E Clampus Vitus

Isaac Polhamus

Laughlin, NV


Image of the plaque is not yet available


Dedicated June 14, 2014 (6019)


Noble Grand Humbug
John "Dante Shortpants" Dunmire
Has called upon all redshirts to attend the
Lucky 13th Sailing of the Queho'st Gaurd
a sight unlike any other
And honor the finest Captain to ever sail the river
Captain Isaac Polhamus
This keepsake
Written, rewritten, regurgitated, reflected, repulsed, redacted, reaggregated, recapitulated, recommended, recompiled, and reinforced by
Mark P. Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS-3, Scribe of St. Vitus, Clamp-Plaquero
Obfuscationist Press
6019 (2014 pbc)


Isaac Polhamus, King of the Colorado

He was not a native of the western deserts, but Isaac Polhamus, Jr., made his reputation as the most important steamship Captain on the Colorado River during the glory days of shipping in the years from 1856 to 1904. His involvement covered most of the era of shipping before the Colorado was tamed with concrete and steel. He was both the Captain and eventually owner of many of the ships plying the river.

Polhamus was not the first captain on the river. That honor went to George Alonzo Johnson, who purchased the General Jessup in 1854. The General Jessup was a side-wheeler steam boat. It was 104' long, with a beam (or width) of 17'. Its steam engine could develop 70 horsepower, more than sufficient for its 30" draw (the distance it sank into the water) and the 50 tons of freight it could carry.

Johnson initially only shipped to Yuma, coming up from the Gulf of California. There was some question whether the rest of the river north could be navigated by steamship. Washington wanted to know because of the numbers of emigrants coming to California over Lt. Edward Beale's wagon road. Where the road crossed the river, the local Indians, the Mojaves, were problematic. Sometimes they were friendly, and sometimes they attacked and killed travelers. Of course the fact that we were crossing their land, often through their fields and taking their trees for firewood (wood was a commodity of great value on the desert) might have led to some misunderstandings as well.

Johnson was the first man to prove the river could be used to ship freight. Soon after he went upstream, Lt. Ives of the Army Corps of Engineers piloted the Explorer up the river. Ives was under orders from Washington to prove the navigability of the river, and his report set up a debate for many years when he did not mention Johnson having been first up the river, even though Ives met Johnson as Johnson was descending the river. While Ives took the credit in his report, Johnson has been proven first in the historical record.

Why was it important to navigate the river? The cost of freighting supplies to Fort Yuma and other locations on the river was extraordinarily high. If supplies could be brought up river, and goods then shipped back down the river, these costs could be brought way down. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, the cost of shipping kept the steamships operating. Initially, supplies freighted across the desert cost as much as $150.00 a ton just for shipping. For those mining districts along the river, the cost of shipping ore by wagon was so high that only ore which assayed for hundreds of dollars a ton was worth shipping. With the Colorado River steamships, that cost could be as low as $25 to $50 per ton, either way, making the cost of doing business much less, and the profit margins much greater.

The idea of using steamboats made sense from their use on other rivers throughout the United States, but the Colorado was a difficult river. It was noted for its swift current, and at times quite shallow areas, not to mention sand bars which were maddeningly quick to shift location. Then there was the problem of where to get the wood which was necessary to power the boilers on steamboats. All of this was unknown when Johnson and later Ives made their runs up the Colorado.

As we know today, they were successful. Both came up as far as Eldorado Canyon (named by Captain Johnson). Johnson claimed to have made it to about the Las Vegas Wash. Between Johnson and Ives the river was shown to be navigable.

The issue of the sand bars was known to many riverboat pilots in the United States. Rivers like the Mississippi were notorious for their hazards, including sand bars and "snags," usually trees which were washed down river and then submerged, only far enough to be invisible but not far enough to be safe for boats to cross. If hit by a riverboat, a snag could stop the boat in its tracks, or tear open is underside and sink it.

While the Colorado River did not have as many snags (though there were large rocks to be aware of), its sandbars were legendary. They required the Captain to be constantly on alert, as well as a much shallower boat design. For the sandbars, the boats had to have a very shallow draft, or depth they rode in the water, and a reinforced, flat bottom. If you hit a sandbar, normally because you could not avoid it, you would hopefully be able to either steam through it, or have to find another way to be pushed off it.

The other issue of wood was a real problem. There were few trees on the river, though a few locations became well known for fueling stops. One of the best known was Cottonwood Island, an island (not underwater) about halfway between Fort Mojave (at the southern tip of today's Nevada) and Eldorado Canyon. Its location in the middle of the river and the fact it initially was covered with Cottonwood Trees, made it an ideal fueling. Eventually, Paiute Indians living on the island would snag drift wood from the river and sell it to the steamships. This was also done at many of the landings on the river.

Ives left the area after his voyage, and the Explorer, a 54' long badly underpowered steamer, was sold by the government in an auction. The lucky bidder for the boat? Captain George Alonzo Johnson, who had the boat turned into a barge with the removal of the steam engine and stern wheel.

The barge broke from its moorings and drifted off. Supposed sunk and lost, its hulk was found and identified in 1930 by Godfrey Sykes in a former channel of the river which had been bypassed many years before.

Isaac Polhamus, Jr., was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on April 27, 1828. He grew up in the east, the son of a Hudson River captain. His father, Isaac Polhamus I, was a ship's captain for a number sailing ships and later steam ships. He was noted, among other ships, as being the captain of the third steam ship launched in the United States, the Paragon. The Paragon was commissioned by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. Fulton was the inventor of the steam engine used on the boats, and Livingston the funding source. The Paragon was launched in 1811, and for many years plied the Hudson River.

Captain Polhamus' son, Isaac Polhamus, Jr., grew up on the river watching his father pilot steamships. He made his way to California in 1846, and began his own river navigation career on the Sacramento River.

By 1856, Captain Isaac Polhamus Jr. had moved to the Colorado River, and began working for George Johnson as the Captain of the Colorado, the first stern-wheeler in regular service on the river. The Colorado carried supplies to Fort Mojave for the U. S. Army. It was slightly less than 120' long, and could carry 60 tons of freight in spite of its very shallow draft, less than 24". Polhamus stayed with the Colorado until 1862, when it was retired and broken up.

Polhamus had begun the career which would be his life. He went on to pilot the Mohave which was launched in 1863. The Mohave set a speed record on the Colorado in 1864 between Fort Yuma and El Dorado Canyon, a distance of about 365 miles. Polhamus' ten days and two hours' time up the river and back can be juxtaposed today by anyone who has driven from Boulder City to Yuma, a long drive to be sure, but not a ten-plus day effort.

The Mojave was broken up in 1875, and Polhamus took over the Cocopah II as Captain. The Cocopah II was built in 1867, and was another stern-wheeler. Many river pilots preferred stern-wheelers as they could push over the ever-shifting sand bars in the river better than side-wheelers.

Finally, Polhamus became the Captain of the Mojave II, his personal favorite. The Mojave II was launched in 1876. It was 149.5' long, making it the longest river steamship on the Colorado by 6". It was the pride of the fleet, and was the only two-stack steamboat on the river.

Contemporary accounts talk about the boat as being palatial. It was shallow enough that it was taken as far up the Colorado as the Virgin River, and was also used for pleasure trip down to the Gulf of California.

All of these boats were owned by the Colorado Steam Navigation Company, a firm created by George Johnson in the 1860s. The company became the dominant, and often the only, steamship company on the river, and Polhamus served as Chief Pilot and Manager for the company. His assistant, Jack Mellon, was another well-known and respected riverboat Captain.

The boats themselves were mainly built in San Francisco. For the early steamships, they would be built and tested, then dismantled and shipped by ocean-going ship to the mouth of the Colorado River at a site called Port Isabel, where the Colorado Steam Navigation Company had their boat yard and warehouses. There they were reconstructed and placed into service. When existing boats were being rebuilt, a relatively common occurance given the wear and tear on ships which regularly had to force their way over sand bars and other obstacles, much of that work was done at the boat yard on the river.

Freight was the money-maker for the steamships, and very quickly it became clear that the more being carried the better. A compedator to the Colorado Steam Navigation Company was Thomas Trueworthy, who in 1864 brought a steamship which he had intended to take to China to the Colorado. Trueworthy envisioned that the steamships could carry much more freight, if they towed barges up the river as well. He began hauling barges, which Johnson's company soon emulated.

The barges were not tied to the back of the steamboat, but rather to an upright post halfway up the side. The barge also had a wheelhouse, with a pilot, who had to watch the steamboat and be sure to stay directly centered in the wake of the steamer, but approximate 100' behind. This kept collisions to a minimum and dramatically increased profits.

Trueworthy's company, the Pacific and Colorado Steam Navigation Company, however, was not enough to unseat Johnson's company. By 1867 it was gone.

Johnson's company dominated shipping on the river from the 1860s through the late 1870s. In 1877, however, the Santa Fe Railroad finally built a bridge across the Colorado, and supplies could be shipped by rail. The Colorado Steam Navigation Company was acquired by the Santa Fe. Johnson retired with his profits, as did his partners, but Captain Polhamus and Captain Mellon were retained by the company.

The Colorado Steam Navigation Company continued to service the various mining districts and communities on the river. The railroad ownership did bring changes, though, including the closing of the Port Isabel boat yard. In addition, the new owners tried to do away with deckhands, who formerly had been paid by the month, and replace them with men who would only be paid 83 cents a day, a little less than half the previous wage. Few men would work for this wage, and the steamships were often delayed by a lack of stevedores. The railroad then tried using Chinese deckhands, but they did not work out either. Eventually, this change was rescinded.

One other major change was in fares. Even dogs would now be charged $5.00 to ride the steamships, where previously they had ridden for free with their owners. This also brought protests, and the fee was reduced to $2.50, but they weren't free any longer.

The advent of the railroads did impact the shipping significantly. The cost of shipping by rail was even less, and much faster. Where railroads were built into mining districts, shipping by steamship tended to dry up.

Captain Polhamus tried various ways to keep up the steamship company profits. He helped found the river town of Ehrenberg, located just north of today's Davis Dam, when William Harrison Hardy at Hardyville, located where Bullhead City is today, starting charging too much for shipping. Ehrenberg was also closer to the La Paz mining district, where Polhamus partly owned one of the major mines. He also had a large ranch along the river. Eventually, he had a landing named for him. Polhamus Landing was located just above Hardyville, the present site of Bullhead City. It was near the site of Katherine, on the Arizona side of the river above Davis Dam. The river, though, was always his primary focus.

By 1886, the railroad was no longer interested in the Colorado Steam Navigation Company, and Polhamus and Jack Mellon bought the company. Both captains had been navigating the river since the 1850s, and were considered the best pilots on the river. For the next few years, they struggled to keep the company going (no, I am not going to say afloat), while many of the mining districts and boom towns shut down.

In the late 1890s, a new district opened up south of Eldorado Canyon, the Searchlight District. The town of Searchlight got its start in 1898, and needed goods helped the steamship line to start making money again. Freighting ore from the new district was also a money-maker for the company, but only for a short time.

At the age of 76, Captain Isaac Polhamus retired from the river in 1904, after almost fifty years as a pilot on the river. He sold his interest in the company to his long-time partner Jack Mellon and two Needles businessmen, and removed to California. His timing was impeccable, as the contract to build the Laguna Dam, the first to control the Colorado and eventually close the river to navigation was let that year.

The Steamship company continued to operate until 1909, when Mellon and his partners shut it down.

Mellon also left the river. The Colorado River's rampage into the Imperial Valley, and creation of the Salton Sea, between 1905 and 1907, had focused attention on the need to control the river. The days of unimpeded shipping were over, never to return. The last steamship on the Colorado, the Searchlight, built in 1902, was finally reported lost on the river in 1916, and an era ended.

It must be noted, though, that Captain Polhamus did not spend all his time on the river. He married Sacramento Sambrano December 18, 1864, and they had 11 children. He had other business interests, and even after he retired from the river he continued to look after his businesses for another decade.

Captain Polhamus outlived the era he had done so much to build. By his death on January 16, 1922, there were no more steamships on the Colorado River. He is buried at the Yuma Pioneer Cemetery, in the town that he spent much of his life sailing through. From the Hudson River, to the Sacramento River, to the Colorado River, Captain Isaac Polhamus was a Captain and Pilot, helping to build the country and playing his part in the history of the great southwest. He sailed through our region when it was still the New Mexico Territory, and continued through the Arizona Territory, and the state of Nevada. Let us remember his efforts.

What Say the brethren?


And so recorded.

For more reading, for those who so wish:

Casebier, Dennis G. Camp El Dorado, Arizona Territory; Soldiers, Steamboats, and Miners on the Upper Colorado River 1970, Arizona Historical Foundation
Farrish, Thomas Edwin History of Arizona, Vol. 1 1915, Filmer Brothers
Guinn, J. M. A History of California and an Extended History of its Southern Coast Counties, Vol. 2 1907, Historic Record Company
Kemble, John Haskell To Arizona by Sea - 1850-1877, in The Westerners Brand Book, Book Ten 1963, Los Angeles Corral
Lingenfelter, Richard E. Steamboats on the Colorado River; 1852-1916 1978, University of Arizona Press
Martin, Douglas D. Yuma Crossing 1954, University of New Mexico Press
Messersmith, Dan W. The History of Mohave County to 1912 1991, Mohave County Historical Society
Summerhayes, Martha Vanished Arizona; Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman 1970, Rio Grande Press
Trimble, Marshall In Old Arizona; True tales of the wild frontier! 1993, Golden West Publishers
Wildfang, Frederic B. Lake Havasu City; Images of America Series 2005, Arcadia House
Woodward, Arthur Feud on the Colorado 1955, Westernlore Press







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