Nowitka Mountain, Nowitka Lake, head of Findlay Creek
The Nowitka … has the distinction of being the last commercial steamboat on the Upper Columbia River.
The Nowitka (pronounced na-wit’-ka) was a sternwheel steamboat launched at Golden in 1911 by George Rury for the Columbia River Lumber Company, which was itself headed by Captain Francis Patrick Armstrong. Its name is the Chinook jargon work meaning “yes” or “yes indeed” (often commonly seen as “nawitka”).
A Jumble of Pieces
The vessel, in the words of Captain Armstrong, “would [have made] a splendid nucleus of a museum of early steamboating.”1 It was an amalgamation of scavenged pieces. The engines had been built in 1840 and used in a Montreal ferry before being brought to the Columbia Valley by Captain Armstrong to be used in the first steamboat in the valley, the Duchess. They were later transferred into the second Duchess then the steamboat Ptarmigan.2
The boiler was “modern,” having been built for a sawmill.3 The pilot house and capstan of the Nowitka, meanwhile, came from the North Star, and her steering wheel was taken from a Lower Columbia River steamboat the City of Salem (running from Portland, Oregon). Other bits and pieces were also added including, among her cutlery, a collection of CPR souvenir spoons.4
The River Hauler
The Nowitka was built to run opposite of the Klahowya, a luxurious tourist vessel, as a less glamourous vessel used for hauling freight and pushing barges ahead for the transport of large loads.5 It was allowed to carry ten passengers and had 4.3 horsepower.6
After the opening of the Kootenay Central Railway in the valley in 1915, steamboats could no longer compete, and the Nowitka was taken out of service.7
Brought Out of Retirement
The Nowitka’s retirement did not last. It has the distinction of being the last commercial steamboat on the Upper Columbia River as, in 1920, it was taken on a final voyage by Captain Armstrong, who had been hired to run up from Golden in order to drive piles for a new road bridge at Brisco. That bridge would close the Columbia River to any further navigation from large boats, effectively ending the era of large steamboats on the river.
It is somewhat fitting that Amrstrong was the one to captain this last trip: he was responsible for the first steamboat on the Upper Columbia, the Duchess, which had been launched thirty-four years almost to the day of the last Nowitka voyage. The trip neatly bookmarked an era.
Armstrong’s last voyage with the Nowitka also demonstrated the changes on the Upper Columbia River. The Duchess, at 74 feet long, was the longest vessel that Armstrong thought would be able to navigate the river in 1886. In contrast, the 1920 Nowitka, combined with barges ahead of her, “made up a craft 246 feet long and 23 feet beam.”8 The clearing of snags of the river and the closing off of side channels to confine water into one main stream had also so drastically changed the river that, “it would have been impossible to navigate such a craft [as the Nowitka] in the early days.”9 Even at low water, as was the case on this last trip, the Nowitka could be brought through.
The Windermere Valley had changed in other ways as well. An enterprising farmer had run a telephone line across the river, and the Nowitka inadvertently tore it down on its way through, taking out the rural telephone system for a number of days after the trip.10
Armstrong also reported having taken advantage of this trip to “rescue” some ore that he had abandoned on the bank twenty-four years previously. As he recalled, “It was the last chance and I took it.”11
Following the trip, the Nowitka was abandoned alongside the sawmill wharf at Golden.12 Although I have no evidence in support of this statement, I assume that various bits and pieces were scavenged over the years, which is fitting.
The name “Mount Nowitka”, located near the headwaters of Findlay Creek, first appears in publication in a 1932 paper written for the Geographical Journal by J Monroe Thorington and Eaton Cromwell.13 It is one of many peaks in the same general area named after early Upper Columbia steamboats.
Captain Francis Patrick Armstrong