Photos courtesy Okanogan County Historical Society Charles Bureau (left) in 1935; The Charles Bureau (above), workhorse of the river
By Georgene Fitzgerald
Okanogan Centennial Planning Committee
It is hard to overstate the importance of the river steamers to the early development of the Okanogan country.
Most of the glory has gone to the stately and elegant C&O steamers that could only come up the Okanogan during the highest water. But the little shallow-draft steamer designed and built by Capt. Charles Bureau in 1908 was a workhorse of the Okanogan River.
A few items in the Okanogan Independent during the steamer's first season of operation only hint at her usefulness.
June 20, 1908: The new steamboat, Charles Bureau, which was built in Okanogan last winter and launched several weeks ago, returned to her home port early Tuesday morning after a successful trip from Wenatchee where she was taken by her builder, Captain Bureau, to have her machinery installed.
With Capt. Bureau at the wheel, the new boat steamed proudly over the Okanogan rapids and was met at the wharf by half the population of the town who flooded the captain with applause and congratulations.
July 11, 1908: The steamer Charles Bureau brought up some 20 tons of steel plates to be used in the bottom of the flume at the big dam near Conconully.
July 25, 1908: The Charles Bureau came in Monday heavy laden. Part of her load was another large consignment of cans for the new cannery and the big boiler for the laundry.
Aug. 1, 1908: The Charles Bureau came in Thursday with a full load of merchandise.
In mid-August it was reported the Bureau had suffered much damage because of low water conditions, breaking her shaft and getting some ugly holes in her bottom. On the previous run and it had been decided to lay her up at the mouth of the Okanogan until spring.
Capt. Bureau operated his little steamer successfully the season of 1909.
The Independent reported on July 16, 1909: "Large quantities of freight have been arriving almost daily for the past week or ten days on the busy Chas Bureau, such frequent trips being made necessary by the overflowing condition of the boat warehouse at Brewster.
"Shipments for upriver points are unusually heavy for this time of year and seem to be steadily on the increase. Okanogan comes in for the bulk of the business, but large shipments have been received at various other points along the river.
"Capt. Bureau received his passenger license last week and has been doing a land office business in that line ever since. Owing to its construction this boat can navigate the river at a very low stage of water and fills a long felt want, as the enormous loads of freight of all kinds continually being brought up the river, testify."
That the Bureau provided pretty Spartan accommodations was recalled by Ethel Graffis Weaver in an article in the Okanogan County Heritage, Fall 1973: "I can remember our trip to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle that summer (of 1909). The four of us from Omak boarded Captain Bureau's riverboat in the morning. By dark we came to the Columbia River (at Brewster), cold and hungry. A plank walk was fixed from our boat to the bigger 'Columbia.' We walked on board and pushed a small door open. I'll never forget the good feeling of warmth and lights, and the good smell of food as we came in the door."
On May 20, 1910, the paper reported that Capt. Bureau had sold his boat to Capt. Bruce Griggs, a decision he later regretted.
The Okanogan Record newspaper in Conconully reported on June 23, 1911: "Capt. Charles Bureau of Okanogan was a visitor to Conconully Thursday . . . Captain Bureau says he now regrets having sold his steamboat, as he could have done a profitable business if it were now plying the Okanogan. As he expected the railroad would be in Okanogan before this season of navigation he sold his boat and it is now doing good service on the upper Columbia near Kettle Falls."
In the ensuing years Captain Bureau kept busy. Reports show he continued to work on his magnificent hotel, built several more steamboats, operated a lumber and planning mill, both in the Loop Loop and in Okanogan, built a footbridge across the Okanogan river and was generally a useful citizen about town.
From captain to commodore
In 1935, friends in Okanogan, Mr. and Mrs. J.F. Funk, took the old captain to Portland to attend the 10th annual reunion of old time steamboat men. There he made the headlines and got his picture in the Oregonian.
Portland Morning Oregonian
June 29, 1935
Cap' Bureau Picnic Honor Guest
Old Boat Builder Due at Champoeg
Okanogan Character Famed for Early-day Feats
"When old-timers get together at Champoeg park tomorrow, Captain Charles Bureau, who built the Manzanillo in 1881 to run between Portland and Clatskania, and in 1908 built the Bureau, more popularly dubbed the 'Mud Hen' at Okanogan, will be there as a guest of honor.
"Cap Bureau says he made lots of money with the old Manzanillo, but invested it in real estate and lost it in the panic of 1893. Then he left the river and went to Okanogan to run a sawmill. He set about building a three-story hotel and spent 12 years at the task. Fire destroyed the building in 1924.
"But Cap was always more or less a river man and . . . he couldn't resist the temptation to build another steamboat. This was the Bureau, named after himself over his objections. He wanted to call her the 'Dewdrop' because she'd 'float on the dew.' She operated in 14 inches of water and carried 27 tons of freight. For several years she plied between Brewster and Riverside."
The in the Monday morning Oregonian, an additional long article described the events of Sunday which "were attended by scores of river boat veterans and was swelled to thousands by families and friends."
According to the Oregonian, "One of the featured events of the afternoon was presentation to Captain Charles Bureau, 91, oldest river boat veteran present and the one who came the longest distance to the reunion, with a silver badge which entitled him the first commodore of the organization."
The newly commissioned Commodore Bureau returned home to Okanogan, content with his memories of the glory days of the steamboats and looking forward eagerly to the next year's reunion.
But it was not to be. On Aug. 15, 1936, the Independent reported on the funeral services for "Captain Charles Bureau, pioneer river man and hotel owner, who had died following a long period of poor health. Rev. Daniel Taylor delivered the funeral service, dwelling upon Captain Bureau's pioneer experience and his contribution to the building of the west. A large crowd of long-time friends attended the rites. Interment was in the Okanogan Cemetery."
To this day, the grave remains unmarked, Okanogan's "dean of river men" a memory as haunting as the whistle of the steamers that plied the Okanogan before the railroads came.