Though Idaho’s Salmon River is now a playground for vacationers, in earlier times it had a fearsome reputation. Lewis and Clark tried to travel down it but gave up and hiked overland instead. By the 1890s several men had sufficient knowledge of its ways to take flatboats down the stream with a fair degree of success. Among these river pilots were J. F. Burns and James Compton, who traveled the river from Salmon, Idaho downstream to mining camps along the way. Mail, food and anything else the camps required traveled on the flatboats. The flatboats were simply barges; there was no way to bring a boat up the Salmon against the strong current. The stream was truly a “river of no return” as far as boats were concerned.
The flatboats were built at Salmon for their one and only trip down the river rapids. Most were eight feet wide, about thirty-two feet long and had sides four feet high. The ends of the boats were typically slanted out at a forty-five degree angle. Each end of the boat had a raised platform where a river pilot stood. The boats were steered by giant oars, or sweeps, one each mounted fore and aft in a swivel mounting. The sweeps were nearly thirty feet long and balanced in their mountings so the pilots could use leverage to hold the sweeps in position against the force of the water.
Most of the brave river barges were sold at Lewiston for a few dollars as scrap, torn apart, and turned into wood fences, cow sheds and the like. But Burns and Compton were fortunate in the fact that their river boat partnership coincided with a gold rush in the Buffalo Hump area north of the Salmon River. Bert Rigley Young and Charles Robbins found gold there in 1898 and prospectors scoured the hillsides seeking a fortune. Lumber was in demand. The riverboat men learned that they could be well paid for their boat in addition to the delivery fees they earned. So some trips ended at the trail to Buffalo Hump, and the river pilots set out on the path back to Salmon with an extra $200 from the sale of the boat.
Many pioneers of sound judgment would have nothing to do with travel on the Salmon River. It could be deadly, particularly near the time of spring runoff. Burns and Compton prevented the river from adding to its ill fame when they rescued Idaho’s U.S. Senator George Shoup from its watery grasp. Senator Shoup was Idaho’s first state governor and one of its first U.S. senators. When he heard that Burns and Compton had made several runs down the Salmon without a wreck, he decided to join them on a cruise. Things went well until the barge slammed into a rock midstream. Senator Shoup, who had been standing up in the bow, was sent flying into the swift water. Burns grabbed a pole with a grappling iron on the end and caught Shoup’s clothes with it before the senator was carried away by the current. Mr. Compton rushed to help, and the two men pulled the grateful executive back into the boat.
Burns and Compton made dozens of trips down the Salmon, but evidently decided to quit before their luck ran out. The river has never quit, but since 1952 power boats have ascended the rapids of the Salmon, rendering moot its title: River of No Return.

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