John West

At the turn of the century the McKenzie River Valley was still a remote area accessible only by wagon and used mostly for commercial logging. It had been opened to passage via the Des Chutes Wagon Road Company’s toll road a brief 38 years earlier. It was at this time, in 1901, that John Shelley West was born to pioneer parents in the city of Eugene. He was raised in Nimrod, Oregon in the middle of the seventy-mile long McKenzie River Valley learning the ways of the river. The remote river people of this time were self sufficient and inventive. As other pioneers before them, they were dependent on their own abilities to adapt to the resources that were available and to the opportunities of their time, relying on each other in this small community for inspiration, instruction, entertainment, and support.

The first automobile chugged over the McKenzie Pass in 1910 and later the state took “control and care” of the road and began promoting it as a scenic route. As the roads were improved, comfortable travel up this valley was possible bringing sportsmen to the McKenzie River and soon the young men that were raised along these banks became its first river guides. By the 1920’s, the Thompson, Montgomery and West brothers were often “sporting dudes” down the river using the traditional logging boats from an earlier era. These heavy boats were eighteen to twenty two feet in length and about 3 feet wide on the bottom amid ship. Of these boats John said, “ You’d pull your arms off and not accomplish much. They wouldn’t turn easily. “ John and his brother Roy were among the first to experiment with changing the lines of the longer and heavy river boats then in use. According to West, “At that time there were no real boat builders anyplace. There were people who built boats. They’d build a boat and try it. If it worked they’d use it. If it didn’t they’d try something else.” And so he did.

John West in the McKenzie River White Water Parade

John West in the McKenzie River White Water Parade

John’s approach to building a better guide boat was as pragmatic as the roots of his pioneer family. While trying to solve the most obvious problems for the early long and heavy rowboat John designed a boat with a bottom length of less than 16-feet. It had a wider bottom to provide a stable platform when a fly fisher stood up, and had higher sides, so the boat would be able to navigate white water without “shipping water” over the sides. This shorter, wider, taller boat was made out of a practical desire for performance and not with an eye for beauty. The West boat was different enough that fellow guide Milo Thompson jokingly called it “a bathtub with oarlocks.“ While beauty might have been lacking the boat’s performance was far superior for a full day on the river with guests. It provided river guides a with a lighter weight boat that could be rowed all day with two clients and navigate a wider range of the McKenzie River. Soon even Milo Thompson was rowing a “West Boat”.

John was known as a teacher, sharing his knowledge of guiding, fishing and the McKenzie River. He was a part of organizations ranging from the McKenzie River Protection and Development Association to the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce to the Vida Dance club and was a charter member of the McKenzie River Club. When he passed away in 1986 he was the last remaining charter member of the McKenzie River Guides Association. His deep involvement in so many factions along the McKenzie made him a keystone in the community and left us the legacy of the “ West Boat”.

Where history meets.  Veltie Pruitt building a John West boat from a Tom Kaarhus kit

Where history meets. Veltie Pruitt building a John West boat from a Tom Kaarhus kit