Saving History

SS Nenana’s $3 million restoration project starts this summer

SS Nenana

A 237-foot wooden steam-powered sternwheeler with five decks that was famous for plying Interior Alaska rivers in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s sits in the middle of Fairbanks’ most popular park with chipping paint and rotting wood. That’s about to change.

A renovation of the SS Nenana begins this summer, project engineer Marko Stepovich told borough leaders earlier this month.

The borough, which owns the National Historic Landmark, could reopen the visitor attraction — or at least a portion of it — to tours later this year or in 2023 if all goes well, Stepovich told the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.

“We will try to keep to the historic character and nature of the boat,” he said at a Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 6.

Once known as the Queen of the Yukon, the Nenana’s glory days of plying the Tanana and Yukon rivers carrying cargo and people have been over for 65 years. The riverboat provided access to Interior Alaska before roads and carried military cargo during World War II, including lend-lease aircraft en route to Russia.

The Nenana gained a second life parked in the Chena River as a restaurant and boatel. Then in the 1960s a channel was cut and the Nenana was floated inland and put on display as a museum in a new public space now known as Pioneer Park. The Last Lady of the River had for decades served to share some of the history of Alaska’s Interior until 2018 when an engineering report noted safety concerns and the borough closed the Nenana to tours.

The deteriorating sternwheeler is having $3 million worth of repairs to shore up its structure, waterproof it and bring the cargo deck, which houses a large diorama, into compliance with building codes. It’s a partial renovation with a second phase of $7 million worth of work — pending assembly approval — still in the early planning stages.

A private group, Friends of the SS Nenana, was formed after supporters feared the boat would be demolished. The group continues to raise money to preserve the boat with over $30,000 raised so far, according to Patricia Schmidt, president. Friends of the SS Nenana also has paid experts to assist with inspections and restoration plans.

The Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers left in the country and the only large wooden sternwheeler, according to the National Park Service.

“They don’t build boats like this anymore,” Schmidt said. “It needs to be preserved.”

Much of the Nenana’s problems stem from water damage. There had been rain gutters installed on the boat but those were removed, according to Schmidt, and have since been replaced.

Stepovich detailed the repairs needed to make the Nenana safe for occupancy.

The vast majority of the riverboat’s framing is in good condition but about half the joists need to be replaced, he said.

“The gangway is structurally unsound and will need to be rebuilt,” the project engineer said.

All of the decks need to be replaced.

“The boat has settled over the years and water is no longer running to the drains and is instead pooling up and spilling over the edge of the decks,” Stepovich said.

The sprinkler system fills with water whenever there’s a power outage and that has caused maintenance problems and leaking. It needs to be replaced.

Officials are also wondering about the fire alarm system, which Stepovich said is under evaluation.

An emergency lighting system needs to be installed, he added.

“We intend to scrape away any loose paint and to paint the exterior of the boat,” Stepovich said.

The interior also needs paint. Testing showed traces of lead.

“Paint is flaking off the ceiling and off the walls and is piling up on the ground,” Stepovich said.

Design work for the first steps of the restoration is currently underway and a request for proposals from contractors who would perform the work is anticipated to go out in March.

Once known as the Queen of the Yukon, the riverboat was previously restored in an effort that started in the late 1980s and cost almost $2 million.

“There is not a lot of original wood still on the SS Nenana,” according to Donnie Hayes, director of parks and recreation for the borough.

Phase two of the restoration project will involve work on the saloon deck and upper level of the boat, according to Stepovich. The paddle wheel also will need to be rebuilt, he said.

The Nenana is one of three national landmarks in Fairbanks. The other two are Ladd Field and the George C. Thomas Memorial Library.

Amanda Bohman Jan 14, 2022 Fairbanks Daily News Miner