A History of Steamboat Inn & the Fly-Fishing Tradition on the North Umpqua River
by Mark Hoy
The Early Fishing Camps
The earliest sport fishing camps were established in the Steamboat area in the 1920s. Prior to that time, a rough trail provided the only access to the area. After the native peoples had left the area in the late nineteenth century, the only visitors were a few hardy homesteaders, some prospectors looking for gold, and hunters in search of deer and elk.
The gold miners probably provided the name “Steamboat” for the creek that enters the main river near the present site of the Inn. Although a rich deposit of gold was discovered in a nearby drainage – later named the Bohemia Mining District – Steamboat Creek was prospected extensively without yielding similar results. In the miners’ parlance of the day, if an area did not come up to expectations, or claims had been fraudulently sold to unsuspecting newcomers, the miners leaving the scene were said to have “steamboats” out of the area. No one knows who first applied the term to Steamboat Creek, but the name was in general use by the 1890s.
Much to the disappointment of many first time visitors to the area, there is no evidence that any steamboat ever navigated the upper stretches of the North Umpqua . Even a cursory look at the river in this area – filled with large boulders and sections of foaming whitewater confirms the fact that modern jet boats, which can run upstream in as little as six inches of water, could scarcely make the passage, let alone a wood-bottomed steamboat.
A dirt road, blazed high on the canyon wall above the river, was completed all the way upriver to Steamboat in 1927. Although the trip was slow and sometimes treacherous, anglers began to transport their gear by motorized trucks or cars to the junction of Steamboat Creek and the North Umpqua River, where they established summer fishing camps.
These anglers were attracted to the area by stories of heavy runs of summer steelhead, a type of rainbow trout that spawns in freshwater but descends certain rivers to the ocean. There steelhead spend two to five years feeding and growing and then return to their native streams to spawn. Unlike salmon, many steelhead live on after spawning. They return to the ocean and, occasionally, return upstream for a second time to spawn.
In the early days, the North Umpqua also supported strong runs of Chinook and Coho salmon, as well as sea-run cutthroat trout. Today, development has reduced these species, except for the spring Chinook salmon, to remnant runs. However, aided by hatchery-spawned fish, the runs of summer steelhead remain comparable to, and in some years exceed, the numbers of fish found in the river by the first fly anglers.
Fishermen discovered that a few hardy souls had preceded them. A recluse named “Umpqua” Vic O’Byrne had established a camp a few miles upstream from Steamboat, across the river from an old, abandoned fish hatchery. The spot was known as Hatchery Ford, because it was one of the few places where a pack train of horses and mules could cross the river. O’Byrne built a cabin and fished for salmon and steelhead in grand solitude. He was reputed to have been a military man before he “took to the wilds.” He later drowned in what some considered mysterious circumstances, since his glasses and other personal effects were found laid out neatly on his cabin table after his body was recovered from the river downstream.
Farther upstream, Perry and Jessie Wright had proved up a homestead at Illahee Flats in 1915. For many years, the Wrights packed in supplies with horses and mules for the Forest Service and early hunters in the area. Jessie Wright wrote an entertaining account of the pioneer days on the North Umpqua, titled “How High the Bounty.” The first sports angler of national reputation to adopt the North Umpqua was Major Jordan Lawrence Mott who first arrived in the Steamboat area in 1929. He established a summer fishing camp on the south side of the main river, opposite the junction of Steamboat Creek and the North Umpqua . His camp surveyed the series of fishing pools that would later become known collectively as “the camp water.” Because many of the native summer steelhead in the North Umpqua spawn in Steamboat Creek and remain in the main river until the first heavy rains of the fall season allow them to enter the creek, this area was (and remains) one of the most productive fishing areas on the entire river.
Much of Major Mott’s time in his later years was spent campaigning for conservation of wildlife and natural resources. He was attracted to the North Umpqua for its excellent steelhead fishing and made his summer camp there until his premature death, at age 50, in 1931. Mott cherished his time at Steamboat so much that even after he had contracted the cancer that eventually killed him, he traveled from California to his camp at Steamboat to spend his final days on the river.
Major Mott’s legacy is well preserved in the Steamboat area. The bridge leading from the main North Umpqua Highway across the river to the site of his old camp still bears his name, as do a series of nearby fishing pools, collectively known as “Mott Water.” The fisherman’s trail that provides access to the south bank of the North Umpqua River is now maintained by the Forest Service and officially known as the Mott Trail.
While still in camp at Steamboat, Major Mott hired a local man, Zeke Allen, to cook, do chores around camp, and guide him while he learned to fish the river. After Mott’s death, Allen inherited most of the fishing and camping gear, as well as the use of Major Mott’s campsite. Zeke Allen continued to guide the few anglers who came to fish for steelhead in the summer, as well as hunters who arrived in the fall to pursue deer and elk.
The same year that Major Mott first visited the North Umpqua, another nationally known sportsman, Captain Frank Winch, made a short visit to Steamboat. Winch, like Mott, had been told of the area by John Ewell, who operated a motel in nearby Roseburg and had rustic cabins near the junction of Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek. Winch was a field scout for Forest and Stream Magazine and an accomplished hunter and fisherman. He fished with Major Mott for only one evening but caught a seven-pound steelhead. As Winch later reported:
“I have been on every trout stream of importance in the entire northern part of the United States, but I have never seen a real trout stream until I fished in the North Umpqua River today. Words cannot possibly express my enthusiasm for your North Umpqua. I am still dizzy from the thrill…”
Zane Grey on the North Umpqua
The spring after Major Mott’s death, in 1931, marked the appearance at Steamboat of perhaps the most famous sportsman in America, Zane Grey. During the last half of the 1920s, Grey had split his fishing time between ocean cruises to the South Seas in search of world record marlin and regular forays to flyfish for summer steelhead on the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon . At least in part because of Grey’s own articles and books, the Rogue River became too crowded to suit Grey’s taste. In June of 1932, he stopped to camp in the Steamboat area as a layover on his trip to Campbell River, British Columbia .
Grey’s first camp was near the junction of Steamboat and Canton creeks. As was his custom, the camp was part business enterprise, part fishing extravaganza. On this trip, Grey was accompanied by his son, Romer, and his daughter-in-law, as well as a frequent fishing companion, Dr. J. A. Wiborn, and Wiborn’s wife. In addition, Grey’s secretaries were along (for help on his writing projects) and he rarely traveled without his loyal Japanese cook, George Takahashi, as well as several cameramen and other technicians who worked for Romer Grey Motion Picture Corporation.
Merle Hargis, a Forest Service packer stationed at Steamboat, was asked by his boss to transport Grey’s camp equipment up the hill to John Ewell’s cabins. Hargis remembers that it took three trips with the six mules in his string to transport all the gear – eighteen loads in all! Afterwards, Zane Grey put his arm around Hargis, thanked him warmly, and gave the packer four half dollars as a reward for his efforts.
Later that summer, Grey and his party moved their camp down to the point where Steamboat Creek enters the North Umpqua River. Across the river was Major Mott’s old camp, now occupied by Zeke Allen and a few anglers he was guiding. They all fished the Camp Water, particularly the Plank Pool (now known as the Station Pool), which took its name from the boards which had been laid out from shore to a large rock. The old Forest Service Guard Station was across from Grey’s camp, and the plank was used by one and all to secure water for washing and cooking, as well as a convenient platform for fishing the productive pool below.
When Grey camped on the North Umpqua, he was guided by Joe DeBernardi, a resident of the little community downstream known as Glide. That first summer, Romer Grey and his movie technicians constructed several wooden boats in camp, copying the design of boats being constructed at that time on the Rogue River by Glen Wooldridge. Romer convinced Joe DeBernardi to help pilot the boats downstream from Steamboat to Rock Creek while his camera crew filmed the whitewater passage “to provide thrills for his motion picture audiences.”
Apparently, the boaters got more of a thrill than they bargained for. According to a news account of the day, several of the boats were wrecked against rocks and “time and again the occupants of the boats were thrown out into the icy waters to battle swift currents for their lives.” DeBernardi narrowly escaped death when the boat in which he and Romer Grey were riding was crushed against an overhanging ledge and an oarlock punctured DeBernardi’s side. Fortunately, he managed to hang on to the overturned craft until it reached calmer water.
Thus, modern-day river running on the North Umpqua was born. Romer Grey reported that “the Umpqua provided him with more thrills and exciting experiences than any other water he has ever attempted.” However, the Grey party repeated the thrilling adventure only one more time, and in subsequent seasons the boats were used primarily to ferry fishermen and guests across the river.
Zane Grey enjoyed his initial visit to the Steamboat area so much that he stayed on until the end of July, well beyond his intended departure date for Campbell River . After another winter cruise to New Zealand , Grey and his party returned to the North Umpqua in the summer of 1933 when they stayed at Zeke Allen’s camp. Dissatisfied with Allen’s unkempt campsite and some of his fishing methods, Grey moved his camp downstream in 1934 to Maple Ridge, the present site of the Steamboat Inn.
Interestingly, while there is a fishing pool near the Maple Ridge campsite named for Grey’s cook, Takahashi, no landmarks on the North Umpqua today bear the name of the famous writer himself. During the 1930s, part of the Mott Water was called the ZG Pool for a time but later reverted to its old name. Grey is reputed to have named the Ledges Pool and several others in the area downstream from Steamboat. The most convincing explanation for the lack of a river memorial to Grey seems to be that while ZG (as he was known) was respected for his power and reputation as a writer, he was not well-loved by other anglers or local residents. When Grey camped along a stretch of water, he considered the fishing pools to be his own private domain. Many old-timers on the North Umpqua still remember how ZG’s assistants attempted to prevent them from fishing their favorite spots before the famous author arrived to cast his fly in the morning.
Then, as now, this high-handed behavior did not sit well with the local flyfishermen. The gentleman’s code on the North Umpqua dictated that the first angler to reach a fishing pool could fish through without interruption, providing he did not “hog” the area for an extended period of time. The same code still applies today.
Grey’s dislike for the “crowded” fishing conditions at Steamboat probably explains his move downstream to the Williams Creek area in subsequent years. When Clarence Gordon took over the old Mott Camp and entertained a steady stream of well-to-do anglers from Southern California and the East Coast, Grey sought a more secluded fishing camp for his 1935 visit to the North Umpqua .
He found it across from Williams Creek, on the south side of the river. All equipment and visitors had to be ferried across by boat, so Grey was able to control access and maintain his distance from other anglers. His camp was reported to be one of the cleanest and best organized ever seen on the North Umpqua. He even brought the heavy seat and rod apparatus that he used in marlin fishing, so he could practice straining against weights for thirty minutes daily to stay in shape for his battles with marlin that could weigh over a thousand pounds.
Grey’s party enjoyed some fabulous flyfishing for summer steelhead during their visits to the North Umpqua. They found that the steelhead were bigger than the fish they had become accustomed to on the Rogue. On the Umpqua, the steelhead averaged six to eight pounds and could sometimes weigh in at as much as fifteen pounds. Loren, Grey’s youngest son, had joined the party in 1934 and the next summer he reported catching over one hundred steelhead in less than two months of fishing. Others reported similar totals.
However, Zane Grey became increasingly concerned about the future of the steelhead runs on the North Umpqua . He published just one article about it, hoping to shield the river from the publicity that he felt had ruined the Rogue. In that article he pleaded for wise management of the North Umpqua, decrying the practice by commercial fishermen of placing racks in the river to trap salmon – which incidentally killed thousands of steelhead. He also gave much needed support to a delegation from the Roseburg Rod and Gun Club who appeared before the Oregon State Game Commission and succeeded in having Steamboat Creek, the river’s prime spawning ground, closed to angling.
For a man in his sixties, Zane Grey kept himself in remarkable condition since he exercised regularly and never smoked or drank. Photos taken during his visits to the North Umpqua show a vigorous, tanned, and lean sportsman with keen eyes and a distinctive shaggy mop of gray hair. Nevertheless, it was during Grey’s North Umpqua visit of 1937 that he suffered the stroke which eventually led to his death in 1939. He never returned to his camp near Williams Creek, and another legendary figure on the North Umpqua passed from the scene.
Fred Burnham was another famous North Umpqua angler whose name is closely associated with Zane Grey’s. Burnham married into money after his graduation from the University of California, and his job as a stock broker allowed him the leisure to fish all the famous salmon and steelhead rivers of his day. Standing over six feet three inches tall, he was a gifted athlete with ample strength and coordination. He owned property on the Rogue and his prowess there as a fly-fisherman was well known.
After Zane Grey’s first visit to the Rogue in 1916, Burnham served as ZG’s mentor in the art of fly casting for summer steelhead. Their styles were a study in contrasts. Burnham was the “natural,” an acknowledged expert in the sport. Grey, himself a gifted athlete and a semipro baseball player in his youth, struggled as he learned to cast a fly line long distances and never quite achieved the grace that Burnham exhibited. In a sense, Grey was the victim of his self-created image as a record-holding angler. When he failed, he was forced to fall back on excuses, such as failing fish runs or simple bad luck. Burnham and Grey also fished together (or more precisely, in competition) for record-breaking marlin in the South Seas.
It was Burnham who first urged Zane Grey to try fishing the North Umpqua. During his early visits, Burnham stayed at the Circle H Ranch, downstream from Steamboat at Susan Creek. This small resort predated the camps at Steamboat since the road had reached the Susan Creek area at an earlier time. The Circle H resort also offered horseback riding and outfitted pack trips for hunters in the early days.
Burnham was well-known in the area as a skilled fly-fisherman, whose height and strength allowed him to wade areas of the river that lesser men could never dare to challenge. He later transferred his North Umpqua angling trips upstream to Steamboat, where he stayed at the new lodge constructed by Clarence Gordon.
This 1937 party of fishermen hooks an Umpqua River steelhead. The Umpqua River runs from the Cascades through Roseburg, Oregon on its way to the Coast. There are two forks: the North & the South. Salmon, steelhead, shad & stiped bass make migratory runs. Zane Gray flyfished the upper North Umpqua for steelhead. The Umpqua has become a smallmouth bass fishery of regional reknown.
Photographer: Ralph Gifford
Source: Oregon State Archives
Oregon Department of Transportation
This 1938 photo shows a flyfisher finding solitude that is still available today.
Photographer: Ralph Gifford
Source: Oregon State Archives
Oregon Department of Transportation