The sternwheeler Nenana was commissioned by the Alaska Railroad for service on the Yukon and Nenana Rivers. Designed by William C. Nickum a Seattle Washington Architect. The parts were made in Seattle and then shipped to Nenana, Alaska where she was constructed. Built in 1932 and launched in 1933, the Nenana provided needed access to and across the interior of the Alaska territory.
The Nenana could carry up to 50 passengers with 24 staterooms. At 237 ft. long, 42 ft. wide and 22,000 square feet of deck space, and a draw of just six inches, she is the second largest wooden vessel in the world today. This 500-ton ship traveled the Yukon and Tanana Rivers carrying passengers and freight to villages. When fully loaded, she carried a crew of 32, plus 35 passengers and 300 tons of cargo. She also pushed as many as six barges loaded with merchandise. The SS Nenana even carried military cargoes during World War II including lend-lease aircraft on the way to Russia.
She ran the Tanana and Yukon Rivers from 1933 to 1954; her primary run was between Nenana and Marshall 858 miles. She ran from May through September. In the early fall or poor weather when it was dark, a huge searchlight mounted on the steamship made forward progress possible. The Riverboat Nenana initially burned wood—roughly a cord of wood an hour. There was storage for 230 cords of wood on board. In 1948, she switched to burning oil. The boat’s engines had the most advanced design of the time -twin, tandem 330-horsepower horizontal condensing engines. The engine could recycle approximately 85% of its steam into water and the design allowed the boat to operate very quietly with a barge.
UAF77-55-37 Guilbert G. Thompson Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks
The wooden-hulled, western rivers-style steam sternwheel passenger riverboat Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden sternwheeler.
The Nenana was finally pushed out of the freight and passenger business in 1955 by faster, more economical methods of transportation. The Greater Fairbanks Opportunity bought the Sternwheeler for $40,000 and brought her to Fairbanks in 1957, they parked her on the Chena River for three years, and it was used as a restaurant and boatel. She was finally closed down because the owners did not make enough money. The Nenana then sat unused in the Chena River from 1960 to 1965.
In 1965 a channel was cut from the Chena river into the park and the sternwheeler was floated into the newly-formed Alaskaland Park, now known as Pioneer Park. The ship still had a kitchen and bar on board when it was brought ashore. The walls were covered with paneling to make it look modern. Electricity, fire sprinklers, steam heat, and bathrooms were also added to the Nenana. The restaurant and bar ruined a lot of the Nenana’s interior. The Nenana had not been built for winter use. Heating the boat in the winter caused condensation which then rotted the wood.
In 1978, grant money was secured to help restore the boat. A roof was built over the sternwheeler to help stop future damage. The ship was rotting, sagging, full of holes and in need of a lot of repairs. The first efforts to renovate the SS Nenana began in 1986 by the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation. Restorers paid painstaking attention to the original floor plan of the ship. The renovation took six years and cost $1.8 million.
In 1986, bow reconstruction was started. Shelf members and deck beams needed repair. The decks had so much wood rot that, in places, you could put your finger through the cracks! Much of the finished mill work was specially cut locally in Ester, AK. The vertical grain had to be historically accurate. A rubber membrane was put on top of the sub-deck. The dining hall chairs were found at a local bar; they were refinished for the new dining hall. The chairs that were in the original observation room could not be found so new chairs were made following the design of photos of them.
Work crews took the roof down during the spring of 1988, piece by piece. They saved parts to be reused later. The roof that had been added early was too heavy for the boat and was doing damage.
During the winter of 1990, work was done to restore the interior of the boat. They worked in the observation room (on the saloon deck), replaced the ceiling and put in the staterooms. All the walls had been taken out when they changed the boat into a restaurant and lounge. Now the staterooms had to be put back in!
In the summer of 1991, workers did a fantastic job of bringing the mahogany walls of the dining room and observation room to a mirror-like finish. It took 11 coats of varnish! Other workers leveled the paddle wheel. It wasn’t easy, as the support structure was rotted in places. Milling of the wood was done by hand on site.
On July 12, 1992, there was a dedication ceremony for the S.S Nenana at Alaskaland. It took both public and private funds and thousands of hours of dedicated volunteer work before the six-year, $1.8 million projects were completed in 1992.
Years of deferred maintenance have left many historic structures and much of the infrastructures in a state of disrepair in Fairbanks. The SS Nenana has been one of those historic structures. We now are back to having to stabilize and restore this one of a kind piece of history. We will make sure that she will be able to support her upkeep and be maintained for many generations to come.