The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume II, Number 4, Pages 18-22
Fall, 1978

Flatboating on the Willamette

David Curran

At the time this article was written David Curran was teaching in Windsor, Colorado.


American History classes on the high school level have often been accused of being dull. Admittedly, I was getting that feeling while teaching high school in Philomath, Oregon, one recent winter. In the interest of injecting some excitement into the rest of the year I pondered what to do. It was my feeling that I wanted to get the students out of the classroom and involved in American History somehow. After a little thought and research I settled on building an authentic full scale model of some object in an era of American History. Lumber abounded in this area as a natural source of building materials. Philomath is located at the eastern fringe of the Oregon Coast range. There are three major producing lumber mills in the community. Through their benevolence our project had unlimited supplies of wood.

The class project was to build an authentic American river flatboat. It was the logical choice: it used a simple type of linear construction and demanded little technical skill to build. I presented the idea to all my American History classes and the kids were extremely enthusiastic. The plan was to build the flatboat in the school parking lot. After starting the construction we decided to float it down the Willamette River.

The role of the American flatboat in transportation is one of deep tradition in folklore. Many of the legends of the American riverboatmen undoubtedly were born on the decks of the flatboats. During various stages of our early westward movement the flatboat had made the rivers into highways. An 1820 survey estimated that there were about 50,000 miles of boatable waterways in the Mississippi river valley. From the 1790's to the advent of steam in the early 1800's the flatboat was a major form of transportation in the young West. The volume of trade and traffic reached considerable intensity at the height of the flatboat era. For example, between October 1810 and May 1811, over 1000 flatboats passed Louisville, Kentucky with goods heading for New Orleans. After unloading goods the flatboats were taken apart. The lumber was sold to build houses in New Orleans and for plank sidewalks. At various times during this period it was possible to walk on the Mississippi river for one mile at New Orleans, without getting wet, by stepping from flatboat to flatboat. After reaching New Orleans many flatboat men walked back to Ohio along the old Natchez Trail.

The history of the flatboat in the Pacific Northwest is practically nonexistent. One writer mentions a flatboat being used as a ferry on the Willamette River between Oregon City and Portland. But by the time the Northwest was settled steamboats had usually replaced flatboats.

The flatboats were built with green timber and put together with wooden pegs. We used metal spikes for our 20th century version for the obvious reason of safety on the river. The 19th century flatboats ranged in size from 20 to 60 feet in length and 10 to 25 feet in width. Our student flatboat was 10 feet by 20 feet. The function of the flatboats varied. There were family boats, freight boats, store boats, blacksmith boats, and showboats. Navigation consisted of controlling the heavy craft with three long sweeps. These were simply poles with a board at the end of each.

It was not originally our intention to float the flatboat but merely test our skills in building an authentic boat. However, in the enthusiasm of the early stages of construction, a few of the high school students suggested we put it in water. Our alternatives were a local log pond, river, or perhaps a lake. Then I thought why not use the boat in its natural environment - on a river. The proximity of the Willamette to Philomath made it a practical option.

The construction was authentic in every way with the exception of two modifications: the metal spikes and side sweeps were mounted in the lower deck instead of the upper as shown in early prints. After construction was completed. we had the problem of moving a five ton flatboat eight miles to the Willamette River. This was solved quickly with the help of two local lumber mills. We used a fork lift on each side, lifted the boat and drove a heavy duty trailer under it and hauled it to the river.

There were many skeptics and doubters when we started the whole project. They said: "It'll never float, it's too heavy", "It's too top heavy," or simply "You're crazy!" Some parents would not believe the students when they told them we were going to float the boat down the Willamette river. But we did.

Our plan was to float it from Corvallis, Oregon to Salem, Oregon, the state capital. We used student boat crews of between 10 and 15 at different intervals over six days on the river. Floating time was from 2:00 p.m. to dark so as not to interfere with normal school classes.

We had some interesting experiences during our trip down river. The flatboat often hit gravel bars and was poled or pushed off by the students just as the American pioneers would have done. During the first day we hit what at first we thought was a gravel bar, but it turned out to be a rock bar. An entire day was spent wrestling the flatboat off a thirty foot long rock bar.

Getting it off was no easy task. We used the technical advice of our school maintenance director. His theory coincided, I am sure, with a typical pioneer solution. It did not involve power wenches on modern off-road vehicles, to be sure. His theory was to find a big tree on the river bank, fasten a cable to the boat and start bringing in the cable with hand-operated "come along," winches. By the end of the day we were back on the river again.

Some of the other hazards and problems involved hitting two bridges broadside and floating into eddies of calm. A major problem was getting out of the current and stopping where we wanted to. Negotiating bends in the river often involved making a 360 degree turn in the river after hitting the side of the bank. Still at day's end each boat crew agreed that it was not only fun but they had developed a better appreciation of pioneer life on the river.

The flatboat was named the Spirit of 77 by the students since that was the year they were to graduate. It has made two trips to Salem in the past four years. The students were pleased to receive widespread TV and newspaper coverage when on the river. In 1975, Governor Bob Straub of Oregon floated the last mile into Salem with the students and happened to share the highlight of hitting one of the bridges. So he too learned something about the pleasure and tribulations of flatboat life.