The Long Strange Life Of The General Miles
By James Donahue
It was always a small coastal vessel designed to carry passengers and freight from Alaska to Oregon,
but the General Mills remained on the water in various forms from the day it was launched in 1879 until it was purposefully
burned and sunk in 1950. This little ship had 10 different owners, went through several major refits, and four different names
during it’s amazing 71-year life span.
Launched as a 100-foot-long schooner in 1879, the ship was named for U. S. General Nelson A. Miles.
It was purchased by the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company, a narrow gauge railroad that operated along the Columbia River
in Pacific County, Washington in 1882. This company converted the Miles into a steamship and put it on a Columbia River route
between Astoria, Oregon and Ilwaco, Washington. The Miles could carry up to 125 passengers, 150 tons of freight and was equipped
with towing bits so it could serve as a tugboat.
During those early years the Mills, under the command of Captain John Henry Gray, also saw tug service
and was used in the development of the Grays Harbor and salvage of the steamship Queen of the Pacific after the 330-foot vessel
grounded on the Columbia Bar in 1883.
The railroad company kept the Miles on the Astoria-Ilwaco route until 1889 when it was sold to the
Portland Coast and Steamship Company. It was then moved to Coos Bay where it operated briefly as a tug. Then in 1890 the Miles
was purchased by the Island Transportation Company. Company owner used it briefly to carry passengers and freight between
Port Townsend and the San Juan Islands. Then that same year, he sent the vessel to Portland were it underwent major reconstruction.
The Miles was cut in two and an additional 36-feet inserted amidships, making the hull 136 feet in
length. The name was changed to Willapa. In 1894 Willapa was leased to the Hastings Steamship Company and the following year
the ship was sold to the Alaska Steamship Company. It went through yet another extensive overhaul and refitting and was placed
on the Alaskan service.
The Willapa wrecked on Regatta Reef when caught in a heavy snow storm while bound for Mary Island,
Alaska, on March 19, 1897. The passengers were safely removed by a schooner and local canoes and some freight was salvaged.
Horses on the ship could not be rescued and they were shot.
The wreck was considered a total loss but it was purchased from the insurance underwriters by Canadian
interests and salvaged. Its next owner was the Canadian-Pacific Navigation Company which used Willapa as a relief vessel on
the company's various routes along the coast of British Columbia.
In November, 1902, Willapa was sold again, thhis time to Captain C. E. Curtis and the Bellingham Bay
Transportation Company. The vessel was given it's next name, Bellingham. The following year the Bellingham Transportation
Company was purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company, thus again flying the United States flag.
It was said that after its refit was the Bellingham, the ship developed a "ghost whistle," best described
as a low moaning sound that could be heard when the ship was working in heavy seas.
The Bellingham became the flagship of the Puget Sound fleet and was placed on a regular route between
Seattle and Bellingham. The ship was involved in yet another accident on December 6, 1903, when it collided with the steamer
Flyer at Seattle. Bellingham had the steamer Dode in tow, on route to Whatcom for repairs at the time of the crash. The Dode,
which was under tow and unable to maneuver, also collided with the Flyer. The Flyer was badly damaged but the Bellingham escaped
with only slight damage. There were no injuries.
Shortly after the collision Bellington was placed under the control of the Inland Navigation Company
and placed on a run between Seattle and Port Townsend. Later the route was extended along various Washington ports.
The record shows that the Bellingham was owned by the Straits Steamship Company in 1909.
By 1918 the Bellingham was an aging ship and it appeared that her days were numbered. But the nation
was at war then, so that may have had a lot to do with what happened next. Bellingham's boilers were worn out. The fittings
and machinery were removed and scrapped, and in March, 1919, the old ship was sold to H. C. Strong of the Sunny Point Packing
Company. He had it converted to operate as an unpowered sailing barge, still named Bellingham. A donkey engine with steam
driven by a vertical boiler was installed. The ship was rigged with auxiliary sails.
That was not the end of Bellingham. In 1922 new owners, the Northland Transportation Company, decided
the ship still had a future. Her builders must have done a fantastic job of manufacturing that hull. The vessel was brought
to Seattle when a new 200 horsepower diesel engine was installed. The upperworks were rebuilt and the ship was again put in
service between Seattle and Ketchikan and other ports along the Inside Passage. The ship's name was changed once more, this
time to Norco.
By the late 1920s the Norco was owned by the Citizen's Light and Power Company of Ketchikan. Then
during the war years, the ship was owned by Ketchikan Cold Storage. After the war the final owner, Otis Shively, noting its
amazing historical years of service to the area, presented the ship to the Puget Sount Maritime Historical Society.
The Norcdo was used in the annual Seafair celebration in Seattle. By then it was in poor repair. Rather
than pay the cost of another extensive renovation, the old ship was burned in a public ceremony as "Neptune's barge" in the
summer of 1950. The vessel was loaded with fireworks and other flammable materials and towed into Elliot Bay where it was
Even as a spectacular fire boat, the old Miles was difficult to sink. It burned for hours until the
fireboat Duwamish flooded the ship and force it under off Alki Point.
During its years the General Miles went through three name changes and operated as a schooner, a steamship,
tugboat, a sailing barge and a motor vessel.