Steamboat Days on Flathead Lake

There was a time when there were no roads around Flathead Lake. Until the Great Northern Railway made its way to the valley over Marias Pass in 1892, the primary mode of transportation was the steamboat. Passengers and freight were hauled overland from the Northern Pacific Depot at Ravalli to Polson. From there, steamboats completed the journey from across the lake to Demersville via the Flathead River.

Things changed considerably when the Great Northern put Kalispell on the main line. Now supplies could be shipped by steamboat to Polson eliminating the wagon trip from Ravalli.

Stops were made just about anywhere on the lake by boats with names like us Grant, Montana, Wasco, Crescent, Kalispell, Demersville, City of Polson, Flyer, Cassie D and Klondike. Some were large and some were small. The Klondike was 120 feet long and could carry 425 passengers and 118 tons of freight. Some of the smaller boats continued in service until the late 1920s.

Some of the more popular stops on the west side were Lakeside (at that time known as Chautauqua or Stoner), Rollins, Angel Point, Dayton (a lumber company dock), Big Arm, Elmo and Salish Point at Polson. On the east shore, Yellow and Woods Bays and Bigfork were popular stops.

While driving around the lake, you can see old dock pilings used by the steamboats. A rail line to Polson, passable roads around the lake and the depression finally sank the steamboat trade. The steamer Helena was tied up at the old ferry-crossing town of Holt, where it eventually sank and rotted. The pilothouse of the Helena is displayed outside of Kehoe’s Agate Shop, along with a descriptive sign.