steamboat.
For the most part they did their job quietly and when the job was done, just dropped out of sight. Annie Faxon was one of the rarities.
Annie is gone and so is the wharf she was attempting to nudge. The only remains are bits and scraps of steel rusted out on the bottom of the Snake where she blew up 75 years ago.
It happened under the bitter-sweet title of “Progress.”