Captain Peter Sorenson. Photo courtesy of the Museum of North Idaho

By Richard Sheldon And Deborah Mitchell
| February 27, 2021 1:00 AM

Peter C. Sorenson was born in 1833 in Kragero, Norway, where he learned the art of boatbuilding. In 1864, Peter, a young widower, and his brother, Lars, immigrated to the U.S. and for several years worked in Michigan building boats for the Great Lakes.

Later they made their way to Portland, Ore., where they also worked in boatbuilding on the Columbia River. In November 1879, the quartermaster of the newly opened Fort Coeur d’Alene sent word to Fort Vancouver that the U.S. Army was in need of a “competent” boat builder.

In the spring of 1880, Peter Sorenson set out for Fort Coeur d’Alene. Using tools that were at the fort and a planer he brought from Norway, he built the first steamboat on the lake, the Amelia Wheaton, named after a daughter of the commander of the fort.

When the 85-foot boat was launched, the commander gave him a commission as captain of the Amelia Wheaton. With this boat, Sorenson started to map Lake Coeur d’Alene and its rivers, giving names to many of the bays and prominent landmarks. Many of these names are still in use today.

Amelia Wheaton, with Arrow Point seen in the background. Courtesy of the Museum of North Idaho photo archives.

Captain Sorenson continued to build boats in Coeur d’Alene, but they were built for individuals or businesses to be used for transportation to the mining region or for excursions. We know the names of 17 steamers that he either built himself or in cooperation with another boat builder, and there may be more.

In 1890 Sorenson built a lovely hotel at the base of Tubbs Hill. His daughter, Christina, who joined him with her two daughters from Norway, assumed responsibility for running the hotel. Sorenson stayed at the hotel part of the time, but he also had a home above Kidd Island. In 1904 the hotel burned to the ground.

At the age of 74, in 1907, he built his last steamboat, the North Star.

Captain Peter Sorenson died Jan. 16, 1918, and is buried in the Forest Cemetery on the western side of North Government Way in Coeur d’Alene.

The era of Coeur d’Alene steamboats lasted for about 50 years (1880s-1930s), with the peak activity being from 1908-1913. During this time there were more steamboats on Lake Coeur d’Alene than any other lake west of the Great Lakes. Increasing competition from the railroads eventually made transportation via steamboats unprofitable and put them out of business.

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These bimonthly historical items are presented by the Museum of North Idaho (MNI) to remind citizens of the richness of our history and to place in context why we are who we are. Please consider becoming a museum member. Go to our website museumni.org for more information.