The Mullan Road and Steamboat Navigation On the Columbia and Missouri Rivers

Marc Entze

Movement of troops to the Northwest involved either a long and expensive passage by sea, or a dangerous and time-consuming overland march. In 1858, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction of a military wagon road to connect Fort Walla Walla near the Columbia River with Fort Benton, on the Missouri River. This road would facilitate the movement of troops to the forts located in the Pacific Northwest. Such a road would also be used by immigrants looking to homestead in the northern interior and to transport construction materials for a northern transcontinental railway.(1) At the time the appropriation was approved, steamboat navigation on the Columbia and Missouri Rivers, from Wallula to Fort Benton, was untried. Amazingly, the funds were appropriated on the assumption that steamboats could ascend the wild rivers to those points.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery west to find an all water route to the Pacific Ocean. They ascended the Missouri River in 1804 and after a torturous climb over the Bitterroot Mountains, glided down stream on the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers to the sea. The Mountains provided a formidable barrier, separating the navigable waterways. Lewis and Clark noted this with disappointment in their journal entries. The wagon road envisioned by Lt. John Mullan was to be an engineered thoroughfare connecting the points of navigation, essentially creating a land bridge between the mighty Columbia and Missouri Rivers. Although many trappers and explorers roamed the northern west, Mullan’s survey parties relied upon the maps drawn by Lewis & Clark fifty years earlier. The Mullan Road became the first engineered road in the northern West.

The idea for a wagon road to connect the headwaters of the Missouri with the furthest navigable point on the Columbia River was considered as early as 1824. However, nothing came of the matter until 1853 when Congress authorized $150,000 for the exploration of four possible northern transcontinental railroad routes. One survey party was headed by Isaac Ingalls Stevens, later governor of Washington Territory. During the winter of 1853, Stevens returned to Washington D.C., but left a small party of men in the mountains under the command of Lieutenant John Mullan. In his Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton, Mullan wrote, “the margin of authority left me by Governor Stevens was broad and liberal.” He added, “The most essential thing at that time was a general reconnaissance and exploration of the country before the question of location and construction of a railroad line could be at all profitably or properly considered.” While considering routes for a possible railroad, Mullan quickly realized that “one of the most essential aids . . . was good wagon-road line” and locating such a route “became a subject of primary importance.” (2) Stevens was impressed with Mullan’s work and urged Congress to support the construction of the road. Indian hostilities in 1855 and 1856 delayed funding until March 1859, at which time Congress granted an additional $100,000 for the construction of the road.(3) Lieutenant Mullan with a crew of 100 men began work on July 1, 1859.

The same year that Mullan began grading his wagon road between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla, a steamboat the Colonel Wright (4) was constructed and placed in service on the Columbia River, making a maiden voyage to Wallula in the spring of 1859. (5) This effectively provided service between Walla Walla and Portland, utilizing the Columbia River. A few months later, the Colonel Wright steamed up the Snake River as far as the mouth of the Palouse River, becoming the first steamboat to navigate the Snake. The purpose of this trip was to forward supplies for Mullan’s road building crew to that point, which would serve as an advance depot. (6) As reported in the Dalles Journal, on June 4, 1859, the Colonel Wright “will make her landing at the mouth of the Palouse, where she will also land the supplies for the road party in route for Fort Benton, under the direction of John Mullan, whose work the steam navigation of Snake River to the point will greatly facilitate and shorten. The year 1859 will be an important one in the history of this section.”(7) These initial and vitally important first trips into rough waters of the interior proved that navigation was possible and justified the construction of the Mullan Road.

As Mullan and his work crew labored with the difficult construction in the Bitterroot Mountains, and as the Colonel Wright began scheduled navigation on the upper Columbia River, pioneer steam navigation efforts were also underway on the Missouri. In 1858, when the first funds were appropriated for the Mullan Road, steam navigation on the Missouri was not within reach of Fort Benton. A year later, the first steamboat, the Chippewa, running low on fuel, grounded twelve miles short of Fort Benton and discharged its cargo.(8) This first attempt at reaching Fort Benton was funded by the U.S. Government in the charge of Pierre Chouteau, whose company Pierre Chouteau, Jr., & Company owned the Chippewa. Prior to this attempt the head of steam navigation on the Missouri was the mouth of the Yellowstone River and the location of Fort Union. The first attempts at navigating the Columbia and Missouri Rivers was a direct result of the construction progress on the Mullan Road. In both areas, supplies for the road were being shipped up river on steamboats. Mullan was anticipating the successful navigation of the Missouri River, when he wrote in an 1861 report, An express reached me on the 18th of August [1859] from Fort Benton, giving me the gratifying intelligence of the safe arrival at that point of the staunch little steamer Chippewa, having on board some 24,000 rations for my party, and such articles for my road as I needed; all safely delivered by steamer direct from St. Louis to Fort Benton. This therefore, is a complete success, and practically proves that which we have so often advocated. With the success in steam navigation had on the waters of the Columbia during the present year . . . and with steamers to Fort Benton, it needs no special proof to show what bearing our present labors are having in connecting these two heads of navigation on the two great arteries of the country. (9)

Although no mention is made in Mullan’s report of the Chippewa grounding 12 miles down river from Fort Benton, clearly it was no small accomplishment to have navigated the upper reaches of the Missouri River. Mullan may well have breathed a sigh of relief when he received the news of the Chippewa nearly reaching Fort Benton; had navigation on the upper Missouri not proven capable, the Mullan Road would have been a 624 mile long dead end route to nowhere. The successful navigation of the Colonel Wright and the Chippewa, slowly churning up the rapids of two of the wildest rivers of the West, assured that progress must not be far behind.

Two of a Kind: Navigating the Columbia and Missouri Rivers

While navigation to the headwaters of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers began in the same year, and both initially developed around the mining trade, there were very few similarities between the two streams and the practice of steamboat transportation on their waters. Agriculture rapidly replaced mining as the primary stimulus of transportation on the Columbia River, but navigation of the Missouri River succumbed to other, more efficient forms of transportation after a comparatively short “hey day” when steamboats dominated Montana trade.

Mechanized navigation of the Columbia River began in 1836 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sidewheeler, The Beaver. With a displacement of just 187 tons the vessel was small compared to later steamboats which displaced 500 or more tons. However, The Beaver initiated a critically important transportation era for all of the Pacific Northwest.

Navigation of the Columbia River contained several notable obstacles, which were impediments to the heavy wheat shipments. The Cascade Rapids and Celilo Falls were the major obstacles. These natural blockades to navigation divided the Columbia into three sections: the “lower,” “middle” and “upper” river. The lower river extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades, where four miles of exposed rock made upriver navigation impossible. The middle river extended from the Cascades to The Dalles where the Columbia narrowed into a roaring channel. The upper river took in all of the navigable water above Celilo Falls, which itself was located a few miles above The Dalles. Together these natural features formed a formidable barrier to navigation.

Moving cargo around the rapids and falls of the Columbia was a costly and time consuming endeavor. As a result, portage railroads were built to get around the navigation barriers, becoming the first railways constructed in the Northwest. In 1860, various steamboat interests were consolidated under the title of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. Soon after the corporation of the OSN, gold was discovered in Idaho and Montana and traffic increased dramatically. Portage railways were originally powered by horses and mules, creating a serious bottleneck. Steam locomotives helped ease the bottleneck, but river transportation remained costly and ponderous. (10)

The situation on the Missouri River was far different from the organized and well-developed infrastructure of transportation on the Columbia. Navigation of the Missouri from St. Louis as far as Fort Union was undertaken with small steamboats supplying fur trading posts. Unlike the Columbia Plain, there was no agricultural development; as the historian Alton B. Oviatt observed, “The myth of the ‘Great American Desert’ was still so firmly fixed in the public mind that it discouraged settlement of this region where agriculture promised at best but a dubious means of economic sustenance.” The discoveries of gold, not agriculture, brought permanent settlement to the Missouri River region. (11)

Although the Columbia and Missouri share a common characteristic of vast importance – providing a transportation arterial for their respective regions – the nature of each river could hardly be more different. The Columbia River’s headwaters flow from high mountain ranges in Canada, entering the United States in what is now northern Washington State and flows southward to the Oregon state line from where it abruptly curves westward to empty into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way it picks up many notable streams, which also originate in high mountain country, including the Spokane River and most notably the Snake River. The Columbia’s water is clear and fast moving with numerous rapids coursing over a bed of granite and basalt rock formations; it flows through deep canyons which it has been eroding for eons. The Columbia River drainage is immense, taking in streams from thousands of square miles and from all notable mountain ranges in the northern West.

By comparison, the Missouri River flows through a landscape in stark contrast to the high mountains, fertile valleys and steep canyons of the Columbia. Other than high elevations on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, the terrain is largely devoid of trees. Much of the land is a broad, flat plain, with rolling hills, and the river cuts across this plain, twisting and turning, between sandy shorelines. Instead of rocks, the river bottom is silt, mud, and dead trees, with snags that frequently break away from the unstable bluffs along the river creating a deadly “spear” that often punctured the hulls of steamboats. According to the artist George Catlin, the Missouri was “always turbid and opaque; having, at all seasons of the year, the colour of a cup of chocolate or coffee.”(12) The following table provides a comparison of the differing characteristics of the two rivers.

Differences in Navigation on the Columbia and Missouri Rivers

Columbia River has:
Missouri River has:
Clear water Sandy, muddy water
Few obstructions Numerous obstructions
Fast and rocky rapids Sandbars and snags
Long navigation season Short navigation season
Peaceful Indians Hostile Indians
Plentiful fuel Scarce fuel

Due primarily to the numerous sandbars, the Missouri River steamboats were equipped with spar poles – a unique feature of the Missouri River navigation. These steamboats, known as “mountain boats,” were equipped with spar poles on each side of the bow. When grounded on a sandbar, the poles were driven into the river bottom, raising the bow. The current removed the sand from under the bow allowing the boat to inch forward. This was repeated until the boat “climbed” over the sandbar. Because the process resembled a grasshopper in motion, the technique was known as “grasshoppering.” If this technique failed, the cargo would be unloaded to the point where the steamboat could float over the bar, emptied up river, and then the steamboat would return to pick up the rest of the cargo. This doubling over a bar used up considerably more fuel, created much more work, and took twice as long.

Although each river was critically important to the regions through which they flowed, they brought unique challenges to navigation. The only way that the Columbia could be regularly navigated was through the construction of portage railways to move cargo around dangerous rapids or falls. On the Missouri, the steamboats adapted uniquely to their environment, literally “crawling” up river over shallow sandbars. Each river was successfully navigated only by the hard work of the hardy men who sweated, cursed and occasionally perished in the desire to provide transportation to the frontier. The ability to navigate these wild rivers, to connect with each end of the Mullan Road, created the first northern transcontinental transportation link. Although short-lived - railway construction in the 1870s eventually took most of the traffic from the rivers – but the Mullan Road, and steamboat navigation on the Columbia and Missouri Rivers played a vital role in the settlement of the Northwest.


(1) Alexander Campbell McGregor, The Economic Impact of the Mullan Road on Walla Walla, 1860-1883 (Honors thesis, Whitman College, 1971), 6.
(2) Captain John Mullan, Report on the Construction of a Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton, (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1994), 2.
(3) McGregor, Economic Impact of the Mullan Road, 2.
(4) The steamboat was named after Colonel George Wright of the 9th Infantry. See Lulu Donnell Crandall, “The ‘Colonel Wright ’” Washington Historical Quarterly 7, No.2 (April 1916): 1126-132.
(5) Peter J. Lewty, To The Columbia Plain: The Oregon Railway and the Northern Pacific, 1879-1884 (Pulllman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1987), 20.
(6) Meinig, The Great Columbia Plain, 205.
(7) The Dalles Journal, June 4, 1859.
(8) Alton B. Oviatt, “Steamboat Traffic on the Upper Missouri River, 1859-1869,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol.40, No.2 (April 1949), 93.
(9) Lieutenant John Mullan, 1861 Report, 17. My copy of this report is the text pages printed from the University of Michigan website and contains numerous typographical errors which may inadvertently be included in quotations.
(10) Lewty, To the Columbia Gateway, 20-21.
(11) Oviatt, “Steamboat Traffic on the Upper Missouri,” 93-94.
(12) George Catlin quoted in Lee Silliman, “‘Up This Great River:’ Daniel Weston’s Missouri Steamboat Diary,” Montana, The Magazine of Western History Vol.30, No.3 (July 1980), 35.


Crandall, Lulu Donnell, “The ‘Colonel Wright ,’” Washington Historical Quarterly,7, No.2 (April 1916), 126-132.
Lewty, Peter J. To The Columbia Gateway: The Oregon Railway and the Northern Pacific, 1879-1884 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1987).
McGregor, Alexander Campbell, The Economic Impact of the Mullan Road on Walla Walla, 1860-1883 (Honors thesis, Whitman College, 1971).
Meinig, D.W. The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1905-1910. Weyerhaeuser Edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).
Mullan, Captain John U.S.A., Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1998).
Silliman, Lee, “‘Up This Great River:’ Daniel Weston’s Missouri Steamboat Diary,” Montana, The Magazine of Western History Vol.30, No.3 (July 1980), 35.