SS Nenana – The last steamboat to Fairbanks
|SS Nenana along the Lower Yukon River during the 1940s|
(originally posted on 9-11-2012 – revised on 4-30-2018)
The SS Nenana has been one of the premier attractions at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. According to the book, Fairbanks, A City Historic Building Survey, it is the largest sternwheel steamboat built west of the Mississippi River. It is also perhaps the last historic wooden-hulled sternwheeler in the United States. Other historic sternwheelers survive, but most of them have steel hulls. The only other surviving wooden-hulled sternwheelers I know of are the Klondike, Keno, and Moyie in Canada.
With its 20-year career, the Nenana was one of the exceptions among Yukon River wooden-hulled sternwheelers. These boats, built to navigate swift, shallow rivers, had light flat-bottomed flexible hulls, and were not known for longevity. Between groundings, boiler explosions, being crushed by ice and other accidents, the average lifespan of such riverboats was under 10 years.
The Alaska Railroad (ARR) operated the Nenana primarily on the Lower Yukon River. Designed by marine architect W.C. Nickum, the boat was prefabricated in Seattle and shipped piecemeal to the town of Nenana, where Berg Shipbuilding assembled it. Launched in May 1933, it is 237-feet long, 42-feet wide, and fully loaded drew about 3.5-feet of water. Its gross displacement is about 1,100 tons — capable of carrying 300 tons of freight. The Nenana could push six barges on the Yukon River, but was limited to one on the winding Tanana.
The boat is a packet (designed to carry passengers and freight). Stacked above the hull are five decks: a cargo deck, “saloon” deck with accommodations for 48 passengers, boat deck, “Texas” deck with crew quarters; and the pilot house.
Charles Adams (of Lavelle Young fame) was her first captain. When Charles retired in 1942, his nephew, Howard Adams, became the Nenana’s captain.
During World War II, Yukon River steamboats in both Alaska and Canada were pressed into military service. In Canada, American-Yukon Navigation Company boats supported construction of the Alcan Highway and CANOL pipeline. In Alaska, the SS Nenana and its siblings transported personnel and supplies to Galena’s military air field and to numerous smaller military installations along the Lower Yukon.
After the war ended, the Nenana made 1,600-mile-long round-trips between Nenana (on the Tanana) and Marshall (on the Lower Yukon) every two weeks during the summer. Occasionally it traveled upriver to Fort Yukon.
The Nenana’s last year of service with the ARR was 1953. Airplanes had stolen all her passengers, and more efficient freight carriers were replacing steamers. Yutana Barge Line leased the Nenana in 1954 for a single season. In 1957 a group from Fairbanks purchased the boat and brought her up the Tanana and Chena rivers to her final home. Howard Adams was captain for the last voyage.
The railroad bridge at Nenana really sealed the fate of the Fairbanks waterfront, since the bridge’s low deck prevented steamboats from passing underneath. The SS Nenana’s stack had to be lowered to get under the bridge. Rick Nerland, whose father was one of the people responsible for bringing the boat to Fairbanks, told me that even then it only cleared the bottom of the bridge by six inches.
The Nenana experienced major changes and trauma after arriving. In preparation for Fairbanks’ 1967 centennial celebration, most of the cargo deck equipment was removed, the saloon deck was converted to a restaurant, and the Texas deck converted to a meeting room. During the 1967 Fairbanks flood the boat’s cargo deck was deliberately flooded so the boat wouldn’t float away.
The Fairbanks Historic Preservation Foundation, under the helm of Jack Williams, restored the boat in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in 1989 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Restoration work did not include replacing the cargo deck’s equipment. Much of that space is now filled with interpretive displays.
Unfortunately, deferred maintenance has undone much of the restoration work, and, according to recent Fairbanks Daily News-Miner articles, the Nenana is unsafe and will be closed to the public this summer. The newspaper also reported the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which owns the Nenana, does not have the funds to repair it. We all share in the blame for this predicament, and it will be a tragedy if we do not all rally to save this iconic piece of Interior Alaska history.
- Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
- H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Gordon R. Newell. Superior Publishing Company. 1966
- “Interior of riverboat SS Nenana closing to public because of structural concerns.” Sam Friedman. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 3-23-2018
- “No demolition in Riverboat Nenana’s immediate future.” Amanda Bohman. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 4-24-2918
- “Steamboat Nenana National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Kevin J. Foster & William S. Hanable. National Park Service. 1988
- Yukon River Steamboats. Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 1982