Eddies of Evolution - the Rogue and Colorado
A brief synopsis of chapters 6 - 9, Drift Boats River Dories.
(Please note that all copy and photos on this page are copyrighted and may be used
only with the expressed permission of the author)
 

     


Rogue River's Blossom Bar, a challenging Class IV


Some early Rogue mail boats from Gold Beach to Agnes and back often operated under sail

 

Rogue River Drivers

Few rivers are more beautiful than Oregon's Rogue. After tumbling out of the Cascade Mountains near Crater Lake this river glides through the lovely Rogue River Valley before cutting its deep chasm through the Syskiyu and Pacific coast mountain ranges, for many years a river of no return.  Its gradient can exceed 30' per mile through the 3000' canyons of the Rogue until it glides gently past Illahee and Agness and then spills inevitably into the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach. Early Hudson Bay traders referred to the river as LaRiviere aux Coquins, the River of the  Rogues, after the local population who were not pleased by the traders' intrusions into the area. Not withstanding the circumstances surrounding the origin of the name, the "Rogue River" is indeed quite apt. This is a river of mischievous and dangerous character whose confining canyon walls create powerful hydraulics that will beat and sink the hardiest of craft. Indeed, for many years the Rogue was considered un-navigable through the canyon.

In 1851 gold was discovered in Jacksonville, up river from Grants Pass. It was not long before panning and placer mining invaded the Rouge River canyon. In spite of the dangers the river became a primary route for transporting men, equipment and supplies to mining camps in the canyon.  The boats were fairly traditional river drivers. The earliest were perhaps patterned after the log driving bateaux that migrated into the country from Maine in the 1870s and 1880s. Or, they may have been patterned after the boats built and used by the fur traders. Regardless, the river driver was for decades the boat of choice on the Rogue. It could be driven up river using pike poles and oars, and it could be run down river as a traditional river dory.
 

 
Log driving bateau migrated across the country from Maine to the Northwest, following the timber industry.


Rogue river driver construction is very similar to log driver construction, save for the accentuated rake under the stern and prow. This driver sits in repose at Zane Grey's cabin on the Rogue

 
   

The Rogue Dories

     


McKenzie River boatman, Pat Irish, in a Veltie Pruitt board-and-batten, running where others had to line.


Body view of the classic Rogue dory, Pritchett's last dory.


Jerry Briggs and wife, Barbara, fishing from his first Rogue Special, the Pink Lady. The boat later carried with it a tragic story (see pp 80 and 81 in the book).

 

The Rogue drivers served their purpose well for over a century. Men like Glen Wooldridge, however, looked for more versatility in a boat. The Rogue boat to the right was reportedly built by Wooldridge in the late 1930s.  Built of Redwood strips the boat has a small transom and is typical of Rogue boats in the 1920s through the 1950s. There was some friendly competition (and sometimes not so friendly) between the Rogue and McKenzie River guides. When Veltie Pruitt and Prince Helfrich made their first run down the Rogue in Veltie's light board and batten boats they were able to run rapids the Rogue boys had to line. There's more to it than that, of course, but the cumbersome river drivers did not offer the versatility of smaller, lighter river dories.

As Wooldridge, and then Bob Pritchett, Press Pyle and others, refined the Rogue dory, they kept two essential features of the drivers that make them uniquely distinct from the McKenzie River drift boats. Rather than an accentuated rocker fore to aft, they retained a significant flat spot fore to aft as well as a straighter chine and sheer line. These features gave the boats greater carrying capacity, and they held their line. Also prominent was a higher prow and lower profiled transom end. In 1956 Jerry Briggs built his first Rogue River Special, a 16' Rogue dory. This dory was a bit smaller and lighter but carried all of the features of the classic Rogue.

In addition to Glen Wooldridge, a central figure of the dory evolution was Bob Pritchett. Bob started guiding in 1941 following a stint at Oregon State College. He worked for Wooldridge and, as was true of most early Rogue River guides, walked to the beat of his own drum. One didn't survive in that canyon without a well found sense of independence. Respect was hard earned and friendships were difficult to forge. Both Wooldridge and Pritchett earned both, and in 1952 Pritchett bought Glen's business. Due to his Oregon State College (Go Beavs) ties, one of Pritchett's first acts was to paint his boats orange and black, his alma mater's colors. Wooldridge took exception to the colors but to no avail. The colors remained. Pritchett guided through1979. He retired when river regulations confounded an independent guide's life, and when splash-and-gigglers interfered with serious fishing. Five years later he decided to build one last boat, a craft that took into account his 40 years of river experience on the Rogue. It is this boat that I call the classic Rogue River dory  (pp 267-271 in the book).

Colorado River Dory

 


Wooldridge boat on display at the Rand station on the Rogue.


One of Bob Pritchett's guides running Wildcat. Note motor on transom used for lower river). The long, straight chine line offered great carrying capacity: two Dudes, their gear and motor for four to 7 days.
 

 


Litton, a man with a cause

  Martin Litton was Sunset magazines travel editor in the 1950s and became (and still is) an avowed environmentalist. His introduction to the Colorado River led to a life-long love affair with the river and in 1961 made a visit to the then famous McKenzie River White Water parade to do a story. There he met his first drift boat and a builder named Ketih Steele. He favored the boat and saw its potential on a river like the Colorado. He talked Steele into building two boats to Martin's specs. One boat was for Martin and the other for Colorado guide and friend, P.T. Reilley. The pair launched their new boats in 1962, and the influence of Oregon's riverboats began. Unfortunately, the relationship between Litton and Steele faltered, and Litton pondered a new source.    
A young Martin (rt) and Keith Steele (lft) in 1962 when Litton picked up his first two boats, and the two unfinished boats Litton drug to his home in Porta Valley, CA.
 


Jerry Briggs at the tiller of his Rogue Special

 
Enter Jerry Briggs of the Rogue River Boat Shop in Grants Pass, Oregon. Litton spotted the sign as he ventured through Grants Pass and figured, What the heck, I'll stop. He met Jerry and the two of them talked for a while. Jerry says that he recalls the two of them sketching out Martin's boat lines in the dust; Litton remembers that it wasn't dust, but mud. The short story is that Jerry built Martin's boats off modified patterns for his Rogue River Special. Litton says he called his first Briggs boat, Peace River, and he notes that it has logged more miles than any other dory in the Grand Canyon. The boat is still in use today. Briggs concluded, “When I finished the boat Martin carried it off to Arizona, and away we went!” Jerry built 33 boats over the years and the Briggs boat remains a prized boat type today. In the late 1970s Jerry moved from wood to aluminum, basically out of financial necessity -- wood framed boats are much more labor intensive. Jerry's shift to aluminum caused one friend to exclaim, "Damn it Jerry, if God had wanted aluminum boats he would have made aluminum trees!"

Most of the Briggs built boats are still in service. Most have been modified, and several have been transformed to true double-enders. As one guide put it, "Jerry built a hell of boat, One to last."

 
Jerry on the oars of a Briggs boat built by Andy Hutchinson of Durango, CO.
 
           

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