Nonprofit organization aims to restore historic sternwheeler

Published: Aug. 17, 2019 at 7:20 PM AKDT
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The Friends of the SS Nenana is a new nonprofit organization that was formed to save a historic vessel after the Fairbanks North Star Borough announced they no longer knew what to do with the ship.

The SS Nenana was originally commissioned to be built in 1932 by the Alaska Railroad. It was completed in May 10th, 1933, with it's maiden voyage taking place later that month. It was a packet boat, meaning it serviced both passengers and shipped cargo. In the midst of that time, the ship served during World War II. It shipped military parts to bases and pushed barges up river. The ship stayed in service until 1954. The boat was moved to Fairbanks in 1957.

In 1965, two years before the park originally opened, the SS Nenana was moved to what would be called Pioneer Park from the Chena River by a dug out channel. It was moved onsite before both the Harding Car and Engine No. 1. By the time the boat had reached the park, it was in need of repairs. The whistle and the bell had been stolen from the vessel while it lived in a pond of water at the end of Lathrop and First Avenue. In 1992, the boat had not been maintained and had to be restored again. In March of last year, the Fairbanks North Star Borough deemed the sternwheeler unsafe for the public. Patricia Schmidt, President of the Friends of the SS Nenana, says that's when the nonprofit organization was formed.

"The borough's not able to maintain all the buildings," began Schmidt; "the grants aren't there, the funds are just not there. We're working with the borough on leasing the boat, so we can do a full restoration on it. We're hoping to start that next summer."

So far, the group has been able to get a Marine Engineer to inspect the boat. Per the Engineer's suggestion, the nonprofit is hoping to begin winterizing the boat before snowfall to prevent more damage. The last time the boat was open to the public, only one level was accessible. The organization says they plan repairing each level of the boat for public use. According to Schmidt, despite all the repairs the vessel needs, it remains a sound ship.

"She's not going to fall into disrepair, we are going to get her fixed, we're going to get her opened to the public," said Schmidt. "We're going to get her going lively, just like she used to be. She's going to be a beautiful piece of history to come and visit."

Unlike the vessels last two restorations, the Friends of the SS Nenana say they are trying to come up with a way to maintain the boat for years to come.

"One of the things we are hoping to do after we get the boat restored and open again is make her more self-sufficient," began Schmidt; "so she's not relying on borough money, grant money. One of the things we are hoping to do is open it up for weddings."

If you want to be a part of the boat's restoration, the Friends of the SS Nenana are looking for more volunteers. For more information, you can call the organization at 479-4891.

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