It was announced last week that the Centennial Center for the Arts at Pioneer Park would close abruptly due to safety concerns. 5 of 22 columns that hold up the roof and walls are rotting from the inside. The 52 year old Centennial Center is usually a busy place during the holiday season, so the closure will displace several special events, as well as the main tenant of the center: the Fairbanks Arts Association. Repairs are expected to take 3-4 months. Hopefully, the Borough will complete the needed repairs. In 2014, seven columns had to undergo similar repairs.
The SS Nenana
The historic SS Nenana, also located at Pioneer Park, is desperately needing a resurrection. Interior tours were ended a couple of years ago, and I know the Friends of the SS Nenana are working with the Fairbanks North Star Borough to undergo the needed repairs and restoration. I would have to believe time is of the essence with the old sternwheeler.
In 1957, the SS Nenana was brought to Fairbanks. She was docked on the Chena River and became a restaurant and boatel. By 1960, her new owners were not making enough money in the venture, so the Nenana sat unused until 1965. During that time, souvenir hunters hit the old sternwheeler hard.
The 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska was closing in at that time. “Alaskaland”, a borough park dedicated to Fairbanks history, had just opened, and the SS Nenana would be a welcomed addition. A channel was dug from the Chena River to the park, and the old sternwheeler was floated in.
That is where one can find her today. In 1986, the Nenana saw an extensive restoration. Working off of old photos and the original floor plan, the renovation took six years. Some original items from the ship were found, others had to be fabricated.
The SS Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers left in the United States, and of the three, the Nenana is the largest. She is also the first sternwheeler to be built from blue-prints.
Time and the elements have once again taken their toll on the Nenana. Recently, the borough has closed the interior of the ship to summer tours. Another renovation of the old sternwheeler looks to be on the horizon. Without it, the ship will be dismantled. The “Friends of the SS Nenana” are gearing up to “stabilize and restore this one of a kind piece of history”.
SS Nenana display at the Noel Wien Library, Fairbanks; installed by the Friends of the SS Nenana, notice the original blue prints
The SS Nenana is a steam powered, sternwheeler that was originally commissioned by the Alaska Railroad in 1932 for their Steamboat Service. Her parts were built in Seattle, then shipped north to Nenana, Alaska and assembled there. Named for the community where she was built, the SS Nenana first entered service in 1933.
The Nenana has five decks: cargo; passenger or saloon deck; boat deck, which housed the life boats; the Texas deck, which had cabins for the captain, crew and any VIP travelers, and topped off with the pilot house.
The SS Nenana pushing a barge
At 237′ long and 42′ wide, the Nenana had 22,000 square feet of deck space. She was built to handle passengers and freight, housing up to 50 passengers in 24 staterooms, and could haul 300 tons of cargo. A full load usually had a crew of 32 and a passenger list of 35. Completely loaded, the Nenana drew only 3’6″ of water.
From 1933 – 1954 she ran the Tanana & Yukon Rivers from May through September. Her main route was between Nenana and Marshall, which was 858 miles. The Nenana had one of the most advanced power systems of its time: twin, tandem 330 HP horizontal condensing engines. The engines could recycle 85% of the steam back into water, allowing the Nenana to be surprisingly quiet. She was powered originally by burning wood, and could store 230 cords of firewood on board. In 1948, the Nenana was converted to burn oil.
While traveling the Yukon River, the Nenana could push up to 6 barges. On the Tanana River, she was limited to only one barge, due to that river’s sharp turns.
During WWII, the Nenana was a vital part of the war effort. Between the massive military buildup within Alaska, and as aircraft and other equipment was ferried across the state on its way to Russia, the Nenana moved supplies for Galena Air Base and a host of other military outposts scattered along the Yukon River Basin.
By 1955, the SS Nenana was pushed out of the freight and passenger business by cheaper and faster means of transportation. Her story doesn’t end quite there, however.
Film footage courtesy of the University of Alaska Archives; photos courtesy of “Friends of SS Nenana”