Steamboats on the Colorado River

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While Robert Fulton proved on August 17, 1809 that steamboats were a practical solution to river running on the Hudson River, such craft did not show up on the Colorado River until 1852.

During their heyday, steamboats on the Colorado River – and the barges they towed – ran as far north as present day Lake Mead carrying emigrants, soldiers, and miners in search of gold and silver. And for 55 years, that route was the principle means of transportation into western and central Arizona. The steamers – much smaller than the boats on the Mississippi- offered few luxuries and were unbearably hot in the summer.

Yuma, Arizona: Port of Call

Yuma was the most important town on the Colorado River. It was here that Spanish missionaries and soldiers established a mission at the crossing in 1780, but Yuma Indians wiped the site out a year later. Both Mexican and U.S. troops used the crossing during the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848. Then the California Gold Rush happened in 1849 and thousands of fortune seekers crossed the Colorado at Yuma. Ferry operators and bandits alike vied for a piece of the action. Because of this, a military post was established in 1850 on the California side – Fort Yuma – and a town on the Arizona side was established as Arizona City, later called Yuma.

In late 1852, Captain James Turnbull was contracted to supply Fort Yuma. Hastily using a steam engine from an old locomotive and part of a harbor tugboat shipped on the schooner Capacity from San Francisco, it took two months to build the 65-foot side-wheeler Uncle Sam. From that start, freighters from San Francisco would unload their goods 100 miles south of Ft. Yuma at Port Isabel at the mouth of the river, and the steamers would carry the supplies north. But after the Uncle Sam sank in May 1853, Turnbull gave-up river running and the fort relied on overland mule trains from San Diego for supplies.

Later in 1854, the 104-foot General Jesup, with its 50-horsepower engine, picked-up the supply trade and became the “King of the Colorado steamboats,” captained by George A. Johnson. General Jesup proved to be so profitable that Johnson added the Colorado, a 120-foot stern-wheeler with an 80-hp engine that made the trip from Port Isabel to Fort Yuma and back in five days.

Race up the Colorado

By then the forts further up river and in the interior needed supplies quickly. Johnson persuaded Secretary of War Jefferson Davis into asking Congress for a $70,000 appropriation to explore a water route north. Johnson offered General Jesup for $3,500 per month or Colorado for $4,500, but new Secretary of War John B. Floyd named one of his relatives, Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives, for the job.

On December 31, 1857, Ives and Explorer left the Gulf of California to find the northern limit of navigation. Unknown to Ives, George Johnson,bitter from rejection, left Fort Yuma on the same day seeking the glory of the discovery.

That same year, another transportation drama was unfolding: U.S. Army Camel Corp. was laying the wagon trail that would eventually become a railroad route, and later Route 66 and Interstate 40. U.S. Army Lieutenant Edward F. Beale began a survey along the 35th parallel using Middle East camels, crossing the Colorado River at Fort Mohave on October 18, 1857. On the return trip in January 1858, Beale and his camels came face to face with Captain Johnson and the steamship General Jesup.

By January 30, 1858, General Jesup intercepted the crew of the Explorer heading north. Explorer was moving slow, since it was underpowered and overloaded, and continued upriver until it struck a rock on March 6, 1858 at Black Canyon, nearly 500 miles above the mouth of the Colorado.

A few years, discoveries all along the Colorado River created the first mining boom in 1862 when gold was discovered near La Paz,130 miles above Fort Yuma. Within a year, there were nearly 2,000 miners and when Arizona became a separate territory in 1863, La Paz was its largest town. The town continued to grow until floods changed the path of the Colorado River, leaving La Paz without a port.

By 1864, the river’s five stern-wheelers and four barges that plied the river now unloaded their goods to the south at Ehrenberg. Here the goods were stored at the Army’s quartermaster warehouse before loaded onto wagons, destined for cavalry posts and the160-mile overland trip to the newly established Arizona territorial Capital of Prescott (1864-1867). Founded in 1863 as Mineral City, by the mid -1870s Ehrenberg was booming, with nearly 500 people. Mike Goldwater, grandfather of former Senator Barry Goldwater, established a mercantile store and warehouse there.

By the 1870s, six steamers and five barges were calling upon ports as far north as Rioville (now under Lake Mead) near the mouth of the Virgin River. Johnson had expanded his Colorado Steam Navigation Company fleet to four steamers.

But time was running out.

End of the Steamboat Era

The railroad reached Arizona in 1877 and gradually began taking business away from the steamboats. A year later, George Johnson sold out to Southern Pacific Railroad and by 1881 the railroad had reached northern Arizona. Using the Camel road, the railroad crossed the Colorado River at Toprock (where I-40 and the railroad cross the river today), in 1883. In 1909, when the Laguna Dam blocked the river 14 miles above Yuma, the era of steamboats on the Colorado had ended.

In 1916, the last Colorado River steamer, Searchlight, was wrecked.