Hells Canyon Mail Boats Give Insight Into Idaho's Past

Mar 18, 2013

Mail Boat on the Snake River
Credit From the Kyle McGrady collection, courtesy of Bob McGrady

Early in the last century, people living in Hells Canyon didn't have much contact with the outside world.  Their lifeline were  the mail boats that braved the challenging Snake River.  Former Lewis Clark State College professor Carole Simon-Smolinski has been studying Hells Canyon. She'll talk about the mail boat tradition tonight in Boise.  She says the boats started running around 100 years ago.

“They started in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t weekly at first," says Simon-Smolinski.  "But 1912, 1910, right around there, they were experimental.  By the mid-1920’s they were on a pretty regular basis.”

Q. What was the mail route, how far did it go?

A. It went as far as Johnson Bar, which is 60 miles above Lewiston.

Q. Who was living out there?

A. Oh, there were a lot of ranchers, people that went into the Canyon, initially went in as miners and took out homesteads and then the mining kind of didn’t work, so they tried their hand at homesteading and for most of them that didn’t work.  But a few of them acquired other people’s homesteads and eventually ended up with some pretty good size cattle and sheep ranches.  By the 1930’s there quite a few ranchers living in there.

Q. These were special boats, designed for the challenges of the Snake River. What did they look like?

Credit From the Kyle McGrady collection, courtesy of Bob McGrady

A. They had what we might call a pilot house and a hold for cargo and then kind of a wooden plank that went around the hold for passengers or whoever.  On most of them there was kind of a covering over the cargo hold.  Kind of improvised seats, so passengers sat where they could. 

But it’s a pretty tough river to navigate and it changes all the time.  This was before dams, so you never knew what the height was going to be, the gravel and rock deposits were frequently a surprise. 

A big gully-washer would come through and re-arrange the river and those captains had to know where to go and where not to go.  I think they more than anything developed a feel for the river, because they sure didn’t have navigational marks and that kind of thing in those years.

Q. It sounds like more than a mail boat. Was this a kind of lifeline for the people living in there?

A. It definitely was a lifeline.  They would take in obviously mail.  But during the war years, the mail boat captain would register the men for service and bring them out if they were going out to service.  The mail boat would go up and get orders from all the different ranchers up there for whatever, whether it was food or clothing or farm equipment or mining equipment or whatever and they would take it to Mrs. Sap, Ruth Sap, in Lewiston.  Then she would go about town and find the product that was needed and gather it up and put it all on credit and then the mail boat captain would pick it up and haul it up there on his next trip.  It was all done on trust and credit, eventually when they had the money they would pay her, it was amazing, not like today at all.

Q. How long did the mail service last on the river?

A. It’s still going on.  There’s still a delivery to a few outfitters and some forest service places. I’m not sure how many stops they make now, maybe, if five I’d be surprised.  But it still goes on today.  And it’s so much a part of Idaho and Idaho’s obviously a state that we don’t know every part of the state at all, but it’s such an important story in Idaho, I just think it needs to be told.  So I tell it.

Carole Simon-Smolinski is an author and scholar of Pacific Northwest history.  She speaks tonight as part of the “2013 Read Me Treasure Valley” community wide reading project.  She’ll talk at the Yanke Family Research Park at 7 p.m.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio