Transportation troublesome on Green, Colorado rivers

Steamboat Undine near Moab, Utah, 1902. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

The steamboat Undine, after striking a submerged boulder in 1901. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

The excitement was palpable in newspaper articles written when the steamboat Undine launched at Green River, Utah, in November 1901.

“The new water transportation company expects to handle everything in the way of freight down the river and up to the La Salle country (Moab),” the Emory County Progress reported on Nov. 21, 1901. “As well as hauling back to Green River Station all minerals, oils, fruit, etc., that may be produced along the route.”

The Undine would go down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado, then up the Colorado to Moab, Utah, more than 180 river miles. Its launching promised new economic connections for communities along the rivers.

More steamboats would be put in service the following season, the newspaper reported, and the manager of the company expected that within a few years it would have “a most lucrative patronage.”

“A fleet of steamers with ore and fruit barges in tow will be a novel sight in Utah,” the paper optimistically added.

But that fleet never materialized. The Undine made one successful trip to Moab and back. On her second trip in 1902, she capsized just below Moab. The captain and two crewmen were lucky to survive.

The Denver-based entrepreneurs behind the Undine were not the first people to see the Green and Colorado rivers as potential transportation highways.

But, unlike the rivers of the eastern United States, the Colorado River and its tributaries would never lend themselves to commercial transportation.

The first documented attempt to boat the Green River occurred in 1825. William Ashley and trappers with his Rocky Mountain Fur Co. floated the upper part of the Green in bull boats — round saucers of buffalo hide stretched over willow frames that were nearly impossible to steer.

Despite encountering several of the river’s famous rapids, such as the Gates of Lodore, Ashley and his men succeeded in floating and portaging from Flaming Gorge on the Utah-
Wyoming line to Split Mountain near present-day Jensen, Utah.

Long before Europeans arrived, it’s likely some native people attempted to travel parts of the Green and Colorado rivers.

However, when Americans began to consider boating the rivers, natives sought to dissuade them.

In 1849, William Manly abandoned the overland trail to the California gold fields believing he could float the Green and Colorado rivers to the Pacific. With a half-dozen men, he retraced much of Ashley’s route in poorly navigable dugout canoes. Near today’s Jensen, Utah, he met Ute chief, Walkara.

The Ute leader used sign language to convince Manly that continuing downstream was a mistake.

“He then made signs of death to show us that it was a fatal place,” Manly said.

He and his men heeded Walkara’s advice, acquired horses from him and headed overland to the Salt Lake Valley, then to California.

Maj. John Wesley Powell received similar warnings from Utes as he and his crew prepared to enter the first treacherous canyons of the Green River in the spring of 1869.

“The Indians say, ‘Water heap catch ‘em,’ ” Powell wrote in his journal of the trip.

But Powell and his men ignored the warnings and eventually made it down the rivers — and through the Grand Canyon — despite losing one boat and having three members of the expedition walk out, only to be killed by Indians.

Even before Powell’s trip, people were attempting to travel up the Colorado River from its mouth in the Gulf of California.

In 1856, the Explorer, a U.S. Army sternwheeler under the command of Lt. Joseph Ives, headed upriver to Fort Yuma and beyond.

Sixty-four days later, it arrived at the head of the canyon where Hoover Dam now sits. After an unsuccessful attempt to proceed up the canyon, Ives and his crew turned back.

There were other unsuccessful attempts to traverse the river, both upstream and downstream. Two small steamboats preceded the Undine in the 1890s in trying to reach Moab. Neither made it all the way down and back.

In 1889 and 1890, Robert Brewster Stanton made a series of trips on the Green and Colorado rivers as he and his team surveyed a possible railroad line to the Pacific through the river canyons.

But investors balked at the railroad idea.

A decade later, Stanton was a principal in a company that brought a 115-foot gold dredge to the Colorado River in Glen Canyon. The dredge was hauled in pieces by rail and wagon to Hite Crossing on the Colorado River, where it was reassembled.

But the plan was not an economic success, and a year later, the dredge was abandoned.

The sections of the Green and Colorado rivers between the towns of Green River and Moab is not the most dangerous water.

In modern times, motorized pleasure boats have made that run on Memorial Day weekend.

But the water in these sections was treacherous enough for the Undine.

The boat capsized while crew members were attempting to haul the boat by rope around a small rapid just downstream from Moab, the Salt Lake Telegram reported on May 23, 1902.

The captain was thrown into the water and was carried a mile and a half downstream before he reached shore.

His crewmen climbed on top of the overturned boat, which floated upside down four miles before washing up on a gravel bar in the river.

Nearly all of the steamboat’s machinery was lost and the hull was severely damaged, the Telegram reported.

“This will probably end the proposed (steamboat) line,” the paper correctly forecast.

Information for this article came from: The Library of Congress “Chronicling America” historic newspapers website; “The Rapids and the Roar,” by Gaylord Staveley; “Death Valley in ‘49,” by William Lewis Manly; the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah; and Powell’s book, “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.”

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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