Saturday, May 23, 2015

A River Captain in the Mojave Desert

This 1876 photo shows one of the May Day outings Yuma residents enjoyed on the steamboat Mojave, captained by Isaac Polhamus.


Had you stood on the eastern edge of San Bernardino County in the latter half of the 1800s, you might have been reminded of the Mississippi River.

That’s because, in wet years, the Colorado River swelled to a wide expanse in areas such as the slow wide stretch that would eventually become Lake Havasu. Even more reminiscent of the Big Muddy would be the sight of a steamboat.

Mark Twain, Robert Fulton and those other river folks were 1,500 miles east, turning the mystique of the riverboat into part of American lore. But the lower Colorado had its own river culture, brief as it was. And perhaps the best-known person in that culture was Isaac Polhamus, a steamboat captain for nearly 50 years.

Polhamus was known for his stern demeanor. His method for disciplining his Mojave Indian crew was to throw them overboard and then drag them back on deck.

And yet he was admired.

When he died in 1922, the local Indian community camped out at his house for two days, mourning his loss. There were so many Mojave in attendance that they filled Polhamus’ yard and a vacant lot across the road in Yuma, Ariz. A bonfire was lit to keep them warm while they remained through the chilly January night, sometimes chanting quietly to honor his passing.

In a 1941 story in Desert Magazine, Frank C. Lockwood, details Polhamus’ life, in part using materials that were provided to him by one of the captain’s daughters.

Polhamus grew up with the river life. His father was a riverboat captain on New York’s Hudson River. In 1846, Polhamus left the East Coast for California, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope on a voyage that took nearly a year.

Prior to California’s gold rush, he prospected on the American River, but had little luck. He was soon back on a riverboat on the Sacramento River. Not long after, he got wind of the opportunities on the Colorado.

In those days – before dams and desert golf courses -- the untamed river dumped its contents into the Gulf of California and made upriver passage easy. The Colorado was a conduit for goods moving into Arizona from western ports. Ships regularly sailed from San Francisco and San Diego around the tip of Cabo San Lucas, delivering cargo to Yuma, Ehrenberg and La Paz. Freighters then carried the merchandise to Prescott and other towns in the fledgling territory.

When Polhamus joined the Colorado Steam Navigation Company in the late 1850s, the business occupied half of the only permanent building standing in Yuma, a 100-by-25-foot adobe.

Polhamus quickly established himself as the top captain on the river, navigating the Colorado when it was fast and roiling from the spring melt, as well as when it lay slow and shallow during drier periods.

Mostly, he hauled cargo, as far north as Fort Mojave, which was just above Needles. The downriver journey from Fort Mojave to Yuma could be done in a day. Upriver was a different story.

On one 1859 trip, the river was moving so fast that it took 28 days to make the trip. Some sections of rapids required the steamboat to be pulled through using a cable threaded through ring bolts set in the canyon walls.

When the railroad was completed in 1877, river traffic dropped off. The company Polhamus worked closed up shop. But the captain kept going with his own line of steamboats. By then, there were enough people in the area that pleasure excursions were offered.

“For almost a generation,” Lockwood wrote, “Polhamus carried merry May Day picnic parties up the river on his boat as far as Picacho (about 30 miles up river).”

He also advertised for tourists and land speculators and entrepreneurs.

One promotional pamphlet promised “to show the possibilities of mining and agriculture of the country . . . with none of the hazardous hardships and privations of roughing it, in the saddle or on foot, the trip will be through the heart of the most weird and awesome scenery on earth.”

Polhamus probably would have kept steaming up and down the Colorado, but in 1904, the damming of the river began. He was forced to retire. Had it been today, he could have spent his leisure time golfing. But the water being held back wouldn’t be used for that purpose for many years.