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S.S. Nenana Showcases History of Fairbanks

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

Roster of Yukon/Alaska Sternwheelers

The historic Tanana River sternwheeler 'Nenana' sitting at Alaskaland in Fairbanks.     Each year approximately 250,000 people spend a part of their Alaska vacation in Fairbanks. Some come by train, others by airline or automobile. Yet it wasn't all that long ago that one of the only ways to travel to this Interior Alaska town was by riverboat. Even though a sternwheeler trip up the mighty Yukon River isn't a common option today, more and more visitors are leaving Fairbanks with a sense of what life was like in the days of the mighty riverboat.

    The trip begins at the Alaskaland theme park, a popular stop for most visitors and home of the historic sternwheeler, the S.S.Nenana. Alaskaland houses some of the original buildings when Fairbanks was a tiny settlement on the Chena River. Alaskaland is home to the Pioneer Air Museum, the Palace Saloon and Theater, a museum of Victorian artifacts, and memorabilia from a time when riverboats ran the rivers and mining was the mainstay of the Fairbanks economy.

    As the home of the historic sternwheeler the S.S. Nenana, Alaskaland also offers visitors a rich look into life on Alaska's rivers. The S.S. Nenana is the last of a dying breed, a wooden hulled sternwheeler steamer. At 237 ft. long, 42 ft. wide and 22,000 square feet of deck space, with a draw of just six inches, she is the second largest wooden vessel in the world today. Built from designs by W.C. Nickham, she was launched in 1934 from Nenana, Alaska. This 500-ton ship traveled the Yukon River carrying passengers and freight to villages. When fully loaded, she carried a crew of 32, plus 35 passengers and 300 tons of freight. She also pushed as many as six barges loaded with merchandise.

    The five-deck Nenana made the 774-mile voyage from Nenana to Marshall, Alaska, every two weeks during her five-month season, traveling 24 hours a day. In the early fall or in poor weather when it was dark, a huge searchlight mounted on the steamship made forward progress possible. Her boilers were woodfired. Top speed was 17 mph downstream and 10 mph upstream. When under full steam, the boiler consumed a cord and a half of firewood every hour. Cutters along the river supplied wood, often using dogsleds to build stockpiles. About 200 cords of wood were carried on the cargo deck and 16 cords piled on the bow for ballast. In 1948, the boilers were converted to oil. The Nenana was finally pushed out of the freight and passenger business in 1955 by faster, more economical methods of transportation.

    Thirty-two years later, the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation embarked on a mission to restore the Nenana. Workers used original chalk marks on deck floors and the recollections of the Nenana's last captain, pilot and purser to rebuild the sternwheeler as closely to its original design as possible.

    In her heyday, the Nenana was the last and most luxurious of the paddlewheelers plying the rivers of Alaska and the Yukon. Once again, mahogany paneling and brass hardware gleam in
the observation lounge. The original wheel has been restored and turns at the touch of a hand.
The ship's original bell is heard on deck again and telegraph/radio transmissions are possible. Velvet curtains and fresh white linen tablecloths once again grace her lovely -interior. It took both public and private funds and thousands of hours of dedicated volunteer work before the six year, $1.8 million project was completed in 1993.

    Visitors to Fairbanks can experience the roar of the sternwheeler's engines by riding the Riverboat Discovery, a modern replica that sails twice a day during the summer. The boat travels along the Chena and Tanana Rivers, while learn about the history of sternwheelers across the region, pass by a subsistence fishing camp and witness a dog sledding demonstration.

    Whether it is a trip down the Chena River on the Riverboat Discovery or a visit to the S.S. Nenana at Alaskaland, visitors to Fairbanks agree that a stop in this gold rush town isn't complete without a lesson in riverboat history.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Article is © 2000-2001 by the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission. The photo of the Nenana is © 2000-20001 by Murray Lundberg.