Prepare for a voyage through time, 106 years ago to the day.
It was Saturday, March 31, 1917, and Portland was abuzz about a boat. The US was on the brink of entering World War I, but buoyant crowds still gathered to witness the launch of the Vesterlide, the first all-steel steamer built in the city.
Thanks to a detailed report from The Oregon Daily Journal, we can picture the scene at the Northwest Steel Company well.
The spectacle was called “the dawn of a new era” and then Portland Mayor H. Russell Albee declared a holiday so workers and dignitaries alike could join the festivities. Grandstands were erected around the Willamette River shipyard and people climbed on roofs to see where the 8,800-ton freighter sat awaiting its departure. Passengers on other boats watched from the water.
Among them was the steamboat Ruth, which carried paper to Portland from mills in Oregon City and was also one of the fastest sternwheelers to transport agricultural goods throughout the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately, on that day, it wasn’t quick enough.
With the smash of a champagne bottle, the Vesterlide was christened and began sliding out of its dock to raucous cheers. However, two of the thick ropes holding the craft’s bow failed and it went careening into the Ruth “like an axe sharpening a stick.” With a 10-ft hole in its middle, the smaller boat sank in 45 minutes and three men were injured.
Undamaged, the Vesterlide was ultimately delivered to the British sailing company Cunard Line, which renamed her the SS War Baron. It was later sunk off the southern English coast by a German torpedo in January 1918.
The Ruth was resurrected and returned to service for an estimated $20,000 — or nearly half a million dollars today.