Harmon’s Histories: Steam-powered yachts were all the rage in 1890s Montana

Anaconda Standard, 1-31-90

I’ve got – cling cling – fsssss – steam heat.

The radiators hissin’ still I need your kissin,’

to keep me from freezing each nite.

     – “Pajama Game” stage musical

Steam power and steam heat were all the rage in Montana in the late 1800s.

Anaconda’s Montana hotel opened on July 1,1889, advertising itself as “one of the handsomest and most elegantly appointed hotels in the United States … (with) elevators, running water, baths (and) steam heat,” all for “$3.50 a day and upwards.”

In Helena on December 20, 1889, the newly constructed five-story hotel called The Helena threw open its doors, showing off 150 rooms and other amenities. “The entire building will be heated by steam, every room having its separate radiator … (and furnished with) hot and cold water.”

Meantime, Missoula’s Rankin hotel, realty building, northside schoolhouse, First National Bank, the Sam Quong Hang hand laundry and the Missoula Mercantile complex all installed steam heating plants in 1890 and 1891.

Helena Independent newspaper, Nov. 3, 1889

The Missoula fire department showed off its new steam-powered pumper truck in the summer of 1890, “under the supervision of Mr. La France,” himself, the manufacturer.

“In one minute after the fire was lighted there was five pounds of steam on, in two minutes eight pounds, in three minutes 22 ½ pounds … (and) in six minutes, the length of the test, 114 pounds.

“The engine threw an almost solid stream high enough to reach (the top of) the highest building in town, and will throw still higher after it gets in working order.”

But the rich and the famous of Montana found a use for steam power which I suspect none of us would have guessed: steam-powered yachts. That’s right – yachts!

Missoula’s John R. Higgins, one of Captain Christopher R. Higgins’s nine children and cashier at his father’s bank, ordered his steam yacht in the spring of 1890, with delivery on July 26th.

The Missoula Gazette newspaper described it as “a thing of beauty and a joy forever … painted white on the outside … a hull made of second-growth maple with a natural bend with the grain, and her lines are as pretty and trim as those of a three-year-old racing filly.”

John R. Higgins, Missoula Weekly Gazette, 11-26-1890

The yacht, 30 feet long and powered by a 10-horsepower boiler, was designed to sleep six.

But there’s more!

In Great Falls, two yacht owners ended up in jail – over their competition for the tourist business. J. W. Cornelius owned the “Minnie.” Captain J. D. Taylor owned the “J. J. Hill.” 

Both had trouble enough on their own, sustaining accidents in their first few outings. The Minnie ran aground on some rocks in the Missouri River. Although there was little damage, the tourists aboard “were badly frightened at the time,” according to the Helena Independent newspaper. The “J. J. Hill” broke down on her second outing, “breaking one of the rods connecting with her double screws.”

Perhaps it was frustration with all the troubles. Perhaps the two men just didn’t like each other. But for whatever reason, by August 1892 the gloves were off.

Taylor first floated a log barrier with spikes embedded around Cornelius’ dock (land he had leased to Cornelius apparently before knowing Cornelius planned to go into the yacht-tourist-business).

He followed up on Thursday night, Aug 11, 1892, by erecting “a fence from his boat house to the railroad bridge, shutting off all approach to Mr. Cornelius’ dock and steam yacht,” reported the Great Falls Weekly Tribune.

Great Falls Weekly Tribune, August 13, 1892

The next morning, Mr. Cornelius, discovering the fence, “procured an axe and proceeded to cut the fence down … (rebuffing Taylor’s order) to stop.”

Taylor promptly “went to his lawyer’s office and swore out warrants for the arrest of Cornelius and his son” for malicious destruction of property. Cornelius then had Taylor arrested for “interfering with his rights.”

A trial was expected within a week, but no further mention of the subject can be found in the Great Falls Weekly Tribune, the Helena Independent, or any other newspapers of the day in the following weeks.

It is possible Taylor just gave up the matter, after the Weekly Tribune article’s scathing conclusion: “His action is regarded by all fair-minded men as exceedingly ill-natured and uncalled for. … Why don’t (sic) Taylor quit talking and acting in such a peevish manner and take steps to have his rights protected. He is certainly not making friends among the people who patronize his business.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.