Bygone but Beautiful Steamboats of Flathead Lake

Beauty and the Boat

 

   It’s a bygone but beautiful era, when the stately line of a steamboat was more than just romance or nostalgia. In 1890, steamboats reigned supreme because they were the most reliable and comfortable form of transportation in the Flathead.

     Back then, railroad progress was limited, and early roads in the Flathead were so bad that even formal stagecoaches were downgraded (dubbed mudcoaches) to survive the bruising dirt trails. This fact made steamboats not only a necessity, but a welcome luxury when it came to getting from here to there.

     According to Flathead Lake Steamboat Days by Paul Fugleberg, the Flathead steamboat era began in 1883 and lasted until the mid-1920s. The completion of the Northwestern Pacific railroad brought a new breed of pioneers, and the majestic boats brought them inland.

    Often they were more than just transportation, dances, dinners—often between the Indians and settlers marked those early days.

    Steamboat travel was exciting and occasionally dangerous, as lake weather could turn from tranquil to treacherous in moments (“a foaming rage” according to Fugleberg). Treachery came in many forms—if the violent summertime storms didn’t get  you, the wintertime ice could. Ice often ate holes into hulls as the unknowing ship continued a journey, slowly taking on water. Fog could send these ships into dangerous shoreline and even smoke from forest fires could threaten a course.

    More than one steamboat was sunk due to weather. Once wrecked, many were rebuilt and put back on the water. The Pocohantas was one of those boats, after a late summer storm sent her to seek shelter on the shoreline, jagged rocks bit into her hull and sank her, though lucky for the crew she sank in shallow waters—the men swam to shore and the one woman and child were helped to shore aboard the life raft.

     Once wrecked, resurrection was often the fate of a downed steamboat. The Pocohantas was retrieved from her unplanned stop at the bottom of the shallow shoreline and transformed into the Dora in 1890, a practical barge. And the famed steamer Montana was rebuilt from the ashes of the burned steamer the Wasco.

 

    Amidst all the danger, there was a real romance and fun to be had aboard these ladies of the Flathead Lake. The Klondike (which replaced the Klondyke) was one of the most popular boats on the lake. In 1910, this stern-wheeled craft could carry 425 passengers and 100 tons of freight.

    But she also booked special events, picnics, excursions, parties and moonlight dances took place on her multi-levels of decks.

    In 1911, 16 men had steamboat operations, some strictly for the business of transporting passengers, others with a more entertainment bend—with dinners and dances. Plans for the area included dredging a channel to Kalispell, though the project never materialized. Aside from the public events, marriages often occurred on the decks of these steamboats.

    By days of the steamboat were permanently waning, although a third Klondike took passengers on excursions as late as 1932.