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North Umpqua Early History

Posted by Mark Sunday, April 11, 2010

In the next few blogs I will be taking a look back at some of the pioneers of the river and the history and tradition they created. I would like to credit Mark Hoy for his careful compilation of this very important part of Oregon history.

A History of Steamboat Inn & the Fly-Fishing Tradition on the North Umpqua River

by Mark Hoy

The Early Fishing Camps

SawtoothThe earliest sport fishing camps were established in the Steamboat area in the 1920s. Prior to that time, a rough trail provided the only access to the area. After the native peoples had left the area in the late nineteenth century, the only visitors were a few hardy homesteaders, some prospectors looking for gold, and hunters in search of deer and elk.
The gold miners probably provided the name "Steamboat" for the creek that enters the main river near the present site of the Inn. Although a rich deposit of gold was discovers in a nearby drainage - later named the Bohemia Mining District - Steamboat Creek was prospected extensively without yielding similar results. In the miners' parlance of the day, if an area did not come up to expectations, or claims had been fraudulently sold to unsuspecting newcomers, the miners leaving the scene were said to have "steamboats" out of the area. No one knows who first applied the term to Steamboat Creek, but the name was in general use by the 1890s.
Much to the disappointment of many first time visitors to the area, there is no evidence that any steamboat ever navigated the upper stretches of the North Umpqua . Even a cursory look at the river in this area - filled with large boulders and sections of foaming whitewater confirms the fact that modern jet boats, which can run upstream in as little as six inches of water, could scarcely make the passage, let alone a wood-bottomed steamboat.
A dirt road, blazed high on the canyon wall above the river, was completed all the way upriver to Steamboat in 1927. Although the trip was slow and sometimes treacherous, anglers began to transport their gear by motorized trucks or cars to the junction of Steamboat Creek and the North Umpqua River, where they established summer fishing camps.
Boundary PoolThese anglers were attracted to the area by stories of heavy runs of summer steelhead, a type of rainbow trout that spawns in freshwater but descends certain rivers to the ocean. There steelhead spend two to five years feeding and growing and then return to their native streams to spawn. Unlike salmon, many steelhead live on after spawning. They return to the ocean and, occasionally, return upstream for a second time to spawn.
In the early days, the North Umpqua also supported strong runs of Chinook and Coho salmon, as well as sea-run cutthroat trout. Today, development has reduced these species, except for the spring Chinook salmon, to remnant runs. However, aided by hatchery-spawned fish, the runs of summer steelhead remain comparable to, and in some years exceed, the numbers of fish found in the river by the first fly anglers.
Fishermen discovered that a few hardy souls had preceded them. A recluse named "Umpqua" Vic O'Byrne had established a camp a few miles upstream from Steamboat, across the river from an old, abandoned fish hatchery. The spot was known as Hatchery Ford, because it was one of the few places where a pack train of horses and mules could cross the river. O'Byrne built a cabin and fished for salmon and steelhead in grand solitude. He was reputed to have been a military man before he "took to the wilds." He later drowned in what some considered mysterious circumstances, since his glasses and other personal effects were found laid out neatly on his cabin table after his body was recovered from the river downstream.
Farther upstream, Perry and Jessie Wright had proved up a homestead at Illahee Flats in 1915. For many years, the Wrights packed in supplies with horses and mules for the Forest Service and early hunters in the area. Jessie Wright wrote an entertaining account of the pioneer days on the North Umpqua , titled "How High the Bounty." The first sports angler of national reputation to adopt the North Umpqua was Major Jordan Lawrence Mott who first arrived in the Steamboat area in 1929. He established a summer fishing camp on the south side of the main river, opposite the junction of Steamboat Creek and the North Umpqua . His camp surveyed the series of fishing pools that would later become known collectively as "the camp water." Because many of the native summer steelhead in the North Umpqua spawn in Steamboat Creek and remain in the main river until the first heavy rains of the fall season allow them to enter the creek, this area was (and remains) one of the most productive fishing areas on the entire river.
Mott PoolBefore he came to Steamboat, Major Mott led a life straight out of a romantic novel. When Mott was born in New York in 1881, his father was the president of J. L. Mott Iron Works and reputedly controlled a fortune in excess of $25 million. The younger Mott graduated from Harvard and went to work as a reporter in New York City . However, he covered his assignments in a chauffeur driven, imported limousine and was dubbed the "millionaire reporter."
Unhappy in his first marriage, Mott fell in love with a married woman, Frances Hewitt Bowne. They eloped to Europe on a tramp steamer in 1912 - scandalous behavior for the time since neither of the young lovers had bothered to secure a divorce. Mott's father hired another New York newspaperman, Hector Fuller, to track them down. Fuller pursued the happy couple across several continents before finally locating them in Hong Kong , where Mrs. Bowne was singing light opera to earn them a meager income. When Mott refused to return to New York City, his father promptly disinherited him.
During World War I, Mott served in the U. S. Army Signal Corps and was commissioned a major. After the war, the couple lived on Santa Catalina Island in California where Mott pursued deep-sea fishing for marlin and became prominent in the emerging radio industry. He also authored numerous magazine articles and books on the outdoors, including a successful novel entitled "Jules of the Great Love." In 1928, after finally receiving their respective divorces, he and Frances were wed.
Much of Major Mott's time in his later years was spent campaigning for conservation of wildlife and natural resources. He was attracted to the North Umpqua for its excellent steelhead fishing and made his summer camp there until his premature death, at age 50, in 1931. Mott cherished his time at Steamboat so much that even after he had contracted the cancer that eventually killed him, he traveled from California to his camp at Steamboat to spend his final days on the river.
Major Mott's legacy is well preserved in the Steamboat area. The bridge leading from the main North Umpqua Highway across the river to the site of his old camp still bears his name, as do a series of nearby fishing pools, collectively known as "Mott Water." The fisherman's trail that provides access to the south bank of the North Umpqua River is now maintained by the Forest Service and officially known as the Mott Trail.
While still in camp at Steamboat, Major Mott hired a local man, Zeke Allen, to cook, do chores around camp, and guide him while he learned to fish the river. After Mott's death, Allen inherited most of the fishing and camping gear, as well as the use of Major Mott's campsite. Zeke Allen continued to guide the few anglers who came to fish for steelhead in the summer, as well as hunters who arrived in the fall to pursue deer and elk.
The same year that Major Mott first visited the North Umpqua, another nationally known sportsman, Captain Frank Winch, made a short visit to Steamboat. Winch, like Mott, had been told of the area by John Ewell, who operated a motel in nearby Roseburg and had rustic cabins near the junction of Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek. Winch was a field scout for Forest and Stream Magazine and an accomplished hunter and fisherman. He fished with Major Mott for only one evening but caught a seven-pound steelhead. As Winch later reported:
"I have been on every trout stream of importance in the entire northern part of the United States, but I have never seen a real trout stream until I fished in the North Umpqua River today. Words cannot possibly express my enthusiasm for your North Umpqua. I am still dizzy from the thrill..."

 Stay tuned for more in this series


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