Odd, Old News: When Supply Boats Navigated the Upper Eel River

The Poison Oak, a supply boat on the EEl River, early 1900's

Supply boat the Poison Oak [Scan of a photo from the Humboldt Historian, Nov/Dec 1993, photo courtesy of the Humboldt Historical Society]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

Early transportation options to the upper Eel River ranching communities were limited even though the late 1870’s saw a number of trails turned into wagon roads. These roads were sometimes hub deep in mud in the rainy seasons and piled high in dust in the summer. In the dry season riverbeds could be used as roads, at other times of the year, crossing creeks and rivers required risky fording or ferrying.

In the 1890’s and into at least the middle of the second decade of the 1900’s, men built and used boats to ship food, household goods, and farm supplies upriver and pick up fruit and produce, wool, and leather on the return trip from the ranching communities. In addition, the construction of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad necessitated getting large quantities of supplies to remote stretches of the Eel not reached by trail or road.

These boats came in different designs, one of the earliest craft was the Great Maria which was owned by Grant Myers. About forty feet long and double ended, the Great Maria was called a ‘schooner’ as it had sails to take advantage of wind currents when going upstream, in addition to requiring poling by its crew with 12 foot poles. The Great Maria was known to run up the Eel River as far as Camp Grant and McCann. She wrecked in 1901 during high waters carrying 200 boxes of apples from Camp Grant to Scotia.

River travel was not without its hazards as turbulent high waters and whirlpools took their toll on the boats. Owned first by Ernest McKee, the Poison Oak was a steam-powered boat that went upriver as far as Ft. Seward. A later owner of the Poison Oak built another river boat, the Laurel, which hopefully was able to operate “without difficulty”, unlike the Poison Oak which met its fate near Dyerville.

the supply boat the Great Marie

Supply boat the Great Marie [Photo from the Humboldt Historian, May/June 1985, photo courtesy of the Humboldt Historical Society]

Daily Humboldt Standard
March 11, 1911
F.W. Georgeson returned yesterday from a visit to his Pepperwood and Laribee property and brings word that Charles Greenlaw is just finishing a fine new river boat to be used in connection with the railroad work in progress below Dyerville. The boat was built at Pepperwood near the Laurel Lumber Company’s property, and at the suggestion of Mr. Georgeson, it was christened “Laurel”.

The Laurel is 42 feet long, has 12 foot beam and draws 16 inches of water. It is so constructed as to be fitted for work on the river at a very low water. It will carry a crew of 6 men and has a powerful winch with 800 feet of steel wire which will help it over the riffles. The boat will be put into commission the latter part of next week and has a contract for carrying 1000 tons of freight up the river for the contracting firm of Klippel & McLean. The Laurel will carry ten tons each trip and will be kept busy with the present contract for the next two months at least.

The new boat which was designed and built and will be commanded by Mr. Greenlaw, will be able to go up the river as far as Fort Seward.

The Poison Oak belonging to Klipper & McLean has been making trips up the river without difficulty. The building of this boat comes at an opportune time as the Poison Oak, the company’s pioneer boat, was wrecked yesterday afternoon about 4 o’clokc when she was swept into a group of rocks in the river near Dyerville.

(Thanks for the help to Diane Hawk, and the Humboldt Historical Society for the use of scans of photocopies of the pictures)

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many more, but here are the most recent:



  • Cool stuff these stories are great

  • I enjoy this weekly feature on Humboldt County history. Thank you!

  • entertaining read.

  • Just wonderful.

  • So much more water in the river in those days. Before the intense logging and subsequent floods filled the channels with gravel. The water is still there, just under the gravel☺

  • I never heard about this, which must have been so important a hundred forty years ago. Imagine the effort it needed to move supplies on the river if the article mentions the winch to “with 800 feet of steel wire which will help it over the riffles.” Before that it must have been manpower that kept it going. With a sense of humor evidenced by the name “The Poison Oak.” Thank you.

    • I didn’t get to access the Humboldt Historian articles on the topic before writing my scant introduction to the article, but I do know that there have been a variety of propulsion methods tried. the craft that relied on poling had boardwalks along the sides that the poler would walk along. Horses or mules pulling a cable upstream was another practice.
      There was also a boat named the “Poison Ivy” on the Eel around the same time as the Poison Oak.

  • I read in a interview with Enoch Percival French (the first north coast park superintendent) that they were looking forward to the Eel River canal and lock system. That would have lasted until the first flood.

  • There’s a creek near Camp Grant called Poison Oak Creek. Of course I always thought it was named for the plant, of which there is plenty. But now I figure it was named after the boat, possibly wrecked right near the mouth of the creek, not sure exactly which creek it is; a knowledgeable friend speculates that it is closer to McCann than Camp Grant. Does someone know? I’m so curious….

  • a screenshot of the google map showing where McCann is exactly. In case someone else didn’t really know either.

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