FAIRBANKS — Erich Bergh has been working on a model replica of the Riverboat Nenana since fall 1991. He is almost done.
The lifelong Fairbanksan, 57, said he wasn’t even keen on sternwheelers when he began the project 28 years ago at the suggestion of his father.
That has since changed. Now Bergh is looking for detailed design plans for the SS Tanana, a lesser-known steamboat that plied Interior rivers before the Nenana.
“This whole thing is about challenging my skills,” said Bergh, who fabricates each piece of his replicas by hand in a workshop in his home on Sixth Avenue.
Bergh is an autodidact who makes a living selling auto parts and plays the guitar at his church.
He estimates he has put more than 2,000 hours into the model Nenana. About half of that time has been spent researching the 85-year-old vessel, a National Historic Landmark.
Building model ships has been a hobby since Bergh was a boy, when his parents sometimes sent him to his grandparents’ house in Tacoma, Washington. The house was full of windows that overlooked Commencement Bay. Bergh often found himself gazing at ships in the bay.
Bergh has thought about owning a sailboat, but he decided he prefers building and owning models.
“I have come to the realization that I think I get more out of a model. It’s something I can hold and look at,” he said.
Bergh has built at least 50 model ships. Creating a replica of the Nenana is his longest and most elaborate project.
“I knew it was going to be a big project,” he said.
Some of the wood used to fabricate parts for the model came from the Riverboat Nenana. Bergh was given scraps of wood saved from a renovation of the “Last Lady of the River” about 30 years ago. He also made copies of the original plans for the boat.
Bergh’s replica was damaged in a fire, but the smoke damage makes the model look authentically old.
Bergh is a member of the Nautical Research Guild. He has toured the steamboat and taken measurements, so the replica is scaled correctly.
He takes great pains to keep his model authentic, fabricating even the same type of bolts used on the Nenana. The bolts are about the size of a sunflower seed.
Where the Nenana has hex bolts, the model has hex bolts. Where the Nenana has square bolts, the model has square bolts.
“The wheel in the wheelhouse is made exactly like the wheel in the ship,” Bergh said.
He has made some interesting discoveries about the Nenana during his research. For example, the ship’s bell was removed before it arrived in Fairbanks.
The five-deck wooden sternwheeler plied the Tanana and Yukon rivers in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s carrying cargo and people. Billed as the largest steam-powered wooden sternwheeler built west of the Mississippi River, the boat was retired from service in 1955 and sat in Nenana for two years until some Fairbanks businessmen purchased the vessel and converted it into a restaurant and hotel. In 1967, a ditch was dug, and the boat was floated to its final resting place at Pioneer Park, where it was restored and turned into a tourist attraction.
Bergh said one night he was watching a documentary that showed the steamboat on its last journey to Fairbanks.
“There is no bell. You can see clearly. There is no bell,” Bergh said.
Later, he heard a rumor that the original bell was in a bar in Anchorage. He asked some friends in Anchorage to keep an eye out for the bell when visiting taverns.
“They have never seen it,” Bergh said.
Another discovery is that the whistle on the Nenana’s chimney stack is not the original whistle.
“We don’t know where (the original whistle) went,” Bergh said.
The Nenana was also stripped of its porcelain sinks. Bergh suspects some of those sinks are in homes in Fairbanks and Nenana.
Last year, the steamboat was added to the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties list.
Bergh belongs to the group Friends of SS Nenana, which is looking for ways to restore the steamboat to its earlier glory and reopen it to the public.
He toys with the idea of selling the replica after it is complete.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMborough.