Voyaging across Flathead Lake in the 19th century, steamboats were the original mode of transportation that spurred the development of the Flathead Valley
Story by Dillon Tabish | Photography courtesy of The Museum at Central SchoolBlockaded by soaring mountains and dense forests, the Flathead Valley was one of the last holdouts from civilization in the lower 48. By the early 1880s, a surge of growth and development swept across Montana, but a significant obstacle – the mammoth Flathead Lake – stood in the way of settlers hoping to explore the northern parts of this region. Rocky trails made travel around the lake possible on horseback or on foot, but it kept most families away, and shipping freight proved impossible.
Then, in 1883-84, Fred Lingren, Neil and George Nelson and Hugh F. Sinclair built a sailboat. Called the Swan, it was large enough to carry 20 tons and several passengers. The men successfully ventured the 28 miles of lake from Lambert’s Landing, present-day Polson, to Dooley’s Landing at the north end.
Although the sail proved unreliable, the success of the Swan marked the beginning of a new era in the Flathead Valley.
Two years later, James C. Kerr, a former captain on Lake Superior, purchased the boat and converted it into a larger steamboat called the U.S. Grant, named after the former president and Civil War hero. The new boat was able to ply Flathead Lake twice a week, allowing settlers to arrive in droves to the undeveloped interior of the Flathead Valley.
Within only a few years, boat traffic on Flathead Lake soared. Polson became the southern port and the newly established town of Demersville became the northern harbor just up the river until Somers developed. Dozens of ships, including the Pocahontas, the Tom Carter and Dora, ventured the lake’s choppy waters in the early years. In April 1891, in a five-day span, the Tom Carter unloaded 586 passengers at Demersville, according to records at The Museum at Central School.
Charles Conrad, the business magnate and so-called father of Kalispell, caught the first glimpse of his pioneer dreams from a steamboat in Flathead Lake in 1890.
“It was the only way to get from Polson to the Flathead, unless you were on horseback or on foot. It became a big business,” Gil Jordan, executive director at the Kalispell museum, said of early steamboat travel.
The museum in downtown Kalispell has an exhibit detailing the rich history of steamboat travel on Flathead Lake, including small, replica models and historic photographs of the original ships.
“The years between 1883 and 1951 were ones of glory on the lake. Nearly 100 commercial vessels plied its treacherous waters, their pilots ever watchful of its belly-ripping shoals and maelstrom rapids,” Thane White writes in a display at the museum. “These were craft of an infinite design and purpose.”
Steamboats became the primary driver of growth in the valley as well as a popular source of enjoyment; several ships hosted dances and parties aboard their floating decks. The earliest homesteaders who established the communities of Kalispell, Columbia Falls and other corners of the valley almost all arrived via water. Somers became a main port where large crowds of people would gather to board the grand ships or wave at departing crews.
The boom didn’t last long, though.
James Hill, known as the “Empire Builder,” used the steamers to ship supplies to the north end of Flathead Lake to begin establishing the latest piece of Great Northern Railway, which built its terminal in Kalispell and later Whitefish.
With the completion of the railway in 1892, steamboat travel began to diminish as railroads provided cheaper, faster transportation. The creation of the Flathead Indian Reservation provided a momentary boost to business as settlers frequented the ships to and from both ends of the lake.
But by the late 1920s, the fleet of ships had dwindled and had almost completely disappeared. Some even sunk in the lake and remain there today. The mammoth steamers were dismantled and shipped to other lakes in the region, while commercial owners developed smaller, speedier boats to provide joy rides.
“The railroad really made the commercial boats obsolete,” Jordan said. “And then more roads were cut around the lake, allowing larger trucks to ship freight.”
Today, the era of steamboats is all but a distant memory. Yet its lasting impact endures in the museum alongside other pieces of history. Since it opened in 1999, the museum has gathered over 45,000 items and artifacts and 28,000 historic photos, largely thanks to gifts from families.
These artifacts, including remnants of the steamers, remain on display in the museum, telling the story of how this greater community came to be.
“Without us being here, most of that stuff would be in the dumpster,” Jordan said. “We’re saving that history from disappearing.”