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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Minnie Hill captained steamers on the Columbia and Willamette rivers

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:07am

When Minnie Mossman married Charles Hill in 1883, she signed on as a life mate and as first mate on his steamer. Minnie Mossman Hill soon became the first licensed woman steamship operator in the West and the second in the nation.

The Hills originally lived and worked on the steamer Joseph Kellogg. They saved $1,000 and bought a used schooner, converting it into a trading ship and adding a steam engine.

Cruising the Columbia and Willamette with her husband, Minnie Hill learned about the rivers. She soon passed the second-class master’s license examination without problems. The Hills became well-known along the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and their business thrived. Together, they ran their steamer, which they named Minnie Hill, carrying goods from Portland to Astoria, Ore. and points along the way. Minnie controlled the upper deck and her husband the lower engineering deck, following her commands to slow down or speed up. The Minnie Hill was licensed to carry mail between Clatskanie, Ore., and Oak Point (west of present-day Longview) and trade goods along the Columbia and Willamette rivers in 1889.

That year, Minnie’s beauty captured headlines. A story in The Oregonian said she was “young and good-looking, but perfectly able to manage a boat and crew.” The article praised her piloting ability, adding she could even handle the throttle. In August, the same paper echoed a San Francisco story calling her “beauty at the wheel” while noting what her “pluck and energy can do if properly applied.”

As their business grew, the Hills upgraded, paying $7,500 for the steamer Governor Newell, 112 feet long with a 21-foot beam.

When the ferry to Portland was being overhauled in 1897, the Governor Newell ferried passengers back and forth across the Columbia River from Vancouver. While the steamer’s passengers were happy, the teamsters weren’t. The steamer couldn’t carry wagons from one bank to the other.

In an era where river captains were described as rough and often drunken, Minnie Hill’s piloting was polished. But the family had its share of stress.

In 1896, Fredrick Mossman, Minnie’s brother, sued Charles Hill for seducing his wife, Jenny. Frederick alleged Jenny was unfaithful, causing him mental distress and ruining his name and home life. Charles claimed Jenny was an unhappy wife and had initiated the seduction to extort money. In court, a boarding house owner testified Jenny frequently received men in her room.

Charles died in 1942, and Minnie followed in 1946. They had two children, but only Herbert survived past childhood.

Minnie’s obituary noted she’d captained the Governor Newell for eight years, adding she had “full charge” of the steamer and was “remarkably successful in her calling,” carrying cargo down the Columbia River to Astoria, where ocean-going ships took on their cargo.

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Columbian freelance contributor