Unearthing History: Massive Piston Recovered from Sunken Steamboat

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – An original piston assembly from the Oakes Steamer, a boat commissioned by Columbia Falls’ founder James Talbott, has been unearthed – 117 years after the boat capsized in the Flathead River on its maiden voyage.

The community group the First Best Place Task Force along with the Northwest Historical Society and the city are working to put the assembly from the steamer’s engine – believed to have been recovered in the 1950s – back in the public eye. Last week, they announced the piece would be loaned to the Museum at Central School in Kalispell as part of a display of the Flathead Valley’s early history.

The piston assembly is a massive piece of hardware – about three feet across and nine feet long, weighing hundreds of pounds. “It’s a big piece of history – literally,” Gil Jordan, executive director of the historical society, said.

In 1892, Talbott commissioned a sternwheel steamship – the 75-foot T.F.Oakes Steamer – to be built to transport the coal from deposits on the North Fork of the Flathead River to Columbia Falls. In May, the crew, including Talbott, began the upstream traverse against the rush of the North Fork.

It was an ill-fated trip. The group struggled to keep speed and maneuver the riverbed; at times, tying on to trees along the shore to pull the boat upstream. When the steamboat got to Red Lick Rapids, about 2 to 3 miles upstream from Canyon Creek, the vessel foundered and the crew was separated onto either shore.

“It’s a rapid and wild river,” Jordan said, “and it’s crazy to think of going up it with a 75-foot steamboat.”

Over the years, pieces of the steamboat have broken apart and floated downstream, being deposited at random points along the river bottom or shore.

Two years ago, Ray Abbott, a volunteer at the museum rescued the boat’s water supply tank, an eight-by-four foot cylinder of steel that weighed several thousand pounds. They water tank is on display at the museum along with a model of the ship fashioned after what people know of the ship. There are no known photos of the Oakes, Jordan said.

Many people believe the piston was discovered in the 1950s when Jack King, founder of Valley Bank and Three Rivers Bank and then director of the town’s chamber of commerce, organized an effort to recover pieces of the Oakes from the river. Recently, King asked the First Best Place group to help find the rescued pieces. The piston was found in the city’s machine shop, where it’s been sitting for decades.

But in a phone interview, King said he didn’t think the piece that was recently unearthed is the same as the one his group recovered decades ago. “It’s not what I remember,” King said.

Regardless of when or how the piston was discovered, no one is questioning its authenticity.

“Nothing is ever certain when you’re dealing with something that happened 117 years ago, but it’s highly unlikely that it could be anything but a piece from this boat,” Jordan said. “Nothing else that big has tried to go up that river before.”

Jordan said the museum hopes to have the piston on display along with the water tower sometime this fall. Plans are for the piston assembly to also return periodically to Columbia Falls for display at Discovery Square.

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