The SS Beaver, built in Blackwell and the engine in Birmingham, England in 1834 was the first steamer in the Pacific Ocean; the first to cross the Columbia River bar and the first to negotiate the swift waters of the Columbia River; the first to make a regular passenger run between Washington and Oregon; the first steamship on Puget Sound; and the first steamship to be used as a patrol boat on the Pacific Northwest coast. (Time Machine by Caroline Kellogg, Tacoma News Tribune, July 8, 1979).
In 1822 the United States built Savannah was the first steamship to cross an ocean on a voyage to England. But unfortunately the US did not continue exploring the development of steam at that time. This gave England an advantage as they saw a future in steam and took steps to develop steam engines. However, when the SS Beaver sailed to the Pacific Ocean she did not sail under steam but instead traveled under sail with her steam-driven paddle wheels stowed in the hold. (Tacoma News Tribune May 14, 1967 -Steamship Beaver Made History).
The reason behind using sail power to cross was simple: the trip was far too long to carry enough fuel for the entire trip. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
The Birmingham firm that built the engines was Boulton & Watt; legend has it that James Watt decided that steam could be harnessed to provide power when watching his mother’s teakettle boil. (Time Machine by Caroline Kellogg, Tacoma News Tribune, July 8, 1979).
The SS Beaver was built for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Her keel was 101 feet long, had a 32-foot beam and ll-foot draft. The boilers alone weighed 63.5 tons and cost $22,000.($591,897.81 in 2014).
In December 1835 the SS Beaver left England on her trip around Cape Horn and she arrived on the Columbia River April 1836. The Beaver carried a crew of 26, five cannon and capacity of 109 tons. (Time Machine by Caroline Kellogg, Tacoma News Tribune, July 8, 1979)
However this was a trip that might never have happened if Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor for Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver had had his way. Dr. McLoughlin had protested to the governors in London from the beginning when they informed him of their plans to build a steamship for the Columbia River trade. His reasoning was not uncommon when faced with a new technology. “Why, there was nothing that could displace sails and God’s own wind for propulsion. If the steamship is found on full trial not to answer so well as expected, will you please inform me if we are nevertheless to keep her or send her home or sell her?” Despite his protests, the management in England proceeded with their plans and the construction of the Beaver. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
Upon arrival at Fort Vancouver the paddle wheels were installed, and the engine and boiler tested and at 3:30 on a Tuesday morning, May 17, 1836, the SS Beaver weighed anchor and pulled away from the bank. The little steamship traveling under her own power for the first time, proudly steamed down the Columbia River. Captain Horne, her first skipper, pulled the whistle lanyard. Dogs howled at the strange noise and the Indians ran infer of the “fire canoe” that howled like a wolf. ((Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
In the beginning while running a freight and passenger run between Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually Hudson Bay Company discovered it was too costly to continue. Later the SS Beaver was transferred permanently to Fort Nisqually. It was during this time that she became a patrol and trading boat running between Fort Nisqually and the northern trading posts. Her trips sometimes took her as far as Russian Sitka (Alaska) and visited nearly every bay and inlet between Russian Sitka and Puget Sound to trade with the Indians. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
The northern tribes -Haidas, Tlingit and Kwakiutl were much more warlike than their neighbors to the south. As a result the SS Beaver and her crew always had to take precautions against surprise attacks. “The decks were protected by boarding nettings to prevent access by the natives otherwise than the gangways, and more than thirty Indians were never allowed on deck at one time, unless they were accompanied by their wives and children” according to Edward Huggins, the last chief factor at Nisqually House. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
Fifteen years after first arriving at the Columbia River, the SS Beaver was replaced in 1851 by the Otter, a propeller driven ship. Both ships however will placed at the disposal of the government of the Washington Territory during the Indian Wars in the Puget Sound Region in 1855-1856. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
The Beaver was transferred to what is now known as British Columbia, Canada when Great Britain terminated the Joint Occupation Treaty. Her last trip to Puget Sound area was made under the command of a Captain Seward. He made a trip to the upper Puget Sound but encountered problems when the US Customs Service seized the Beaver and impounded it for an infraction of revenue laws. Captain Seward decided he wasn’t going to accept any of the highhanded American officialdom. He waited until the watchman left the ship for a time and hurriedly got up steam and left American waters for good. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
By 1860 Hudson’s Bay Company decided the Beaver was no longer profitable in the trade and she was outfitted as a passenger ship and made runs between New Westminster and Victoria for several years. She was chartered by the Imperial Hydrographic Office to use as a survey boat and map most of the coastal waters of British Columbia. Finally in 1874 the Hudson’s Bay Company sold her to work as a tug. In 1880 she was extensively damaged due to a fire aboard but was rebuilt and continued her work as a tow. She was damage a couple more times and then, the end finally came in 1888. The Beaver hit some rocks just outside Vancouver, and due to her age and the cost of salvage was left stranded on the rocks. (Boiler of Pacific’s First Steamship Here by William J. Betts)
In 1966 a replica of the SS Beaver was built to help celebrate the Centenary of the Union of the Canadian Crown Colonies on Vancouver Island and the mainland. It visited the Puget Sound and Tacoma in May 1967. (Replica of Ship Not Seen Here For Over 100 Years Makes Port, Win Anderson May 10, 1967 and McNeil Island Gets Beaver Salute by Rod Cardwell, Tacoma News Tribune)