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STEAMSHIP TRAVEL ON THE FEATHER RIVER

The main town of my MacLarens of Boundary Mountains series is located on the shores of the Feather River, in the fictional town of Conviction. My newest release in the series, Heather’s Choice, is placed at this location.

Did you know Feather River does exist? In the 19th century, the river played a critical role in moving passengers and cargo in northern California.

Marysville and Yuba City intersect at the glassy blue Feather River. During the Wild West gold rush, many steamships, with their magnificent turning paddle wheels, traveled up and down Feather River between San Francisco, Sacramento, and Marysville.

The gold rush transformed Feather River from a yawning waterway of crude canoes, small sailboats, and whaleboats to a busy, bustling route of fast-moving, smoke puffing, passenger-filled, steam powered boats.

The first steamboat to travel down Feather River was a small sternwheel steamer, the Linda, in 1849. When a native tribe saw this strange boat move down the river without a sail or anyone paddling as it huffed and puffed, they fled to the woods as if it was an evil spirit. When they noticed it land at a white settlement and saw those people weren’t afraid, they went to get a better look, exclaiming how much they liked the new boat.

Early 19th Century Steamer

In 1850, Captain E.C. M. Chadwick steered a small side-wheel steamer, the Lawrence, to Marysville, bringing people and supplies. Steamboats were a highly profitable business. Thousands upon thousands of forty-niners, mostly young men, booked passage, seeking gold for the taking. However, some passengers were merchants and business owners who came to house, feed, and entertain the gold seekers. Hard working merchants actually prospered much more than most prospectors looking for quick riches. And many failed miners became settlers.

However, traveling the Feather River wasn’t a walk in the rose garden. A serious problem was discovered in 1851 that threatened these golden days for Marysville and Yuba City. There were Snags imbedded in the river bottom and if a steamer stuck or ran onto a snag it could severely damage the boat, even cause it to sink. That could have put an end to all the lucrative traffic up and down the Feather and Yuba rivers, which would have been a tremendous blow to Marysville.  The prominent citizens and businessmen of the town weren’t going to let that happen. They called a meeting and agreed to pay by subscription to get rid of the snags.

Feather River

The contract was signed, the work commenced and was quickly finished before the rainy season began. However, some subscribers didn’t promptly cover their share of the payment. This left the citizens that paid a bit perturbed. All money due was collected, through firm, tenacious effort.   

But even on a snag-free river, there were inherent dangers with steamships. Any number of issues could cause problems: if a boiler failed, if a steam drum blew, if an engineer didn’t lift the safety valve as he closed the throttle…just to name a few.

1850 Steamship

On August 16, 1851, the steamer Fawn exploded, it rocketed sky high out of the river with a deafening roar several miles below Marysville. And if that wasn’t bad enough steamships often had daredevil crewmen hell-bent on proving their boat was the best. This led to dangerous stunts like racing steamships.

Steamships continued providing services on the Feather River into the late 19th century.

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