The Legacy of Sweep Boats on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon
By Peter Grubb, Founder ROW Adventures, River guide of 45 years.
A short history of Idaho’s iconic boat and today’s use on guided trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon
We are lucky in Idaho to have a river guide turned historian and author who has researched, archived and written much about the history of Idaho’s rivers. For anyone wanting to learn about the legendary Salmon and Snake Rivers, Cort Conley’s books are a must-read. Not only has he preserved history through interviews and copious research, he has also saved many important film reels about early boating on Idaho’s rivers. I owe much of what is written here to Cort’s books, the River of No Return and The Middle Fork, a Guide.
I have an additional source within my own family. My mother’s father, Herman Work, was among the first graduating class of the new discipline of forestry. In 1909 both Penn State and Yale graduated their first class of foresters, and most were sent West to start work in the newly created National Forests that were under the purview of the US Forest Service formed in 1905 under President Teddy Roosevelt. Herman Work served in the USFS from 1909 to 1915 and in 1913 he went on a boat trip on the Salmon River, starting in Salmon and ending somewhere downstream of the mining town of Shoup, a journey of some 42 miles that took a few days.
I knew nothing about this history of my grandfather until I moved to Idaho in 1979 for my second year working as a whitewater rafting guide. When I wrote a letter telling my grandfather that I was living in Salmon, Idaho, he wrote me that “I lived in Salmon for a year or so while working for the U.S. Forest Service. I lived above the Post Office.” Some years later he showed me this photo that he took of Salmon and in subsequent talks and letters I learned a lot more about my grandfather’s time working in what was then truly the wild west.
Salmon Main Street, 1912. Photo by Herman Work
Herman Work took a number of photos during his years with the Forest Service and the entire collection resides at the Idaho State Historical Museum in Boise. Before they went there for safekeeping after his death, I was able to make copies of those of particular interest to me, including photos of historic sweep boats or scows.
Herman Work, 1912, in Idaho with his USFS issue uniform and horse.
Rivers have long been corridors of commerce. Mighty rivers such as the Nile, Amazon and Yangtze carried goods and people in a variety of craft as did rivers within Europe such as the Danube and Rhone. Within North America, the same was true with our great waterways such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and others. It was Indigenous People that taught the early French fur trappers how to build birchbark canoes and how to navigate rapids. As white colonialists settled this continent, various river boats were constructed to carry people and cargo. Among the earliest designs were flatboats, which were simple affairs with flat bottoms.
The beginning of the important role of flatboats started in 1782 when a farmer from Pennsylvania named Jacob Yoder, floated one loaded with flour all the way to New Orleans. This ushered in a new era as flatboats took a more prominent role in westward expansion, carrying people, livestock and goods. They were built in a variety of sizes and designs, depending on the freight they carried and the length of the journey. The smallest were around 4’ wide and 16’ long and could navigate small rivers. Larger flatboats might be 14-16’ wide and 50’ long and were known as “broadhorns” or “Kentucky boats.” They would often have a cabin in the front for the owners and a shed for livestock in the back. The largest of the flatboats were called “Mississippi broadhorns,” “New Orleans boats,” or scows. These might be 20’ wide and 100’ or more in length and were usually covered their entire length, used only on larger rivers such as the Ohio and Mississippi. They had a rudder in the back and, in the front, a short sweep called a “gouger.” There were also huge 30-35’ sweeps that stuck out each side and which, from a distance, resembled horns. Hence came the name “broadhorn.” The side sweeps would be used to get the boat into the current and then stowed so that the front and rear sweeps were used as the sole means of navigation. During the peak years from around 1825-1850 several thousand flatboats a year arrived in New Orleans. Wood was plentiful and cheap, so boats were built in the north and the lumber sold at the end of the trip. When you’re visiting New Orleans you can still see houses that were built from lumber that started out as a flatboat.
The use of these boats waned for two reasons. One was that steamboats became more prevalent and could navigate rivers in both directions and since they could also tow things, flatboats evolved into barges. Then came the railroad which put an end to many steamboat routes as well.
By the 1860’s, the early boatmen that started to ply the waters of the Salmon River in Idaho must have had knowledge of these boats, and presumably some experience on them as well. The term scow or sweep is the one adapted for the flatboats of Idaho. No one knows who piloted the first scow or sweep down the Salmon River, but by the 1880’s people discovered these boats were a more efficient way to transport heavy freight than by horse. In 1883 John Parody built a flat-bottomed scow, loaded it with freight at Fourth of July Creek and floated to the new mining town of Shoup where it was unloaded and the boat sold for its lumber. This was the start of a new tradition in Idaho, following the same pattern that had been established on the Mississippi.
Scow or sweep boat tied to shore by the mining town of Shoup, Idaho.
Wooden scow boat just downstream of the town of Salmon, Idaho
We know from the Idaho Recorder, Salmon’s newspaper of the day, of other departures from Salmon downstream. According to Cort Conley, the boats could be built in a few days and generally were 8’ wide and around 32’ long. They had a flat front and a back that sloped up and out from water level. They were built with a double hull and a raised floor to keep the cargo dry. For steering, trees were cut to make 28’ long poles, each fitted with a 12-14’ blade, or “sweep” that sat in the water. There was one in the front and one in the back. It generally took two men to run a boat of this size and the poles, or sweep arms, were quite heavy and sometimes counter-balanced with rocks at the handle end.
Scow boat in rapids
One of the earliest sweep boat pilots, and well-known character of the Salmon River was John McKay. Born in Scotland who was a skilled millwright. The story is that he had built a large mill and invited his young bride to come see it. While there her skirt was caught in the flywheel and she was killed. A broken-hearted McKay found his way to Idaho and became a placer miner and recluse. In order to reach places others couldn’t, McKay started a pattern of building a small scow that he could man himself, and each spring, depart Salmon to head downstream. He would hunt, fish and, using a rocker box, gather gold at sandbars. He sometimes spent the winter in the canyon in a small hut he’d build with lumber from his boat. He would often continue west, all the way to Lewiston, where the lumber was sold and he’d return to Salmon to start a new boat. It’s estimated he did this long journey at least 20 times during his life. My grandfather met Johnny McKay, as evidenced by the photo he took in 1913 of Johnny mining along the river.
Johnny McKay along the Salmon. Photo by Herman Work, 1913
Johnny is also remembered by McKay Creek and at Barth Hot Springs on the Main Salmon River where his name is artfully chiseled in a rock with the dates 1872+1905+1911.
Sometime in the early 1890’s a new man showed up in town who was to become Idaho’s most famous sweepboat captain. Harry Guleke was born in New York and made his way west where he worked as a government trapper around the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. He learned about sweep boats from other established captains, who also made a living for a number of years hauling supplies and machinery to the mines at Shoup. When they all quit the business, Guleke become the prominent name in the field.
Sweep boatmen holding large sweep arms
In 1896 he made his first trip all the way from Salmon to Riggins, a distance of over 120 miles that would be done in 7-10 days on a modern Idaho rafting trip, but at the time, stopping to mine, fish, hunt and trade, would have taken several months. For around 40 years Guleke made numerous trips from Salmon to Lewiston, earning him the moniker of Captain Guleke. At some point starting around the early 1900’s, Guleke started to offer guided trips on the Salmon, lasting a couple of weeks for a price of around $1000. Adjusted for inflation that would be about $29,000 in today’s money!
These trips were not always smooth sailing. On my grandfather’s trip, one of the scows was stuck on a gravel bar, as this photo shows.
Long before people worried about the environmental concerns of such things, the common practice then was to use dynamite to move the nuisance gravel out of the way, as seen in this photo which my grandfather titled “Blasting the Channel.”
Captain Guleke ran his last trip on the river in 1939 and passed away a few years later. He is buried in the Salmon, Idaho cemetery and you can find his headstone inscribed with “River of No Return.”
While rubber rafts in various forms and configurations have been around since the 1830’s, it was World War II that motivated improvements in how they were made and brought them into the forefront as they became important tools in various military operations. After the war many were available through surplus outlets. While there had been guided river trips prior to the war, in wooden boats for the most part, the wide availability of rubber rafts after the war, started the tradition of rafting trips as we know them today.
Having spent a lifetime working in the rafting and travel business, I often ponder how it is that some places become famous destinations and end up on people’s travel bucket lists, and others, often equally remarkable places, do not. Some insight into the popularity of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, is found in the Salmon, Idaho newspaper. Andy Anderson was one of the earliest guides and outfitters on the Middle Fork, offering trips in 12’ surplus Navy rafts. He took famous Idahoan Jack Simplot on a trip in 1946, and the newspaper wrote: “Members of the party said they believed this was going to develop into one of the most popular river trips in the northwest. Its recreational advantages are extremely appealing and with proper equipment it can be made in safety and without undue hardship.” In 1952, a 7-day trip with Anderson was $500 including a flight to Indian Creek where the trip started. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $5420 in 2022 dollars. Since that time, the popularity of rafting trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon has solidified, and the river is now considered the second most sought-after wilderness rafting trip in the world, second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Since that time, the popularity of rafting trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon has solidified, and the river is now considered the second most sought-after wilderness rafting trip in the world, second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
The early outfitters of the 1950’s who ran river trips in rubber rafts birthed an entire segment of the travel industry, and during the next 30 years, more and more outfitters and guides developed wilderness river trips in the American West.
The wooden sweep boats or scows found their place on Idaho’s Main Salmon River as described above. But the advent of large rubber rafts that could be outfitted with sweeps, the large blades at the end of long arms at the front and back of the boat, soon became the boat of choice on the Middle Fork of the Salmon for trips that needed to carry large amounts of gear.
The Middle Fork is the perfect home for sweep boats. Because of their large tubes, the draw very little water. This means they sit only 4-6” below the surface and thus, can glide over most of the river’s rocks, even at low water. Unlike oar-rafts, that have oars extending out on each side and can slow down and speed up in the current based on what the pilot does with the oars, a sweep boat can only go the speed of the water coupled with the force of gravity. This means they are only practical on rivers with constant current. Once a sweep boat arrives in flat water with little current, it ceases to move. Add an upstream wind, and it may go nowhere, or be blown to shore.
It is for this reason that sweep boats are used on only one river in the United States, the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon. Guide services load them with one or two tons of gear and even with this heavy load, they sit high in the water, cruising over rocks, or rolling smaller rocks out of the way. Most have a bow that is slightly lifted so that it doesn’t catch rocks on the front tube.
Piloting a sweep boat is one of the most exciting and challenging feats a river guide can do. The fact that you can’t slow the boat down, combined with the extreme weight, mean that a guide has to be on their game and constantly watching for rocks and planning the route ahead. It’s a beautiful feeling to thread one of these massive boats between rocks on a path that doesn’t look possible to the untrained eye.
ROW Guide, John Hernandez, pilots the sweep boat down the Middle Fork of the Salmon in 2019.
When you join a trip with ROW Adventures on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, you will see our sweep boat in action. Built by Demaree Inflatable Boats in Friendsville, Maryland, it’s a handsome black boat that we cherish. Loaded with most of the guests’ dry bags, tents, kitchen gear and much of the food and beverage for our six-day trips, piloting this boat is a big responsibility.
We hope you’ll join us to see this legacy boat in action and learn more of the rich history of rafting trips in the American West!
Peter Grubb, Founder