R.R. Thompson was a large sternwheel steamboat designed in the classic Columbia River style. She was named after R.R. Thompson, one of the shareholders of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company the firm that built the vessel.
She was said to be "capable of making rapid time with a big cargo" with "passenger accommodations unsurpassed by any steamer in the Northwest.":
The Thompson was a big boat for her day. Her two hundred and fifteen foot length and thirty-eight foot beam allowed for spacious passenger accommodations with ample room for freight. Passenger spaces were nicely fitted out and the ladies' cabin boasted carpets, plush settees, and polished panelled walls. The Thompson was not a fast boat. Rather she deliberately was built for comfort and truly qualified for such overblown adjectives as 'palace boat' and 'finest cuisine afloat,' whipped up by enthusiastic passenger agents of the day.|
R.R. Thompson was launched on the middle Columbia river, that is, the reach from the top of the Cascades of the Columbia eastward to The Dalles where a second and longer stretch of rapids began. She was said to be "in every respect the equal of the Wide West", another similar but more well-known steamer operating on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers at the time. Her trial run was on September 28, 1878, under Capt. George Ainsworth and Engineer Peter De Huff. Immediately afterwards she was placed in service running between the Cascades and The Dalles.
As railroads were extended along the banks of the Columbia River, the days of the steamboat as the dominant means of transportation gradually came to an end, particularly on the middle river, which required expensive and time-consuming portages around the two major rapids at Cascades and above The Dalles. The first boat to be taken off the river was the R.R. Thompson. On June 3, 1882 Captain McNulty took R.R. Thompson down through the Cascade Rapids to operate on the more lucrative lower Columbia and lower Willamette rivers.
That day Captain McNulty with William Johnson, first officer, William Doran, engineer, and George Fuller, assistant, took R.R. Thompson out of The Dalles at 6:30 a.m., passed Klickitat Landing, ten miles below, in twenty-four minutes, White Salmon, about twenty-three miles, in fifty-one minutes, Hood River, twenty-five miles, in fifty-eight minutes, and reached the Cascades, forty-six miles, in two hours and one minute. She remained there a short time and then swung into the stream and entered the Cascades under full stroke, making the run to Bonneville in six minutes and forty seconds, passing through the heart of the rapids at the rate of a mile a minute. The trip to Portland was accomplished in two hours and fifty minutes, and she steamed past Ash Street dock at 12:17 p.m. Her actual running time was five hours. The passage of the Thompson through the six-mile long Cascades Rapids in 6 minutes 40 seconds was a record which was approached but never beaten. The most famous later occasion was by Hassalo in her run on May 26, 1888. On that occasion, R.R. Thompson, with Captain McNulty still in command, together with Lurline transported 1,500 people to an equal number of others at the Cascades to witness Hassalo's run.