The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1979, Volume 25, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor
Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Steamboats on the Colorado River: 1852-1916.
By Richard E. Lingenfelter. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 195 pages. $17.50 Cloth. $9.50 Paper.
Reviewed by Harry Kelsey, Chief Curator of History at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
This is a book by a scientist who likes steamboats, specifically those on the Colorado River. “Steamboat” in this case is sort of a generic term. Many of the early commercial boats were gasoline powered, some were dredges, some were barges, a few had sails, and the most recent (1972) is a diesel. But the vessels that carried freight on the Colorado River for the last half of the nineteenth century were mostly steam-driven stern-wheelers that generally looked like steamboats ought to look. So far as the title of this book is concerned, appearances have to count for something.
Navigation of the Colorado River from the Gulf of California dates from the first half of the sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistadores took various small boats up the muddy, narrow, shallow river channel. But regular commercial navigation was postponed for three centuries, until 1851 when the U.S. Army established Fort Yuma just below the mouth of the Gila River. Overland freighting from San Francisco cost $500 a ton, too expensive for supplying a small government post. After various alternatives were tried and failed, a steam tug called the Uncle Sam began carrying sup-plies to the fort in November, 1852. Uncle Sam had a short life on the river, but the principle of steamboat navigation was established, and steamboats monopolized the Arizona freight business until the arrival of the railroad in 1877.
In spite of serious competition from the railroads, steamboats continued to operate on the Colorado River until the early years of the twentieth century, when land promotion schemes and reclamation projects first interrupted the flow of water and then permanently blocked the channel. But for some fifty years these Colorado River steamboats carried tools, hardware, dry goods, mining machinery, and milling equipment to the settlements along the river. Downstream loads were gold, silver, copper, and lead, as well as hides, wool, and pelts in season.
The text is well-researched and well-written. There are more than a hundred photographs, drawings, and maps, nicely reproduced, and in a scale large enough to show most of the interesting details of boats and buildings and construction projects. The footnotes are at the back of the book, where they probably belong, since the author has successfully resisted the urge most historians have to put half the narrative in small print at the bottom of the page. The bibliography is impressive, and the index seems more than adequate. Anyone who likes boats, the Colorado River, Indians, mining, scoundrels, adventurers, and a fast-paced narrative will like Professor Lingenfelter’s book.