The Amazing Captain Paul Webb

By Chuck King

Above, the log flume that ultimately led to Paul Webb’s demise. His real name was John W. Stewart, and he used “Captain Paul Webb” as a stage name. Photo courtesy of the Museum of North Idaho.

In the Summer of 1895 with the Fourth of July approaching, residents of the Spokane area were making their holiday plans. Natatorium Park was offering baseball, dancing, and fireworks. The city parks were always a great place for picnics large and small. In addition, the local railroads were advertising special excursions to many of the surrounding lakes. In 1895, however, there was a special option offered if you went to Lake Coeur d’Alene. You could take a boat ride down the lake to watch a live daredevil. Captain Webb dared to ride his wood barrel down a long logging chute from one of the hillsides that would end in a big splash in the lake.

First Plans Changed
Captain Paul Webb first arrived in Spokane on June 25, 1895 with his promoter and business manager T.C. Willis. The next day the newspapers reported he was observing the river in Spokane for a possible ride down the falls. He had brought with him a special wood barrel that he used in other stunts performed mainly west of the Cascade Mountains. The June 26 Spokane Daily Chronicle mentions a probable attempt in a few days. Two days later, however, the Chronicle reported that the ride would take place at Post Falls in conjunction with the Northern Pacific Railroad’s excursion train to Coeur d’Alene. The train would make a special stop at Post Falls to watch Captain Webb “Ride the Falls.” After this, he would join the crowd and go on to the lake. But again the plans would change. An even more exciting stunt! This was, of course, a money making venture and the remote location of the final choice meant a higher percentage of paid viewers.

The Rosen Brothers Log Chute
Located slightly west of Beauty Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene is a small inlet called Moscow Bay. Early settlers in the area, Charles and Theodore Rosen, had constructed a 2,100 foot long chute in which logs were sent from the hills above down into the lake for transport to the sawmills.

Above, “Captain Webb’s” grave stone at Greenwood Cemetery in Spokane, WA. Photo courtesy of Chuck King.

The Big Day Arrives
Since Captain Webb’s log ride had been announced, hundreds of people had added their names to the list wanting to see the show. The Northern Pacific Railroad added two special trains to handle the crowds coming from Spokane. At Coeur d’Alene, the people were loaded on boats and taken to Moscow Bay. The small inlet was soon filled with everything from steamboats to small row boats. The newspapers claimed 500 people had come to watch Webb that day.

On With the Show!
Along with his manager, Webb had with him a committee that included newspaper reporters and two doctors. At 4:30pm, with the crowds watching below, a test log was sent down the slide with no apparent problems. At 5:00pm, Captain Webb climbed into his wood barrel. It was said to be 6 1/2 feet long and two feet around with a cone-shaped end. Steel bands were used to hold it together, and another strip was added length-wise to keep it from spinning as it went down the chute. The inside was lined with carpet and rubber containing an oscillating harness that was designed to keep him secured inside. But unfortunately that day he thought the harness wasn’t necessary. To make matters even worse a light rain had fallen that day making the surface even more slick.

 


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Things Go Sadly Wrong
As the young man rocketed down the slide, at about two-thirds of the way down, the barrel started to wobble. Apparently, a sliver of wood from the chute had snagged itself under one of the steel bands. Soon out of control, the barrel left the chute launching itself, according to the witnesses, 30 feet in the air before hitting the ground twice, finally coming to a stop on the other side of the chute. Onlookers rushed to the scene and after the barrel was opened, they found Webb badly injured. He was conscious and spoke but had no feeling in his legs. He was loaded on to one of the steamboats to Coeur d’Alene where he was then rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane.

Lives for Two Months
For the next few days, Webb was paralyzed from the accident, but no doubt the constant morphine for pain also caused some numbness. Captain Webb continued to talk about his plans for upcoming events, especially because he was to ride the falls at Spokane on the 21st of July. But by July 10, he fully understood his dire condition, even though there were some days where he seemed to be getting better. Newspaper reports claimed he was getting some feeling back. But those good days soon ended, and a fundraiser was held for him at Natatorium Park on July 24 that raised $200. On August 3, he consents to an operation that everyone knows just puts off the inevitable. The brave young daredevil’s suffering came to end on August 29, 1895.

The Real Paul Webb
The name Paul Webb was actually a stage name. His real name was John W. Stewart and he was 27 years old when he died. He probably chose the name Webb after a man known as Captain Matthew Webb, who in 1873 had attempted to swim Niagara Falls, but drowned as a result. News stories here claimed Captain Paul Webb would soon attempt Niagara Falls in his barrel. Stewart was born in Nebraska, on July 19, 1868 to James and Ellen Stewart. Before trying his luck as a daredevil, he was a photographer in McMinnville, Oregon. His parents are buried next to him at Greenwood Cemetery in Spokane, Washington.

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