Freighter SS Charles L. Wheeler Jr. becomes the first ocean-going vessel to transit the lock at the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam on July 9, 1938.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 8/03/2011
  • Essay 9883
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On July 9, 1938, the coastal freighter SS Charles L. Wheeler Jr. became the first deep-sea commercial vessel to voyage up the Columbia River and pass through the lock at Bonneville Dam. The ship, carrying cargo from California, will continue up river to the historic riverboat port of The Dalles, Oregon, 200 river miles from the Pacific Ocean. This historic voyage will make The Dalles the farthest inland port in the West to be visited by an ocean-going vessel. It is essentially a publicity stunt to demonstrate that large freighters can utilize the Columbia to trade directly with river ports in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

A Vessel, a Dam, and a City

The SS Charles L. Wheeler Jr. was a 2,670-ton, 289-foot, single-screw, steel-hulled  freighter built by Albina Engine & Machine Works in Portland, Oregon in 1918.  The vessel, originally laid down as the SS Carl for Norwegian owners, was requisitioned during World War I (1914-1918) by the United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation, for its Merchant Marine fleet and renamed the USS Point Judith. In 1920, the freighter was sold to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and in 1925 to Swayne & Hoyt Ltd., San Francisco, for service in its Gulf-Pacific Line. In 1929, the Point Judith was sold to the McCormick Steamship Company, San Francisco, and renamed the Charles L. Wheeler Jr. for the 7-year-old son of the vice president and general manager of the corporation.

The Bonneville Dam is located 145 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River and approximately 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon. Completed in 1938, it was a Public Works Administration/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882-1945) New Deal to provide reliable and inexpensive hydroelectric power to the Pacific Northwest, make the Columbia navigable all the way to the Snake River, and aid in flood and erosion control. In its day, the Bonneville Lock, 75 feet wide and 500 feet long, was the highest single-lift lock in the world. It lifted vessels from the river below, more than 58 feet to Lake Bonneville and the upper reaches of the river.  Once the massive 102-foot-high, miter gates closed, filling (or emptying) the lock took approximately 15 minutes to complete.

The Dalles, situated on the Columbia River 85 miles east of Portland, is the largest city and the seat of Wasco County, Oregon. In 1938, the city had a population of roughly 8,000 residents (2010 estimated population was 13,200). In anticipation of becoming an active deep-water ocean port, The Dalles Port Authority (established in 1933) built a modern sea terminal at a cost of $300,000. The port boasted a 1,000-foot-long wharf, able to accommodate three ocean-going freighters simultaneously, three new dockside slewing cranes, each capable of lifting 15,000 pounds, and two huge transit sheds for storage of general cargo. Ideally located, the Port of The Dalles would be able to service the entire Oregon Inland Empire at reduced rates by eliminating the complication and cost of shipping goods overland to Portland by highway and rail. Jobs would be plentiful, the city's population would grow, and the economy of Wasco County, based primarily on agriculture and lumber, would flourish.

From Ocean-going to River-going

On Tuesday, July 5, 1938, Captain Peter Lund moored the Charles L. Wheeler Jr. at the McCormick Steamship Company terminal, located on the west bank of the Willamette River between the Broadway Bridge and the Steel Bridge, to discharge freight from California ports. The freighter took aboard 1,500 tons of sugar, salt, grain bags, canned goods, and other miscellaneous cargo to be discharged at The Dalles and from there transshipped to cities and towns inland. Thus began the first leg of the Wheeler's history-making journey up the Columbia River to inaugurate the lock at the new Bonneville Dam.

On Friday afternoon, July 8, 1938, the Wheeler rendezvoused with the 165-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Onondaga (WPG-79), at Vancouver, Washington. Captain Lund had onboard Captain Arthur H. Riggs (1870-1941), a master mariner and riverboat pilot for 15 years, to guide the freighter on the 40-mile trek up river. The Wheeler and Onondaga reached the Bonneville Dam at 7:00 p.m., maneuvered into the lock and were lifted to the level of Lake Bonneville. The two ships remained in the lock overnight to await the inauguration ceremony scheduled for Saturday morning.  A fleet of 13 boats, carrying celebrities and dignitaries, followed the Wheeler and the Onondaga from Vancouver and moored at the bottom of the lock to be on hand for this unique maritime event.

Dedications and Celebrations

At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 9, 1938, Oregon State Governor Charles H. Martin (1863-1946), Washington State Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955), and Idaho State Governor Barzilla W. Clark (1880-1943) stood before a crowd of some 20,000 spectators and unveiled a brass plaque, sponsored by 31 Oregon inland cities and towns. At 9:10 a.m., Governor Charles H. Martin pressed a button that slowly opened the upstream gate of the world's highest lock. There followed a dedication speech by the Oregon governor and at 9:30 a.m. the freighter Charles L. Wheeler Jr. steamed into Lake Bonneville followed by the cutter Onondaga carrying the three state governors plus 75 dignitaries and guests. The event was broadcast nationwide over CBS and NBC affiliated radio stations.

The Wheeler and Onondaga embarked on the second leg of the journey, to The Dalles for the port-opening celebrations. Meanwhile the accompanying boats were ushered into the lock and lifted to Lake Bonneville. Before leaving Portland, Captain Lund had had the Wheeler's fore and aft topmasts removed so she could pass under the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade and the Hood River Bridge, farther up-river. The Army Corps of Engineers opened wide several of the Bonneville Dam spillways to drop the level of Lake Bonneville four feet, ensuring that the freighter could sail under the structures without difficulty. It turned out to be a prudent decision as the Wheeler's shortened masts cleared the Hood River Bridge by just four feet. 

The accompanying fleet rendezvoused with the Wheeler and Onondaga at Lyle (Klickitat County), Washington, and then convoyed the last eight miles to The Dalles, with flags flying. The vessels arrived at the new wharf promptly at 3:00 p.m. They were welcomed by a crowd of 10,000 spectators, waiting in 98-degree heat to witness the momentous ribbon-cutting ceremony officially opening of the Port of The Dalles new sea terminal. The celebration included exhibitions depicting Oregon history and early modes of transportation and, later in the day, a grand parade. That evening the port authority hosted a banquet in the commodious transit sheds, attended by the three state governors and 500 dignitaries and guests.

Home Journeys

On Sunday, July 10, 1938, the cutter Onondaga, having completed the escort assignment, returned to her duty station at Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. Meanwhile the Wheeler remained at the Port of The Dalles terminal discharging freight and loading cargo and ballast for the return trip. 

At 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, July 12, the Wheeler set sail on the last leg of her historic voyage. The ship passed safely under the Hood River Bridge and Bridge of the Gods, handily negotiated the Cascade Rapids and sailed into the Bonneville lock. The Army Corps of Engineer closed many of the spillways, raising Lake Bonneville back to its normal depth of 68 feet and substantially reducing the current down-river. Even so, after leaving the lock, the Wheeler traveled through the fast water below Bonneville Dam at a remarkable speed of 18 knots, giving the 1,000 or more onlookers along the riverbank a thrill.  At 8:00 p.m., the Wheeler and her 32-man crew moored at the McCormick Steamship Company terminal in Portland to load lumber and general cargo for ports in California.

The Wheeler, minus her topmasts, set sail from Portland on Saturday, July 16, arriving in her home port of San Francisco on Tuesday, July 19, 1938.  Recounting the ship's journey to news reporters, Captain Lund opined it would be at least two years before the sea-lane would be ready for oceangoing vessels.  And then only if the river could be properly dredged and the bridges retrofitted with draw spans to allow large ships passage without having to remove sections of superstructure.

The Charles L. Wheeler Jr. was the only seagoing commercial vessel to transit the Columbia River as far as The Dalles. There was discussion about instituting regular ocean service to Port of The Dalles, but the business failed to materialize.  Shippers continued using river barges, trucks, and freight trains to carry general and bulk cargo over the river route to Portland. 

Their Last Years

During World War II (1941-1945) the Wheeler, conscripted to the U.S. Merchant Marine, operated in Alaskan waters. After the war, the freighter was mothballed in Olympia, Washington, as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. In 1948, the Department of Transportation, Maritime Commission, sold the obsolete steamship for scrap to the Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company in Seattle. The venerable Wheeler yielded 3,000 tons of scrap metal.

In November 1941, the Coast Guard Cutter Onondaga, was transferred, by executive order, to the Department of the Navy.  During World War II, the cutter was based in Ketchikan, Alaska, assigned to submarine patrol and convoy duty in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The Onondaga was returned to the Coast Guard in January 1946 and resumed her assigned duties at Astoria.  In July 1947, the cutter, considered obsolete, was ordered to Coast Guard Base Seattle, decommissioned and mothballed. The Coast Guard declared the Onondaga surplus in October 1954 and offered her for sale to the highest bidder. 

The ship was purchased for $36,666 by the Foss Launch and Tug Company of Seattle for use as an oceangoing tugboat.  But she remained idle in the Foss reserve fleet until sold to ship brokers, Drury & Petrich of Tacoma, in 1968.  In 1971, Arthur Church and Associates of Seattle purchased the Onondaga for utilization in the Bering Sea as an offshore oil exploration and drilling vessel.  The ship, renamed the Arctic Explorer, eventually ended up at the Ballard Oil dock on the north side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, just east of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. 

In the 1980s, the Onondaga, devoid of her superstructure and engines, was apparently abandoned.  Left unattended, the cutter's hull slowly sank in 25 feet of water, with only a portion of the rusted bow visible above the water's surface.  In April 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as part of the Puget Sound Initiative, surveyed the shipwreck for signs of hazardous materials that could be harmful to Puget Sound.  EPA divers determined that the hulk was not an immediate threat to the environment or to navigation. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Derelict Vessel Removal Program has included the Onondaga on its list of marine wreckage to be removed and scrapped (Project No. Kl 10-005).

The Bonneville Dam Historic District, which includes the original single-lift lock, was added to the National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places (NR No. 86000727) in 1986. The original lock (now no longer in use) was replaced in 1993 by a single-lift lock able to accommodate larger river barges and vessels.

Sources: The H. W. McCurdy Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon R. Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1966); "Freighter will Pass Dam Locks," The Seattle Times, May 31, 1938, p. 21; Deep-Seat Ship 'Crosses' Hills at Bonneville," Ibid., July 9, 1938, p. 1; "Bonneville Dam Power Goes On," Ibid., July 10, 1938, p. 8; "Down-River Trip to Tax Wheeler," Ibid., July 11, 1938, p. 16; "River Raised to Aid Ocean Ship," Ibid., July 12, 1938, p. 16; "Ship Completes Downriver Trip," Ibid., July 13, 1938, p. 16; "Columbia Not Ready," Ibid., July 21, 1938, p. 28; "5 Coast Guards Ships in Seattle To Be Sold," Ibid., October 15, 1954, p. 26; Glen Carter, "Awesome Array of Shipwrecks," Ibid., May 2, 1971, p. F-19; Glen Carter, "Maritime: The Rolling O Is Back," Ibid., December 17, 1971, p. A-19; "EPA Divers to Survey Sunken Vessel in Lake Washington Ship Canal," Ibid., April 27, 2011, p. B-1; "First Ocean Ship Will Go Up River Saturday," The Oregonian, July 3, 1938, p. 4; "Steamer Bound for The Dalles," Ibid., July 6, 1938, p. 18; Flotilla Poised for Pioneer Trip," Ibid., July 6, 1938, p. 1; "Ocean Steamer Arrives at Dam," Ibid., July 9, 1938, p. 1; "Seaport of The Dalles," Ibid., July 9, 1938, p. 8; "Sea Giant Docks at River Harbor," Ibid., July 10, 1938, p. 1; "River Colossus Rouses at Rites," Ibid., July 10, 1938, p. 6; "Guard Boat Back from The Dalles," Ibid., July 11, 1938, p. 1; "Trip Down River Offers Problem," Ibid., July 11, 1938, p. 16; "Deep-Sea Vessel to Return Today," Ibid., July 12, 1938, p. 12; "Vessel Returns from The Dalles," Ibid., July 13, 1938, p. 1; "Pioneer Steamer Bound for South," Ibid., July 17, 1938, p. 15; "Wheeler Ties Up at Home Moorage," Ibid., July 20, 1938, p. 4; "Famed Craft Turned Scrap," Ibid., April 8, 1948, p. 20; ""Cutter Onondaga, Pride of Columbia, Put on Auction Block by Cost Guard," Ibid., November 7, 1954, p. 37; "Coast Guard Cutter Sold to Seattle Tug Company," Ibid., December 12, 1954, p. 41; Online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bonneville Dam officially goes into service on June 6, 1938" (by David Wilma), (accessed July 2011); "National Register of Historic Places," National Park Service website accessed July 2011 (
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate and date of death of Clarence D. Martin.

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