FINAL TRIP OF THE STEAMER OAKES

July 17, 1942: Hazardous Trip On North Fork Final One For James A. Talbot's Steamer

By J. H. Ridenour

Rusting away on a gravel bed under the west end of the bridge a quarter of a mile below the southwest corner of Glacier National Park lies an old steam boiler. For almost half a century it has lain there, abandoned, isolated, and almost forgotten. The building of the new bridge across the Flathead at that point last summer has broken its long isolation. It is not much to see, but it is a relic of an enterprise, probably one of the most romantic and adventurous in the development of northwestern Montana, the ill-starred voyage of the steamer Oakes.

Some time previous to 1890, important coal deposits had been discovered far up the North Fork of the Flathead river. Near the same time James A. Talbot, an enterprising character who had prospered in the rush days of the Butte mining development, came into the Flathead country. With others he acquired the townsite of Columbia Falls ahead of the railroad and built a palatial home on the bank of the river nearby.

Talbot was a man of considerable vision, and in those days was able to back his dreams with tangible substance. He learned of the coal deposits on the North Fork and conceived the idea of using this coal to induce the construction of a railroad into that region, which would bless his town of Columbia Falls and would greatly stimulate the development of the whole region.

But many miles of the most difficult terrain in the state covered with an almost impenetrable jungle of virgin forest lay between the townsite and the prospective mines. When the Great Northern, building westward, reached Columbia Falls, Talbot decided on a desperate effort to bring out a car load sample of that North Fork coal. He recognized the practical impossibility of over-land transportation and knowing full well the hazardous nature of the enterprise, had a steamboat built at a cost of about $5,000 to attempt the navigation of the swift and turbulent river.

This steamer, named the Oakes, was a stern wheeler about 75 feet long and fairly broad of bam, and carried a power winch on the forward deck in anticipation of the need of extra power in the swift and almost continuous rapids up-stream.

The Oakes was captained and piloted by two experienced river men, Steve Lereau and Christian Prestbye, supported by a crew of a dozen or so hardy and resourceful men. The engine was operated by a man named Doyle; the boiler was fired by a husky youth, Claude Slemmer. Riggers for handling tow lines and shore gear included Mike Shannon, Bob Hunter, Tom McDonald, and a tall and wirey youngster remembered only as Slim. An old man of 65 years, probably a crony of Talbot's earlier days at Butte, was one of the crew, the Talbot himself, never asking any man to do what he would not try himself, was a useful man on board.

Hazardous Enterprise: Any casual fisherman who has fished on the Flathead through and above Bad Rock canyon and along the rock-ribbed channel of the North Fork with its rapids, shoals and whirling pools at low water, would marvel that the attempt at navigation was ever made. It is appalling to think of the hazards threatening a ship like the Oakes, which must make the attempt in the swift, gray, swirling flood of snow water of the spring thaws.

But early in May, 1892, the Oakes and its daring crew steamed up the swollen flood of the Flathead river. Hopes were high and the start was auspicious. Talbot's enthusiasm inspired the crew and all were in holiday humor. Their whistle blasts awoke the echoes as they steamed up through Bad Rock canyon, passed the mouth of South Fork, carefully threaded the narrower, swifter waters of the Baby canyon, and swung away to the north. Fortune still smiled as the stern-wheel threshed the swift gray waters and they moved slowly up stream. They passed beneath the high bridge of the Great Northern at the site of the present town of Coram and onward without incident to the foot of the Red Lick rapids some three miles beyond.

There was the first stern crisis of the voyage. Slemmer fired the boiler to the limit and Doyle nursed the engine with the available steam while Prestbye steered to keep an open channel and to meet the current from the most favorable angles. They almost reached the comparatively quiet waters above the rapids when, short of steam, the engine faltered and the Oakes lost headway and drifted almost helplessly in the raging water.

It was their first moment of extreme peril. A small boat was carried for a tender. Mike Shannon and Bob Hunter quickly launched this boat and rowed ashore in desperate haste with a tow line. A single turn of the line around the nearest tree, a half formed knot and a quick haul by the power winch and the Oakes and her crew were saved from going broadside down the rocky channel.

Their predicament demonstrated the necessity for more rope. A single towline was not enough. There were many such rapids ahead and on most of them a cross-haul would be required to hold the Oakes in mid-stream while the winch and the main towline furnished the forward power. The Oakes and her crew were forced to remain moored at the Red Licks while Slemmer took the small boat and went back down stream to Columbia Falls for more rope.

Slemmer narrowly missed death when a veritable maelstrom opened before him as he rounded a projecting rock in the canyon on the way to town and he decided it was folly to return upstream with the heavy rope in the small boat; so he got aboard a freight train and induced the crew to let him off at the nearest point to the tethered Oakes.

There was now no small boat for a tender and from this point on there was almost constant need for a shore crew on the other shore to rig the cross-haul which in the absence of a second winch was operated by a hasty improvisation they referred to as a Spanish windlass crudely constructed when and where needed on shore. Shannon and Hunter usually manned the main tow line while Slemmer and Slim rigged the cross-haul and the rest did their share of the work on board.

They passed the mouth of the Middle Fork and worked northward into the narrowing and quickening current of the North Fork. they were now shut in on all sides by wilderness. To their right lay the wild and frequently perpendicular jungle which would one day be Glacier National Park. One the left lay the rugged foothills of the Whitefish mountains.

Good Game Country: It was good game country and frequently deer and moose appeared on the river banks and once seven deer were seen swimming across the river upstream.

Just below the mouth of Canyon creek the Oakes was swept out of the main channel and caught in a broad whirling pool where she milled round and round along with a mass of logs and brush in a situation which bid fair to be the end of her. After much hazardous maneuvering the two lines were rigged and the boat was again worked into the stream. When she finally swung into the channel and started forward Slemmer's hold on the Spanish windlass slipped and it spun like a deadly pin wheel over his head as he ducked and the line and windlass were dragged away into the river.

Many days had passed and they were less than 15 miles from their starting point. The current was growing more turbulent and the channel more dangerous every mile.

Two or three miles above Canyon creek the last lien was put ashore. Shannon and Hunter snubbed it to the only tree strategically located and the winch began to haul. The Oakes rolled from side to side and rocked dangerously as the water struck it from different angles. From the rigorous strains of the voyage the Oakes was taking some water in the hold, and this set in motion added to the instability of the craft. Now on a particularly violent yaw she finally capsized near the east bank. The added pull was too much for the tree. It was pulled out by the roots and both boat and tree drifted away down stream.

Most of the crew scrambled ashore on the east shore in this final catastrophe, Christian Prestbye climbing through the window of the pilot house as the water rushed in at the door. Talbot and two other men were not so fortunate. They, however, had been able to scramble up the side as she turned over and were still on top when she floated into midstream and finally grounded nearly bottom up on a gravel bar some distance below.

The situation of these three men was now critical. The boat might roll at any moment. No man could swim that icy flood. Those on shore were without tools. They had a length of rope but it was too short to reach the wreck. In this emergency they seized a dead, half-rotten fir tree and broke it in pieces. They stranded the rope and constructed a crude raft which they let float down towards the wreck at the end of the spliced strands. After many unsuccessful efforts they maneuvered this raft near enough to the Oakes for one of the men to get aboard and he was hauled ashore. Three times the operation was repeated and all were finally on firm land.

The Steamer Oakes had made her first and last voyage, and in this effort it became the only steam-driven boat ever operated on the Flathead or its branches above Kalispell.

Crew In Sorry Plight: But the crew of the Oakes was in a sorry plight; not a single ax, not an ounce of food, not a single match in all the company. Talbot alone had been able to salvage a single wet blanket. All were soaked to the skin. The snows of winter still lingered in the deep woods and the temperature at night dropped well below the freezing point. From the other bank a blazed trail was known to Columbia Falls while many miles of unmarked and well nigh impassable wilderness intervened on any other avenue of escape.

In this dilemma Claude Slemmer suggested crossing the river on crude rafts such as they had used to rescue the three men from the wreck. Only Slim would agree to such a venture. So Slemmer and Slim on the raft of rotten fire with only a rough pole and a piece of broken board from the wreck to work with, set out to cross the swift gray flood while the rest of the shivering crew stood on the shore and watched them drift out of sight.

To traverse the difficult terrain which lay between the larger group and their nearest contact with civilization, the railroad station at Belton would have been sufficiently strenuous in their condition if the hills had been bare and the visibility good, but with those tumbled hills and ravines deep clad in a tangled jungle of primeval forest the task was formidable indeed.

One man of the party professed to know of a short cut across country and most of the men, including Talbot, chose to follow his lead. Tom MacDonald, who had injured an ankle in the mad scramble ashore, and the old gentleman from Butte preferred to keep the river in sight, work down the North Fork to its confluence with the Middle Fork and then up that stream towards Belton. Mike Shannon accompanied them on their longer but more reliable course.

The two groups separated. A few hours later and a couple of miles down stream Shannon heard voices. After some hallooing back and forth the two parties were together again. The overland party had become confused in the maze of hills and tangled forest, lost their bearings, and blindly circled to the river again.

Night came. They bedded themselves the best they could and all aly down to sleep.

Next morning they were on their way early, separated as before. The larger group was still hopeful of finding a short way through but in a few hours bewilderment and blind circling brought them again to the river bank and reunion with Shannon and his companions. Together they tramped on, up hill and down, over rocks and through quagmire, clawed and scratched by devil's clubs till it seemed that the old demon himself was belaboring them. And while these tortures beset from without, hunger was boring from within.

Eventually game and Indian trails brought them to a deserted Indian camp for another cold and cheerless night, and early next morning they came out on the bank of MacDonald creek.

The creek was bank full and cold. But there, 100 feet away, tugging at its moorings on the other bank was a small scow. All hands combined to break down small trees and to weave them into a sort of mat-like raft which when done was a little more than a brush pile. On this Mike Shannon made a precarious crossing and secured that precious scow.

Ferried Across Creek: Shannon and Hunter ferried the party across MacDonald creek one at a time and not long after used the same small scow likewise in crossing the foaming waters of Middle Fork a mile or so below Belton.

When the famished party had finally straggled into Belton station and had secured food they missed Tom MacDonald and the old gentleman from Butte. Shannon and Hunter, the strongest of the weary group. took food and retraced their steps. They found the missing men, exhausted and bewildered, just off trail on the last mile.

With a little aid these men finally reached the station and with all accounted for Talbot telegraphed for a deadhead special which returned them to Columbia Falls.

In the meantime, wreckage from the Oakes had floated down the river and had been observed from the bank near town. The catastrophe was confirmed when a board bearing the broad lettered name floated beneath the bridge and past the Talbot mansion on the bank nearby.

A rescue party was speedily organized and started on the woods trail north.

Returning to Slemmer and Slim adrift on the turbulent North Fork, poling and paddling frantically to cross the swift current on the rotten and waterlogged raft, their progress down stream was rapid but across channel was painfully slow. When they neared the west bank Slim's pole was caught between submerged rocks and twisted from his grasp. Slemmer paddled furiously with his broken board while Slim made more or less futile grabs at the tops of submerged bushes in efforts to pull toward shore. Below there loomed the broad whirl where the Oakes had milled around and their situation was growing more desperate second by second when Slim, with long arm outstretched, at last gained a precious hold and they swung ashore.

Some distance father down stream they found part of an abandoned lunch in very good condition, left by some hardy wanderer. The devoured it and went on. Soon after they found the dim trail which led to Columbia Falls and suffered no further hardship. A few miles from town they met the rescue party which, on learning the whereabouts of the rest of the crew, returned with them to town.

Such was the story of a glorious adventure, but to these men it was only a work-a-day affair. Not one of them thought it worthwhile to write any account of it. Jim Talbot is dead. And of that lusty crew only two are known to be alive, Mike Shannon of Glacier Park station and Claude Slemmer of Kalispell. To these two, now aged but still colorful old-timers, the writer is indebted for the facts of this romantic adventure.

When the flood waters had subsided, blankets, tools and wreckage littered the stream bed and decorated the bushes and rocks for miles below the point of tragedy. Later Shannon salvaged the winch, added a gas engine for power and used it successfully as a stump puller for years. Others salvaged the boiler from where it had dropped from the overturned wreck and attempted to bring it out on a raft, but the raft was wrecked and the boiler finally came to rest on a gravel bar just below the mouth of Middle Fork where it has lain half buried in the gravel for nearly half a century. Fishermen have reported seeing the engine in the bottom of a deep pool near the mouth of Canyon creek. Slemmer's rifle was never found, and the old hulk eventually drifted away to parts unknown.

A year later, again under the auspices of Talbot, Shannon and five men constructed a huge raft at the mine site and actually brought out half a carload of coal. In an effort to repeat the exploit the second raft was wrecked, the crew deserted and Mike was compelled to give up the enterprise.

Eventually two railroad surveys were made into the forbidding region, but neither survey encouraged construction and it remained for 40 years of time for modern trucks and a still hazardous highway to give a measure of accessibility to North Fork coal.

--- Whitefish Pilot




Home Page       History Page