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Published in The Seattle Times online on June 15, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on June 18, 2023
Soothing steamboat runs ended in upriver Snoqualmie in 1917
By Clay Eals
All 13 of those posing in this week’s idyllic “Now” scene came to the riverbank across from downtown Fall City by car. So did Jean Sherrard and I. Indirectly, the needs and wants of us and our collective forebears are why this section of the Snoqualmie River hasn’t seen a paddle-driven steamboat in well over a century.
In the late 19th century, steamboats, also called sternwheelers, were part of Puget Sound’s celebrated Mosquito Fleet and a prime mode of transport for hops, timber and people in rural waterways. But their navigation fell victim to unmistakable signs of growth and progress — the complicating cables and booms of cross-channel ferries and bridges, the parallel routes of new railroad lines and the coming popularity (and rumble) of automobiles and trucks. Steamboat runs upriver as far as past Duvall, ended by 1917.
Thus, any rivercraft sailing past Fall City today consists only of recreational rowboats, rafts and kayaks.
But oh, for the days of steamboats, yearn childhood pals Steve Barker and Jack Russell. Now straddling age 78, they devoted their four most recent years to assembling a new, large-format book, “Steamboats on the Snoqualmie.” Its 148 pages overflow with 130 historical photos, six intricate maps and myriad details of elegant vessels from a seemingly gentler time, with names like the Traveler, the Ranger and the May Queen.
The softcover volume focuses on what we might call three “S-es”: the Snoqualmie River and to a lesser extent its downstream siblings, the Skykomish and Snohomish — a system emanating from the Cascades and snaking to saltwater in a northwesterly direction from above Snoqualmie Falls to Everett.
Russell, of unincorporated Skyway (between Seattle and Renton), and Barker, of Duvall, met in the fifth grade in 1955-56 at Hawthorne Elementary School in the Rainier Valley. Their families bore sternwheeler connections that buoyed their 67-year friendship.
Barker, a retired banker, was the primary writer and Russell the researcher. Russell also parlayed his steamer passion into an adult vocation he still practices today. He runs a Fishermen’s Terminal-based charter service on the 1993-vintage Christine W, the only commercial sternwheeler on the Sound. It embodies an appeal the book can only attempt to capture.
“It’s the smell of the steam and the cylinder oil. It’s not a diesel chugging away,” Russell says. “It only goes 5 to 6 mph, so it’s a gentler motion. And steam whistles can be very pretty, very melodious. It just sounds different and feels different than a propeller vessel.
“And when the paddlewheel turns, you can hear the wheel hitting the water. It’s a soothing sound.”
Thanks to Ruth Pickering, Lisa Oberg and especially Steve Barker and Jack Russell for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column. It includes the sounds of a sternwheeler whistle and paddleboat.
Below are a video of Jack Russell and his Christine W sternwheeler, a newsletter cover, 3 additional photos and, in chronological order, 10 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.