Not so many decades ago, before there was an Interstate Highway built of concrete and asphalt, Oregon’s commerce moved on liquid highways like the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

While those distant days have passed, it’s still possible – in fact, it’s rather easy, to re-connect with Oregon’s maritime past and have a great adventure along the way.

Step aboard the “Sternwheeler Portland” and let your imagination guide you on a river cruise to help answer one important question: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how will you know where you’re going?”

It’s a fair question that was posed by Bob Hrdlicka, Oregon Maritime Museum history buff and a volunteer guide.

Photos: Oregon's floating museum

He added that nearly 70 years ago, the Sternwheeler Portland was built to earn her keep at a time when the city of Portland’s waterfront was surging with commerce.

“Whenever a cargo ship came up along a dock on the Portland waterfront, this sternwheeler had the power to assist it to the dock or pull the ship away from the dock and turn it around on its own length.”

This was a time before concrete and asphalt super highways when the Willamette and Columbia Rivers were the interstate waterways that churned under steam powered vessels.

Maritime Museum volunteer, Ron Youngman, knows every square inch of the Portland, stem to stern, so a good man to show you how it all works - like the diesel-fired boilers that produce 1800-horsepower.

The diesel-fueled burners generate enough steam (254 psi) to move 26” steel pistons that push two 9’ long connecting rods that make the gigantic 25-foot paddlewheel go round and round.

Youngman said that the Sternwheeler Portland is the only ship of its kind in the country: “It’s true and really there are very few working steamships in today’s world.”

In fact, Sternwheeler Portland shouldn’t be here either!

Back in 1981, a handful of volunteers found her in a wrecked heap – parts and pieces strewn across the Portland waterfront.

But the volunteers were inspired to save her and stepped up with countless hours of labor and raised nearly a million dollars to restore the city’s namesake sternwheeler that was built by the Port of Portland in 1947.

Today, volunteers like Jim Spitzer feel proud of all that has been accomplished to bring the Sternwheeler Portland back to life on the water.

“I think each of us owes some kind of payback to their community and while lots of people do that in many social ways, I think preserving history is part of that payback too.”

Today, the Portland is a floating museum and Capt Clark Carthill is proud to guide passengers on half day tours:

The “Sternwheeler Portland developed because of the city’s waterfront and Oregon’s commerce. This (Willamette River) was the highway and this was transportation that allowed the city to become the Portland we know today.

That fact – plus the scenery – are not lost on visitors like Sandra Pearce who enjoyed seeing the city from a different point of view:

“I love it! When I heard the public can go on a short half day cruise, I had to take it for a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s relaxing too because you can’t think about anything else – almost meditative.”

Volunteer Bob Waldron, an Oregon history buff, said the Oregon Maritime Museum keeps the Sternwheeler Portland’s working history stories alive.

Whether outdoors on it decks or indoors, visitors will find exhibits, photos and models that show you how steam powered shipping was the foundation of Oregon’s economy.

“Whether timber, agricultural products or any kind of raw resource materials, crops or goods that came out of the Willamette Valley had to come to Portland. The most economical way to get it to other markets was shipping on this super highway and ships like the Portland made that happen. I think the best part is that it’s still here. That is worth a pause to consider.”

If you would like to visit more of Oregon – consider a walk on the wild side with my new book: “Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures With the Kids.” You’ll find activities to engage any kid, from archery to clamming on the coast to hunting for thundereggs to zip-lining through trees in an aerial adventure park.

In addition, be sure to check out “Grant’s Getaways Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon.” You will enjoy 48 uniquely Oregon adventures highlighting my fish and wildlife encounters. Scores of colorful photos by “Grant’s Getaways” photographer, Jeff Kastner, show off some of our finest moments in the field. You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon adventures in: "Grant's Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures"