The SS Nenana is safe for now. Earlier this week, Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel confirmed there are no plans to demolish the historic riverboat.
But the boat’s fate remains up in the air.
As the borough wrestles with budget cuts and a maintenance backlog, a painting project scheduled for the summer has been canceled. The SS Nenana was deemed unsafe and now it will be closed to tourists in the summer.
There is no question the SS Nenana is important to Fairbanks and Alaska. It is the largest sternwheel steamboat constructed west of the Mississippi River. Contracted by the Alaska Railroad from 1933-53, the SS Nenana traveled from Nenana to Marshall and back again — a 1,600 mile journey — every two weeks in the summer. Its final season on the river was 1954 when it was leased by the Yutana Barge Line. The 237-foot-long five-deck boat could carry 300 tons of freight. It had a saloon deck that accommodated 48 passengers. It was phased out as boat technology advanced and aircraft became more prevalent in Alaska.
The SS Nenana has been at Pioneer Park since 1957 where it has been a tourist attraction. In 1989, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. In the late 1980s a series of renovations and improvements were carried out on the sternwheeler. The Fairbanks Historic Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization, financed those renovations. Since then, multiple smaller improvement projects have kept the boat intact. The most recent happened about five years ago.
The borough contracted PDC Engineers to survey the boat, which they did in February. They found damage and decay throughout the boat.
Since then, Pioneer Park Manager Donnie Hayes suggested the impressive diorama inside the boat be moved to a temporary home while borough officials decide what to do with the ship. But Martin Gutoski, a member of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission who helped build the diorama, said in a Thursday phone interview he does not believe the diorama could be removed without destroying it. Mr. Gutoski said he was examining the diorama last week to see about saving it, but the 24-foot by 10-foot diorama is simply too big to fit through the door. The door is 9 feet, 4 inches wide.
The wooden riverboat is subject to a vicious freeze-thaw cycle. Its condition will steadily worsen the longer it is neglected. It could even lose its National Historic Landmark designation if it deteriorates enough. It has needed, and will need, constant care.
In 2011, freelance writer Ray Bonnell wrote for the News-Miner that “she could have easily been lost without the foresight of the people who originally brought her to Fairbanks, and those who have worked so hard to restore and protect her.”
Mr. Bonnell’s words remain relevant today. Foresight and hard work will be needed if this community wants to preserve the SS Nenana. Right now, the borough is hurting for cash. In the past, a nonprofit organization saved the SS Nenana, and that option should be seriously considered again.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,