The Steamer Seattle

Written By John V. Wood

Steamer Seattle, 1907. TrW-16-3

Recently I was asked if I had a steamboat story that could reflect progress on the steamboat book I am writing for the museum, and be a suitable length for a Quarterly article. One that came to mind has a connection to my wife’s family as her uncle, the late Jim Mitchell, worked on the Seattle as a youth. Due to a breakup of his family, Jim had gone to live with his grandfather, Bill (William M.) Phillips,in Rockford Bay. His grandfather owned and operated three steamers on Lake Coeur d’Alene: the Wardner, the MicaBay, and lastly, the Seattle – the subject of this article.

The Seattle

The Knutsen Brothers Boat Builders of Black Rock Bay built the Seattle for William M. Phillips. She was about 90 feet long and had a 15-foot beam. She was launched sometime prior to October 5, 1908, when the Press ran this story: “The steamer Seattle, owned and operated by William Phillips, will hereafter make regular daily trips between this point [Coeur d’Alene] and St. Maries.” And although there is no doubt Phillips had the boat built, her subsequent trail of “owners” is not easy to follow.

The Seattle at Black Rock Bay soon after her construction was completed. She’s sitting moored to the Knutsen Brothers’ houseboat. Courtesy Mike Fritz Collection.

On November 23rd of the same year, the paper announced new “owners.”

            Ray Hill and L. L. Whitaker have purchased the steamer Seattle from W. M. Phillips. The   new firm has had the boat improved, repainted, and the cabin extended, and the          machinery overhauled. The Steamer will make daily trips between this city [Coeur     d’Alene] and St. Joe. It will leave Coeur d’Alene at 8 o’clock in the morning, and return       at 6 o’clock in the evening.

Although the word the paper used for the transaction was “purchased,” subsequent events seem to indicate the story should have said “leased.”

Apparently the schedule changed, for on December 4th the St. Maries Gazette announced, “The steamer Seattle, will leave St. Maries daily at 8 a.m. arriving at Coeur d’Alene to connect with the 11:30 train to Spokane, and will leave Coeur d’Alene at 2:30 p.m. on [after?] arrival of 1:10 train from Spokane.” In another story in the same issue of the Gazette, it was said that, “R. G. Hill and L. L. Whitaker, desire to announce that they have chartered the steamer Seattle, with which they will make daily runs between St. Maries and Coeur d’Alene during the winter months.”

Certainly the expression “chartered sounds like the boat had been leased, not purchased; and the comment that it was “for the winter months” also indicates it wasn’t a purchase.

The Gazette carried a revised schedule on December 11th with the boat leaving St. Maries at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8, and leaving Coeur d’Alene at 1:30 p.m. However, the Press of December 14th said the Seattle left Coeur d’Alene at 1 p.m., not 1:30! It is hard to tell which was right.

On December 18th the Gazette added to the confusion about the boat’s ownership when it stated, “Walter Laws who has bought a third interest in the steamer Seattle, has moved his family to St. Maries.” If Laws did purchase part ownership, he must have done so from W. M. Phillips, but this can’t be verified. It does make sense that Laws would move to St. Maries if he worked with the boat as that was where she spent each night on this schedule.

The next spring, the question of ownership really hit the news when a fistfight broke out over that very issue. From the Press on February 5, 1909:

Row Gets Into Court

Wm. Phillips Has Andrew and

J. O. Knutson [sic-Knutsen] Arrested

Tomorrow afternoon at 2 o’clock is the time set for the trial of the case of the state of Idaho against J. O. and Andrew Knutson in the probate court. The complaint filed in this case is preferred by W. Phillips and charges the two defendants with having committed battery on his person February 3. The defendants were arrested this morning by Deputy Sheriff Adams, and made their appearance for trial at nine o’clock, but owing to the fact that the state was not ready to proceed it was postponed until Saturday afternoon.

The battery is said to have been committed when Phillips endeavored to secure possession of the steamer Seattle. The boat was constructed for Phillips by the Knutsons, and according to a suit commenced by them yesterday in the district court he has not paid them the construction price.

Some time ago, Knutson brothers were given possession of the boat with the understanding that its earnings were to be used in paying of the debt due them for building it, but February 3 Phillips asked them to surrender the possession to him. This they declined to do and it is said, he attempted to take possession by force and was successfully resisted by the Knutsons.

From the tone of the article it seems the reporter, at least, was convinced that Phillips owed the money and the Knutsen brothers were in the right. This same issue of the paper also carried the story of the lawsuit by the Knutsen Bros.

Sues Phillips for $3,099.

J. O. Knutson

Wants Pay for Building Boat.

J. O. Knutson of the firm of Knutson brothers, boat builders at Rockford bay, commenced an action in the district court yesterday afternoon against Wm. Phillips in which he asks for a judgment of $3,099.23 which he alleges is due and owing for the construction of the steamer Seattle.

According to the complaint filed, Knutson entered into an agreement for the construction of the boat with the defendant February 15, 1908, for the sum of $800. After the construction of the boat was commenced, however, the defendant desired the boat to be built on a larger scale, and also to have the plaintiff install the machinery and also had other work done making an addition to the original cost price that brought it up to the sum of $3,099.23, for which amount a judgment is asked. An attachment was issued in the case and levied on the boat last evening by

Deputy Sheriff Adams.

Phillips fought the attachment, but the judge denied his appeal and he took the matter to the State Supreme Court. The Press reported the verdict on April 14, 1909.

Phillips Wins Case

Supreme Court Gives Him Possession

of Steamer Seattle.

On the fourth of February, last, J. O. Knutsen commenced an action against Wm. Phillips to recover the sum of $3,099.23, alleged to be due for constructing the steamer Seattle, and secured a writ of attachment against the boat, tying it up. R. E. McFarland appeared for Phillips before Judge Woods and made a motion to have the writ of attachment dissolved. Judge Woods denied the motion and McFarland appealed from the order denying the motion, to the supreme court [Supreme Court]. Today Mr. McFarland received a telegram from the clerk of the supreme court, announcing that the court had reversed the decision of Judge Woods and dissolved the attachment.

Steamer Seattle about 1910 at the St. Maries’ dock. StM-2-3

This decision gives Mr. Phillips possession of the Seattle.

While Phillips did gain possession of the boat, the outcome of the lawsuit itself was not clear and no further record of it has been found. However, another paper, the Harrison Searchlight, also announced (April 23rd) that Phillips, “…has full charge of the steamer Seattle which the Knutson [sic Knutsen] Bro’s had tied up at Coeur d’Alene. He is intending to make a lake run with it.” How long Phillips remained the owner of the boat is not known, but a few months later the Seattle was the center of one of the most spectacular (though not fatal) steamboat accidents on the lake. At the time of the incident it was said she was the property of the Lake City Navigation Company, so in the interim she apparently changed hands.

On August 17, 1909, the Seattle had just pulled away from the dock at Coeur d’Alene when disaster struck. The Press that evening carried the whole story.

The Seattle Overturns

Loaded Too Heavy, 20 Passengers on Board

Overturned in the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene, not over thirty rods from shore, lies the little steamer Seattle, where she capsized at about noon today, the cause being too much weight, consisting of freight and passengers.

The Seattle started on its regular daily trip to St. Maries, and it was loaded with something over a half a [railroad] car of flour, besides other freight and about twenty passengers.

The flour was piled high near one side of the cabin, and as she was turning after leaving the dock the flour shifted to the side, throwing all the weight one way, and thus overturning the boat. The boat immediately became filled with water and the passengers made their escape to the upper side, hanging on to the points where best they could grab until help could reach them. Several women were among the number and they became greatly frightened and their screams could be heard for blocks. Several of the men jumped into the water and attempted to swim to shore, but were overtaken by boats before they had gone far.

Captain F.W. Fairbanks was in charge of the boat. The Seattle is owned by the Lake City Navigation Company and is considered a safe boat, and would have been so had it not been too heavily loaded and the piles of flour placed so as to sway and fall. It is claimed by good authority that too many of the boats that leave Coeur d’Alene docks are overloaded and care in this line is not guarded against as it should be.

The cabin of the Seattle was badly damaged and the loss in freight and other goods will reach several hundred dollars. The water was covered with floating sacks of flour and merchandise for several hours after the accident, and the small boy[s] had a merry time swimming and bringing ashore these goods. The docks were crowded with people all eager to see the passengers get ashore and know that none had perished. It is perhaps fortunate that the accident happened within so short a distance from town, for had it been a few miles away in all probability there would have been a loss of life.

The Seattle with the Milwaukee at St. Maries. Effie Edwards photo.

It wasn’t until the following day the boat was salvaged. “The ill-fated Seattle was raised from the waters today and repairing of the boat will begin at once. It is believed that it will take but a few days to place the steamer in her former condition and ready to make the regular trips again.” The boat’s owner, the Lake City Navigation Company started running advertisements for her on September 4th.

The confusing saga of the ownership of the Seattle surfaced again in December when the Harrison Searchlight announced on the 17th of that month that, “The steamer Seattle was sold this week to Levi Laird [Levi was the brother of the more famous Capt. Eli Laird].” It is possible (though doubtful) that the Lake City Navigation sold her, but no further evidence has been found that Eli Laird owned or operated her. J. C. White Red Collar Line (RCL) acquired the Lake City Navigation some time prior to the end of 1912 and it is believed that the Seattle became the property of the RCL.

Perhaps the biggest question about the Seattle concerns her disposition. Toward the back of Steamboats in the Timber there is a summary of how many of the steamers came to an end, and in that section it states that, “…the Seattle burned at Rose Lake.” While it is probable there was a fire, no confirmation has been found. And even if there was a fire, many boats were rebuilt after news reports that they had been totally destroyed.

However, while there is no confirmation she met her end at Rose Lake, there are several reports that she was rebuilt and renamed. The Harrison Searchlight of July 1958 carried a story about Andy Knutsen, one of the Knutsen Bros. who built the boat. He said, “…the Seattle was renamed the Clipper after I sold her to the Red Collar.” While it seems unlikely Knutsen personally owned the boat then and sold her to the RCL, it is possible. The Knutsen Bros. had a lawsuit against Phillips that might have returned the boat to them. But the most intriguing point is his statement that the boat became the Clipper. Orland Scott also supports this in Pioneer Days on the Shadowy St. Joe. Scott said, “…the Seattle, a stately-appearing steamer, built too narrow and tall, which caused it to tip over on a trip on the lake. Afterward, the top was removed and the boat renamed the Clipper.” If this is true, it not only explains the later history of the Seattle, but it also explains the origin of the Clipper. It would be nice to tie up these loose ends, but the best that can be said is that after the Seattle burned at Rose Lake, it is probable that the RCL rebuilt her into the Clipper.

The Seattle capsized on Lake Coeur d’Alene waterfront, August 17, 1909. TrW-16-2

On page 154 in her book, Steamboats in the Timber, Ruby Hult mentions that J.C. White of the Red Collar Line had the Clipper “rebuilt” into a 90-foot passenger boat, and that she had originally been built by the “Ely brothers of Harrison.” I have found no support for a boat named the Clipper being built by the Ely brothers, nor any mention of Ely brothers of Harrison as boat builders. However, the Knutsen brothers who built the Seattle did work in the Harrison area for a time, and since the Seattle was the same length (90’) that Hult gives for the Clipper, it would seem that she just got the name of the builders and original name of the boat wrong. As to White “rebuilding” the boat into a passenger boat, she was originally built as a passenger boat although another article said White remodeled her from a tug. This renaming (and remodeling?) apparently took place sometime prior to June of 1917 when the name Clipper first appeared. She lasted until 1938 when she was dismantled and sunk.

But before that end she made another connection to my family. The Clipper was one of the last steamers who made stops at Aberdeen Lodge Bay where my great grandmother had homesteaded and built a large log cabin that gave the name to the bay. Thus my father also got to ride on the boat that began its life as – the Seattle.