Capt. Charles Bureau is known in Okanogan historical circles as operator of one of the smallest, toughest steamboats to ply the Okanogan River and as builder of the elegant Bureau Hotel, but he also had a long career on the water and in the lumber trade before and after his river exploits.
Little is known about “Cap” Bureau’s early life, but he is mentioned in “History of the Columbia River Valley from The Dalles to the Sea” as buying the Hydra steamboat in 1880.
Author Fred Lockley, in the 1928 book, writes about different boats that served the lower Columbia River and its tributaries.
The Hydra ran the Lewis River. Mrs. C.L. Forbes of La Center recalled that her father was one of the craft’s captains, followed later by Bureau.
In 1881, Bureau built the steamer Manzanillo for the Clatskanie route. He sold the route and the steamer in 1885 to G.W. Shaver, Lockley wrote.
“Agricultural development, which always produces traffic, was much slower in the Clatskanie region than along the other branch routes leading out from the Columbia, and it required the coming of the shingle and lumbering industry to establish a regular steamboat service on that stream,” according to Lockley.
By 1901, Bureau apparently was still running on the lower Columbia, and may have built the Mascot. He reportedly couldn’t make a profit from the boat and sold it to Jacob Kamm. The boat ran from Portland down the Willamette and Columbia rivers to points on the Lewis and Lake rivers.
On to Okanogan
Sometime in the next decade, Bureau arrived in the Okanogan and set to building hotels, operating sawmills and building a steamer.
He threw his efforts into building the Bureau Hotel, operating lumber and planing mills on Loup Loup Creek and Okanogan, building a foot bridge across the Okanogan River at Pine Street and being a useful citizen around town. He also had a smaller hotel on First Avenue.
The Bureau Hotel, begun by July 1905, was at the corner of Pine Street and South First Avenue, just behind the Schaller Building (current site of North Cascades Bank).
A reporter for the Conconully-based Okanogan Record visited Alma (the town name that pre-dated Okanogan) to seek news. He described the hotel as “beautiful and commodious,” but unfinished.
Bureau designed the three-story hotel to look like a steamboat. It featured wrap-around porches and a tower, all decorated with gingerbread. From photos of the building, the tower appeared to feature a widow’s walk.
People in town ridiculed Bureau for the building, calling it pretentious and the builder foolish, according to the Summer 2006 issue of the Okanogan County Heritage, published by the Okanogan County Historical Society.
Bureau, however, knew the federal government was building an irrigation project at Conconully, the South Half of the Colville Indian Reservation was soon to open to settlement and the railroad was surveying for a line to be built from Wenatchee.
Hotel space would be needed to support those endeavors.
By 1907 he was renting rooms, even though construction continued. O.H. Woody set up the Independent in an unfinished room, with wind whistling through. Bureau didn’t charge him rent for the first few months, the Heritage reported.
Other tenants were attorney, later judge, William Compton Brown, and Jay Holcomb, who opened an amusement parlor with pool tables, a confectionary and tobacco products.
After suffering financial setbacks, Bureau finally finished the hotel in 1915. It boasted electric lights, hot and cold water in every room, meals, and a free bus to and from the trains, which by that time had arrived in the valley, the Independent reported.
He also constructed a building on P Street (Pine Street) west of the hotel. D.F. Wilson rented the building for his clothing store and lived in the back. Photographer Frank S. Matsura later rented the space to sell Christmas gifts and Japanese items.
Bureau also worked at his Loup Loup Creek mill, producing large quantities of lumber. He had a telephone there, too, according to the Heritage story. His Okanogan planing mill, built in 1905, was next to the river.
He also bought two islands south of town and planned to build a bridge to connect them to the mainland. He sold them in November 1910.
A boat builder, too
Most steamboats plying the Columbia and Okanogan rivers were large - large enough that Okanogan built its high steel bridge to soar over the river, with clearance enough for the smokestack and hog posts of The Okanogan, the largest steamer serving the area.
But those big steamers needed deep water and when the river was low, they couldn’t make much of a journey up the Okanogan.
Enter Charles Bureau and his eponymous steamer.
The boat - a low-slung, flat-bottomed craft - was built in Okanogan during the winter of 1907-08 and launched during the spring of 1908, according to the June 20, 1908, issue of The Okanogan Independent as quoted in the summer 2007 issue of Okanogan County Heritage.
According to revolvy.com, which has published a list of steamboats on the Columbia River, the Charles Bureau was 80 feet long.
The ship “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,” the Independent said in its June 20 story. “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.”
The boat was dubbed the “Mud Hen,” but Bureau reportedly wanted to call her the Dewdrop, because she would “float on the dew,” according to a June 29, 1935, story in the Portland Morning Oregonian. She could operate in 14 inches of water and carry 27 tons of freight.
Later in the summer of 1908, the Independent reported the Charles Bureau brought some 20 tons of steel plates to town for use in the bottom of the flume at the Conconully Dam, which was under construction. On other trips, the steamer brought cans for the new cannery and a boiler for the laundry.
But extremely low water proved too much even for the squat steamer. The craft was damaged in August 1908, suffering holes in her bottom and a broken shaft. She spent the winter laid up at the mouth of the Okanogan, the Heritage reported.
Back in business
By 1909, after repairs, the Charles Bureau was back in business.
“Large quantities of freight have been arriving almost daily for the past week or ten days on the busy Chas. Bureau, such frequent trips made necessary by the overflowing condition of the boat warehouse at Brewster,” the Independent wrote July 16, 1909.
Shipments upriver were numerous and heavy, with Okanogan city receiving the bulk of the business.
Bureau - the man, not the boat - received his passenger license that July and “has been doing a land office business in that line ever since,” the paper wrote. “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 brought up the river, testify.”
As welcome as Bureau’s passenger service was, the accommodations apparently were quite sparse, according to The Heritage.
Bureau sold the boat in 1910 to Capt. Bruce Griggs in anticipation of the railroad arriving in town within the year. But the railroad didn’t reach town for another four years.
During a visit to Conconully in June 1911, Bureau was quoted in the town’s Okanogan Record newspaper as saying he regretted the decision. Griggs moved the boat to the upper Columbia near Kettle Falls.
Bureau later built several more steamboats, including one called the Nespelem that was constructed in 1918 in Pateros.
One of his community booster projects involved building a foot bridge across the Okanogan at the foot of Pine Street. More than 300 people were counted crossing the bridge during festivities honoring soldiers who were leaving for World War I in September 1917, the Independent reported.
“Capt. Bureau deserves great credit for taking the initiative in the construction of this bridge,” the paper reported. “Although the materials was mostly furnished him gratis, he has done a lot of work on his own responsibility.”
Bureau had some monetary problems, as the 10-year construction period for his hotel attests. The Dec. 31, 1914, biennial report of the state Office of Attorney General to the governor and Legislature shows the state sued Bureau to recover a $44.14 premium for industrial insurance.
The community seems to have had a love-hate relationship with Bureau - ridiculing him over the hotel and later calling it the “Centerpiece of Okanogan,” praising his steamer’s freight capacity and ability to haul passengers while complaining about the accommodations, giving him credit for constructing the foot bridge yet noting the building supplies had been provided for free.
Woody - an early tenant of the hotel who had gotten free rent for months - failed to mention Bureau or the hotel in his 1924 book “Glimpses of Pioneer Life.”
That year, the Bureau Hotel was destroyed just before Christmas by a fast-moving fire. The hotel and contents, which were covered by insurance, were valued at $20,000 - about $297,000 in 2020, adjusted for inflation.
Fortunately for the town, there was only a light wind and the fire crew managed to save adjoining buildings with minimal damage, the Independent reported.
“The building was a pretentious affair, viewed from the standpoint of what the town required in its early days, and a lot of credit was due Captain Bureau for his persistency in carrying out an ambition that he felt was important in the development of the town,” said the paper.
“Day after day he labored on the building, occasionally altering his plans as changes seemed advisable. When unable to finance the purchase of additional material he worked on the inside finishing or decorative brackets for the porches, but never for a moment did he let his ambition become discouraged.”
When finally completed the building “filled a great need and has since done a thriving business,” the paper said.
“Yes, I put a lot of licks in that building,” Bureau commented to the paper as he surveyed the remains.
With the building in ashes, people in town came to realize how important it had been.
The Commercial Club held a special meeting the day of the fire and appointed a committee to see about acquiring a new hotel. The Cariboo Inn, built in 1925 on Queen Street, was the result.
Fire struck again, as Bureau’s planing mill was destroyed after the hotel. An American Legion fundraiser was planned to help the aging captain.
But Bureau was again slighted a few years later in banker Harry Kerr’s 1931 “A History of the Town of Okanogan,” published by the Okanogan Independent to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Kerr’s First National Bank of Okanogan.
“Kerr gives us the first and only contemporary impression of Charles Bureau, but after that pretty much dismisses him and his hotel,” said the summer 2006 Heritage story.
During a 1935 reunion of old-time steamboat men in Portland, Ore., Bureau was the guest of honor and made a commodore. At age 91, he was the oldest riverboat veteran present and the one who had traveled the longest distance to the reunion, the Oregonian reported.
“The newly commissioned Commodore Bureau returned home to Okanogan, content with his memories of the glory days of the steamboats and looking forward to the next year’s reunion,” the paper said.
But Bureau died the following August following “a long period of poor health,” the Independent reported Aug. 15, 1936.
A large crowd of longtime friends attended the service, after which Bureau was buried in an unmarked grave in the Okanogan City Cemetery.