By Deborah Mitchell
At the turn of the 19th century, the steamboat captains on Lake Coeur d’Alene shared and agreed to a set of signal whistles, or toots, that they had brought with them from Michigan, Wisconsin, Portland, or wherever they had learned the rules and skills of steamboat navigation. However, the oversight of safety regulations with the Coast Guard on “inland waters” did not come about until after WWII.
Despite the lack of oversight and increasing competition among steamboats, the captains on Lake Cd’A and its tributary rivers had a fairly good safety record. There were boiler pipe explosions and a capsizing on the Cd’A River that caused a loss of life, but it was no less a miracle that the collisions between steamers and a few resultant sinkings caused no loss of life.
One well-published collision and sinking occurred on July 17, 1905 when the mammoth 147-foot side-wheeler Idaho (Red Collar Line) rammed the smaller 85-foot sternwheeler Boneta (White Star Line) on a bend in the St. Joe River 4 miles above Chatcolet. A great deal of contention had already existed between these two rival lines, and one had to wonder if it was really an accident. The Coeur d’Alene Press reported the story on July 22, 1905:
The Bonetawas making her regular trip up the river and the Idaho was on her regular trip down. The boats met near a sharp bend and the Bonetapeople claim that Capt. Reynolds gave one blast on the whistle as a signal that he was approaching the bend and that Capt. Sprague, the pilot on the Idaho, mistook this for a passing signal. It is claimed that as the boats came in sight the Bonetasounded two whistles signifying her intention of passing to the starboard side and started to cross the river. The injury to her hull, which is on the port [left] side, shows that she was headed for the right side of the river when struck.
Those on the Idaho claim that as soon as the boats came in sight the Boneta gave one whistle for passage on the port side and that the big steamer was turned in that direction when the Bonetaagain signaled with two whistles to pass on the starboard side, and started across the river, but it was then too late to change the course of the Idaho and her engines were reversed in an effort to prevent the impending collision, without success.
The captains of both boats agree as to the signals being given and disagree as to the answers and the meanings of the signals.
With a 6-foot-wide hole in her hull, the Boneta sank in about 3 minutes, but as soon as it was rammed Capt. Reynolds worked the Boneta towards the shore and shoved the bow into the bank in order to save the 5 passengers, 2 horses and crew before it sank.
The Idaho left the scene of the accident unscathed. Of the captains, Reynolds had much more experience than did the young Capt. Sprague. Needless to say, Capt. Reynolds was furious.
These bimonthly historical items are presented by the Museum of North Idaho (MNI) to remind the citizens of the richness of our history. Please consider becoming a Museum member. Go to our website museumni.org for more information. [The bow of the steamboat Boneta with her bow out of the water and shoved into the bank on the St. Joe River after being rammed by the Idaho. July 1905.