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Riverboat Travel Between Oroville and Marysville

04/22/2016 02:01PM ● By Al Rocca

Full Steam Ahead

May 2016
Story by Al Rocca
Photo Courtesy of News Bulletin, Sutter County Historical Society

Ben Mosby stretched high as he rose from his cramped sleeping bunk. He quickly worked his way up onto the deck of his pride and joy, the riverboat Sam Soule. The Soule was a veteran “packet steamer” of the Feather River, plying the treacherous waters between Oroville and Marysville.  It was barely 6:30 am on this Tuesday morning (May 5, 1857), but Mosby, master of the vessel, worked eagerly alongside his crew to ready the Soule for its 8 am departure from Oroville Landing. The weekly schedule revealed the Sam Soule steaming on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from Oroville and returning from Marysville on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Ever since steamer service picked up in 1851, more and more vessels competed for hauling freight and passengers between the growing communities of Oroville and Marysville. Mosby worried about the future of his enterprise. 

By 7 am, freight arrived for loading. Items included lime from the West Branch area, freshly baked bread and pies still hot from Stephen Toland’s Miners’ Bakery, a few barrels of Table-Mountain House lager beer, and seasoned lumber from J. E. Caine, dealer in “sawed and cut lumber, doors and sash.” John Kessing, a forwarding merchant

with a growing business on Montgomery Street in Oroville, briefly stopped by to inquire with Mosby about the rising freighting rates. Mosby told Kessing that the current rate of $12 a ton would hold for the rest of the spring schedule and that payment was due and payable upon loading at the landing. 

Shortly before departure time, two local residents boarded the Sam Soule, including George Crosette, editor of the Oroville newspaper, Weekly Butte Record. After paying the $3 passenger fee, they moved to the bow, finding two empty deck chairs. The experience of this pair of travelers provides a look at the towns of Oroville, Marysville and river travel in 1857. The Sam Soule left the Oroville landing on time, quickly picking up steam. The little vessel covered the 30-plus miles in just over three hours, slowing for known sandbars and crawling past exposed tree branches. Mosby, his crew and passengers always kept a close eye on anything suspicious protruding from the surface. River levels became a major concern, despite the shallow draft of the flat-bottomed steamer, as water flowing into the Feather River from tributaries increased or decreased within hours.

In 1857, expanding fields of grain, mostly wheat, began near the river and stretched out as far as the eye could see. The riverbank itself, especially in spring, showcased a variety of bushes, oak trees and wild berries. Every now and then, a passenger could see evidence of recently vacated Maidu Indian villages and the acorn-grinding mortar holes. More likely, a curious coyote would sneak a peek from behind a large riverbank boulder. Several hair-pin bends in the river announced that the Sam Soule was approaching Willow Island, the landing at Yuba City. 

The two travelers thanked Mosby for a smooth and rapid journey, then debarked the Sam Soule and, to their surprise, discovered that the $3 passage fee included a wagon/taxi ride from the landing, across the Feather River Bridge to Marysville. All along the way, signs of rapid growth appeared. One of the travelers noted that “brick has totally superseded wood.” A visit to the local newspaper office of the California Express helped the visitors understand some of the “growing pains” that Marysville experienced, including the lack of a reliable water delivery system. Local residents still relied on horse-drawn water carts making regular runs from the river to homes and businesses. Yet, the town thrived.  In 1857 alone, local banks and assay offices handled more than $10 million of gold nuggets and dust.

The town’s many businesses included large mercantile shops, the most impressive of which was the large brick building owned by Ira A. Eaton, L. H. Babb and William Hawley. Recently arrived tools, garments and other supplies from Sacramento and San Francisco lined its shelves.  

Professional entertainment regularly passed through Marysville, so the Oroville travelers took in the Julia Deane Hayne Revue. After spending a comfortable night in the popular United States Hotel at the southwest corner of third and C Street, the Oroville visitors once again boarded the Sam Soule and returned to their fair city. Within two months, water levels in the Feather River decreased significantly, ending the seasonal riverboat runs until the next winter. 

Source: Weekly Butte Record, May 9, 1857.

Photo credits: 

Photo 1—(Gov. Dana)  News Bulletin, Sutter County Historical Society, April, 1979.

Photo 2—(Daily & Weekly Appeal)  History of Yuba County, Thompson and West, 1879.