Steamboats: How Chris Knutsen Traveled around Puget Sound

By Jean Cammon Findlay

(author, with Robin Paterson, of The Mosquito Fleet of South Puget Sound)

as part of The Knutsen Archives
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Robin Paterson

When you look at a United States map and see a dot called Port Townsend way off there in the upper left hand corner or if you read a December 2007 news item about how the sudden retirement of four Washington State ferries left Port Townsend cut off from the rest of civilization, you might wonder why on earth Chris Knutsen would choose such a remote outpost to start his harp guitar business.

It wasnít remote.

In the time Chris lived there, 1888 to 1892 and 1895-1900, Port Townsend was served by a number of steamboats that plied between Olympia at the south end of Puget Sound and Victoria on Vancouver Island across from the northern entrance to the Sound.  As the crow flies, Port Townsend and Olympia are about 70 miles apart, and itís about 40 miles to Seattle.  Those routes included Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, and Vancouver (B.C.) among the many population centers.  Furthermore, Port Townsend had the custom house where all boats entering Puget Sound had to stop and declare themselves, so the town itself was a major commercial hub.

This map of Puget Sound shows its major towns with Port Townsend, where Chris Knutsenís home was in the 1890s, overlooking its entrance.  It is 45 miles (by water) from Port Townsend to Seattle, and another 28 miles from Seattle to Tacoma.  Vancouver is just off the map on the mainland shore 50 miles northeast of Victoria. While these distances do not seem great today, even a fast steamboat only traveled about 15 mph and this coupled with frequent stops at communities along the way could make the trip take a half-day to a day.

Other transportation was not an option.  For instance, Port Townsend wanted to be a major railroad terminal even after Northern Pacific awarded the honor to Tacoma in 1873.  Supporters of a northern extension of the railroad from Portland to Port Townsend held out hope well into the early 1900s, but the developers ran out of money and the boom economy of Port Townsend faded.  By 1900 rumors of the railroad extension remained just thatórumors. Today the roadbeds that were built in anticipation lie rotting in the rainforest undergrowth.

However, steamboats made their entrance onto the Sound in 1853 and until the 1920s when the escalating shift to car ferries spelled their doom, they were the most convenient and comfortable way to get around.  In the absence of roadsówhich were hard to build in dense forests choked with undergrowthócommunities grew up where rivers flowed into the Sound and provided easy access for boats. Port Townsend has a superb deep harbor.

Until 1900 there were several steamboats whose services Chris might have used, though there is no way of knowing for sure which ones he patronized.

To name just a few, one contender was the Geo. E. Starr.  A side-wheeler built in Seattle in 1879, she ran ten years on the Olympia-Victoria route.  With Chrisís arrival in the Northwest in late spring 1888, this is a boat he could have taken to Port Townsend.  In the 1890s, she plied between Tacoma, Seattle, Port Townsend and Vancouver and was the last side-wheeler operating on the Sound when she retired in 1911.  
  Another side-wheeler, the North Pacific, ran from Olympia to Victoria from the 1870s until she struck rocks off Marrowstone Point near Port Townsend and sank in 1903 (all passenger were safe).  This is another boat he could have traveled on.


The Alida, also a side-wheeler, was built in 1869 for the Olympia-Victoria mail route, but she could not handle the rough water in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so ran from Olympia to Port Townsend twice a week until she burned in 1890.

The City of Kingston, a steel-hulled propeller, served the international run, Tacoma to Victoria, from 1890 until she was rammed in a heavy fog near Tacoma and sank in 1899 (everyone was rescued).

  I like to think that Chris might have ridden the handsome Multnomah if he had business in south Puget Sound.  She had a dining room with white linen cloths and the flower bouquets were picked by my grandmother, Bessie Johnson, when the boat stopped for fuel at Johnsonís Landing on Anderson Island.
Johnsonís Landing lies on the north side of Anderson Island looking across Balch Passage at McNeil Island in the background.  The small island between is called Eagle and is uninhabited.  Here the sternwheeler Northern Light is pulled up to the dock for  refueling with cordwood.  Chris probably came to this steamboat stop when visiting his uncle Hans Kammen in south Puget Sound and perhaps went to a party here at the Johnsonís.

(Photo courtesy of Anderson Island Historical Society)


In looking at the information on Knutsen instruments, there is usually not enough known about the provenance to say for sure where Chris originally sold an instrument.  We can tell where an instrument was built because the time period can be ascertained. 

HGS63 has a provenance that suggests Chris had a shop in Bellingham.  I do not find evidence of that, yet.  There is no listing of Chris in either a residence or a business in Bellingham in 1911, 1912, or 1913.  My guess is Chris went to Bellingham, probably by steamboat, and made a sale while he was there.  It is thrilling to have the specific date, April 29, 1912, that this instrument was sold by Chris, but so far it doesnít help place him there in any permanent fashion.

What I can speak about with authority is my own harp guitar, given to me by my uncle, Bob Cammon, HGP9.  It has always been in my family, though how that came to be involves a certain amount of guesswork. 

My great-grandfather, Hans Kammen, was Chris Knutsenís uncle.  Hans and his family moved from North Dakota, where they lived near Chrisís father and mother, Ole Ferdinand and Bergitte Cammon, to McNeil Island, south of Tacoma, in 1887.  Chris and Anna and Annaís parents, Anton and Edwardina Cammen (Anton was an older brother to Hans and Ole Ferdinand) moved to Port Townsend in 1888.  The first stay was brief as they all returned to Minnesota in 1892.  Chrisís father-in-law died in Minnesota in 1895 and at that time he with his wife Anna, two daughters Bertha and Evaulda, and mother-in-law Edwardina returned to Port Townsend.

I think Chris and perhaps his family came south to visit his Uncle Hans.  His steamboat would have stopped at Johnsonís Landing on Anderson Island where it picked up cordwood to fuel the engine.  Naturally Chris would have gotten off.

This stop, the woodyard that sold fuel to steamers, was owned by my great-grandfather, Bengt Johnson.  His daughter, my grandmother Bessie Johnson, would marry Hanís son Oscar Cammon, in 1906.  In the meantime, my grandfather owned a small steamboat (less than 50 feet long, a size called a launch) and did all sorts of odd jobs carrying passengers, shrimping, and anything anyone would pay him to do.  Picking up his cousin at a dock only a mile or so from his home would be easy.

McNeil and Anderson Islands lie about a quarter-mile apart on either side of Balch Passage.  In those days the populations of both islands often got together for socials.  People could row over or come in a larger boat.  They had a big meal.  They made taffy.  They would gather in the parlor around the organ or piano and sing.  Maybe someone would play fiddle with the piano for the people to dance.  My maternal great-grandparents often hosted these occasions which lasted into the wee hours and were great fun.  I suspect the occasion of Chris visiting and bringing his new instrument, the harp guitar, provided the impetus and the entertainment for one of these get-togethers.  That Chris sold the guitar off his back to my Grandma Bessieís parents would be just what Chris would do.  The note with the instrument, in my grandmotherís handwriting, says her parents bought the harp guitar about 1900.  In 1906, when my grandparents married, the guitar came back into its creatorís family.

Even after Chris shifted his business to Tacoma in 1900 and then to Seattle before moving to Los Angeles around 1915, steamboat remained the best way to travel on Puget Sound and indeed, even down the coast to all points between Seattle and San Diego.  It is possible that when Chris moved south he went by steamboat and not train.

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