Steamers on the Lower Snake
From the 1860s until 1940, steamboats powered by large steam boilers made regular trips along the Snake River, carrying people and cargo. One regular steamboat-run in the 1890s ran every day except Sunday from Lewiston, Idaho, to Riparia, Washington (Columbia County), to make a connection with the Union Pacific Railroad.
The Annie Faxon was launched in 1877 as part of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company’s fleet that served the region. For some years the Annie Faxon ran along the Clearwater River in Idaho. Later, the steamer plied the lower Snake River, captained by E. W. Baughman, who became a near-legendary figure among people living along the river. By the 1890s his son Harry C. Baughman had joined him as a captain of the Annie Faxon.
A Faulty Boiler
By 1893, the boiler that powered the Annie Faxon was beginning to show its age. It was actually older than the vessel, having been used for several years on another steamer, the John Gates, before being installed on the Annie Faxon. In the spring or early summer of 1893 an inspector condemned the Annie Faxon’s boiler. He allowed the steamer to continue making its runs for the year, but ordered the boiler replaced when the Annie Faxon tied up for the winter at the end of the season. Unfortunately, the boiler did not last that long.
At dawn on Monday morning, August 14, 1893, the Annie Faxon left Lewiston on her daily run to Riparia. The steamer stopped in Almota, a small town on the northern shore of the Snake River in Whitman County about five miles northwest of where Lower Granite Dam is today (2006). Then she resumed her run to Riparia.
As the steamer neared Wade’s Bar, about 12 miles west of Almota, a man on the southern shore hailed the captain, saying he wanted to ship some peaches on the steamer. Captain Harry Baughman, from his perch in the pilothouse, steered the vessel toward shore. At the approach, Baughman rang for the engines to stop for a landing.
Almost simultaneously, the boiler exploded on the lower deck. The force of steam from the explosion buckled the vessel first in and then out, causing the cabins and pilothouse, which were located above the boiler, to collapse. Baughman watched in horror as flying wreckage decapitated a man who was with him in the pilothouse.
Sage Aiken, the first assistant engineer, described what he saw:
"The chief engineer had just turned on the steam ... I was standing in front of the first cabin when the explosion occurred ... I was struck by the steam and blown straight up in the air about 20 feet and came down, lighting on my feet just in front of the boiler ... I saw Thomas McIntosh [one of the fatalities], he was lying in the middle of the boat, his feet upward, and the wreckage of the pilot house lying on his body ... Life was extinct. His head was badly bruised and the lower part of his body and limbs crushed almost to a jelly" (Shaver).
Aiken added that the boiler was 29 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, and was allowed to carry 125 pounds of steam. He said that at the time of the accident, the steamer carried only 110 pounds -- according to Aiken, the usual amount carried when going downstream. Aiken added, "Just before we left Lewiston the boiler had been thoroughly cleaned and was to all appearance in good shape"(Shaver).
The explosion threw most of the passengers into the Snake River. Those who were not killed grabbed floating wreckage and hung on until they were rescued by small boats; a few managed to swim the 40 or so feet to the southern shore. Eight people died as a result of the explosion, and at least 11 more were injured.
Seven of the eight killed were:
- John McIntosh
- Thomas McIntosh, Starbuck
- William Kidd
- Henry Bush
- Pain Allen
- George Farwell, Lewiston
- Scott McComb
Only a few people on the steamer escaped uninjured. Different accounts state that there were a total of either 23 or 25 passengers and crew on the vessel that day.
A 1990 Lewiston Tribune article quoted an (undated) article from the Lewiston Teller about the wreck’s aftermath: "Everything above the lower deck is blown to splinter. The hull is badly shattered and has settled down on the bar about 40 feet from the shore.
"Most of the wreckage has floated away and the rest lay in a confused heap on the wreck of the hull ... To look at the wreck as it lies, the wonder is how any person escaped alive."
Captain Baughman was not injured, and was able to walk 12 miles upriver to Almota, where he telephoned the news to Lewiston. A physician shortly left Lewiston for the scene, and two physicians later arrived from Walla Walla and Spokane. They treated numerous injuries -- mostly burns and injuries from flying debris. The next day the more seriously injured were taken by special train to Walla Walla and hospitalized in St. Mary’s Hospital.
Some relatives of the injured and dead filed suit against the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. Most of the claims were settled out of court for considerably smaller amounts than demanded in the suits.
Garfield County historian Elgin Kuykendall was a young attorney in Garfield County at the time and assisted in representing one of the plaintiffs in the early stages of the litigation. Kuykendall later explained the basis for the reduced settlements in his History of Garfield County: "It seems that the law at that time limited the total damages occasioned by the destruction of the vessel through the negligence of the owners to the value of the vessel."
The hull of the Annie Faxon was salvaged and used in the construction of the steamer Lewiston. In July 1922, the Lewiston was destroyed by fire as she lay moored at the Snake River Avenue landing in Lewiston, Idaho.