2014 Yukon River Steamboat Survey – Institute of Nautical Archaeology https://nauticalarch.org Institute of Nautical Archaeology Sun, 18 Feb 2018 21:37:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.4 First Look at a Rare Northern Steamboat https://nauticalarch.org/first-look-at-a-rare-northern-steamboat/ Wed, 27 Sep 2017 22:03:51 +0000 https://nauticalarch.org/?p=15714
Heritage steamboat Nenana at Pioneer Park, Fairbanks, Alaska  (J. Pollack 2017)


Research Associate John Pollack has just returned from Alaska where with the assistance of City of Fairbanks staff a hull assessment was conducted of the heritage ship Nenana. The 210’ Nenana was one of the last and largest American-built stern-wheel steamboats to work on the lower Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where it served as a packet carrying up to 52 passengers and towing 6 barges at a time. The standard two-week route was a 1600 mile round trip to Marshall, with the occasional trip above the Arctic Circle to Fort Yukon. Nenana is the only known example of a northern wooden-hulled  sternwheeler designed by naval architect W.C. Wickum in 1932 and built from blueprints. The goal was to create a powerful, minimum draft tow boat suitable for the shallow, lower sections of the Yukon River drainage. The ship has a barge-like hull with standard chine construction, a rectangular cross-section amidships and a broad bow. The blocky hull is visibly less sophisticated than the streamlined Klondike 2 which carried freight cargo on the main deck, and towed only a single barge through the more constricted and meandering sections of the upper Yukon drainage. Another significant difference from Klondike 2, was the use of very few water-tight bulkheads on Nenana.


A snag deflector arc in front of one of the four main rudders (J. Pollack 2017)


Several rare examples of hull architecture and machinery were documented, including novel snag deflector arcs designed to keep debris away from the four main rudders, an uncommon slaved tiller assembly placed just inches above the main deck, and the largest number of large transverse beams yet found in a Yukon River steamer. Nenana also contained the second known example of an internal hog post and chain system installed below the main deck, and used to correct hull weakness (e.g. hogging) in the original design. Additionally, the team discovered a truly unique and baffling framing method at the stern rake (or apron), where an upper set of floors (complete with limber holes) was installed above the centerline and side keelsons, which in turn rests upon the lower floors to which the hull planking is spiked. These elevated floors are not shown in the blueprints, suggesting they were an “on-the-fly” alternation made by the shipwrights when the prefabricated hull was assembled in Nenana, Alaska.


Largest shipwreck at the Golden site


In late September, three additional small stern-wheel steamboat sites were confirmed on the Upper Columbia River between Fairmont and Golden BC, by Danish-Canadian archaeologist Xenius Nielsen and Research Associate John Pollack. The Fairmont site lies a kilometer north of the source of the Columbia River at a point where the river is less than 15 m wide. The Golden sites are 100 km further north (downriver), and plans are being made to document the largest of the three during low water in the spring of 2018. Note the fresh grizzly bear tracks in the mud.


Fairmont site


Grizzly bear footprints adjacent to paddlewheel fitting at a second site in Golden, BC


The Remains of the Day https://nauticalarch.org/the-remains-of-the-day/ Tue, 23 Sep 2014 00:34:11 +0000 http://nauticalarch.org/blogs/2014-yukon-river-steamboat-survey/?p=81 Dr. Sheli Smith and Sean Adams have returned home to Ohio and Vancouver, and I am back in Nelson BC awaiting the arrival of several hundred pounds of field gear from Whitehorse. Sorting and cleaning gear by yourself is perhaps least appetizing phase of any field project, but at least nothing expensive failed or was lost on this trip.
I will try to summarize the accomplishments and observation from a generally successful trip.


Dr. Sheli scrambles up the stern of Schwatka at West Dawson

Mapping of Schwatka proved more complicated than anticipated due to the irregularities in construction attributed to the multitude of repairs required over her twenty +/ _ years of service on the lower Yukon River. It took several days before we could discern the original chine design. We also had only three mappers (due to an illness) vs. our normal contingent of four. The resultant slower production was offset by Dr. Smith’s expertise, my familiarity with the Yukon hull designs, and the use of Bosch rangefinders and video to capture detail in the more complex sections of the hull. In the end we obtained measurements and drawings for a plan view, five transverse cross-sections, and three longitudinal cross-sections over ten days. Only one section of hull on the port side was inaccessible because of safety issues.
Schwatka did not disappoint. The vessel’s design differed substantially from the many other late 19th century sternwheelers we’ve documented over the course of the Survey. The most notable design variation was a novel turn-of-bilge that would be classified as a standard chine except the builders omitted the longitudinal bilge clamp or bilge keelson. There was extensive use of large transverse timbers (e.g. carriers) to support the boilers and a central line of hog posts (e.g. king posts or braces). These carriers were the largest timbers in the vessel, and were supported by up to nine longitudinal strength members (e.g. stringers or keelsons) that in turn supported two additional lines of hog posts to port and starboard, the engines and cylinder timbers, and deck beams.


Another day in the bilges – measuring the truss-built keelsons

Additionally we documented the single remaining boiler, the mud drum, and the steam drum lying in the remains of a heavily salvaged western rivers style, two-boiler battery. At the stern, a slaved four-tiller system was almost entirely intact, complete with the sweep for the two master tillers, and blocks for the main and monkey rudders.  And at the heavily-constructed bow are the remains of two towing post assemblies.

Steam drum and the single remaining boiler in the two-boiler battery

Elsewhere we had less luck. The visibility at Steamboat Slough never improved enough for us to use the drop cameras to investigate several sonar targets in the area where the steamships Mona and Glenora burned in 1901. The Slough had zero vis for the entire duration of the trip. One new hull was located and confirmed as a 120′ barge. Downstream of this barge concentrations of firebrick and salvaged steam pipes were found lying on shore in the vicinity of the 2013 sonar targets, as well as a small cast-iron paddlewheel flange from a vessel estimated to be 10 m in length.

An abundance of evidence suggests the river bottom at Steamboat Slough will be a complex assembly of wrecks associated with the debris and trash discarded from the dozen or more large steamboats that routinely over-wintered at this location. Efficient investigation of this site and its associated sonar targets, will require a window of moderately clear water.  Given the “consistently inconsistent” conditions on the Yukon River, we can only try again based upon the best local advice…..and hope we have a bit more luck.

In summary, it was another productive trip to Dawson.  We managed a thorough assessment of one hull, and yet again additional and complex possibilities have arisen for the future.

The Work Continues https://nauticalarch.org/the-work-continues/ Tue, 16 Sep 2014 03:34:32 +0000 http://nauticalarch.org/blogs/2014-yukon-river-steamboat-survey/?p=66 The mapping has been going very well. We have collected the data for a detailed plan view of Schwatka and today will begin cross-sections of various parts of the ship.
There are many interesting features on this vessel. To our surprise it is not consistently constructed – particularly in the chines, where five different frame designs can be seen in as many consecutive frame stations. Additionally there have been many repairs near the stern. These inconsistencies make mapping challenge, but given six other Gold Rush-era steamboats lie adjacent in the old yard, we have the ability to view construction on these other vessels, discuss the nuances of design, and get some great data.

Dr.Sheli Smith measuring the paddlewheel
The superstructure of Schwatka has collapsed thus we can only enter the hull or walk on top of the debris pile. In the hull, headroom is approximately 1.5 m (5 feet) at best and we often must crawl under low areas on our chests. The starboard and central portions of the vessel are sound, but the port side is collapsing, and there we have had to limit our time and change our methods so that we could gather as much data as possible without taking unnecessary chances.

Sean Items near Frame 72
It is Sunday night in Dawson and very quiet. The tourist season is winding down and the locals are preparing for the Yukon winter. There are some massive wood piles in front of some of the houses and the aspen stands surrounding the town are bright gold.
On our way to Schwatka this morning we decided to look at Steamboat Slough as we wanted to check the water conditions. Last year we used a Starfish 452F side scan sonar to locate a few targets that may be the steamboats Mona and Glenora. Both vessels burned in March 1901 while in winter quarters. Unfortunately there is a silt-laden tributary of the Yukon River immediately upstream of Steamboat Slough, and recent rain has reduced the visibility from four inches to virtually zero. It will be next to impossible to visually confirm the nature of our targets. From the road near the mountain top we could look down on the Slough. The water level was lower than last year, and it was decided to try to get down on the river.

Steamboat Slough from Dome Mountain
As we drove off into the wilderness we came across a large sign that warned us about golf cart traffic crossing the road. A few minutes further as we looked towards the river there was a beautiful golf course nestled amongst the aspen trees. The aspens are a wonderful yellow as their leaves turn to their fall colors, so the contrast between the vibrant greens of the golf course and the brilliant yellows of the aspens was a site to behold. I should mention that the golf course had old gold dredge buckets as hazards on the course. Very cool!

Charlie the Caretaker pointed us to the right trail, and we eventually found good access to the riverbank. Once we stepped onto the river’s edge we were in Yukon wilderness. In the mud on the riverbank were animal tracks from caribou, moose, wolves, and bears. These tracks were very fresh, so with bear sprays in hand and watchful eyes the team continued 3 km downstream. Getting down river was a mission in itself, with mud, a river bank that fell away at contact and at times being forced up and into the forest…however, the serenity and scenery made up for it all.

Once we reached the historic over-wintering area, the river gave up a new site – a 25-30 m (80-100 foot) line of frames broke the water near shore, and material eroding from the bank made it clear people used this area for a long time. A drone was used to get aerial footage of our search area, and we will return in two days with dry suits to measure remains of the hull.

Hiking Up to the Slough

For now however we must return to Schwatka, and continue our documentation of the hull.





Work Begins https://nauticalarch.org/work-begins/ Fri, 12 Sep 2014 05:39:26 +0000 http://nauticalarch.org/blogs/2014-yukon-river-steamboat-survey/?p=58 Hello from the Yukon Territory, Canada.

Well it’s happening…….we arrived the afternoon of Sept. 7 in Whitehorse and the next day drove 530 km north to Dawson City with a full van-load of groceries and field gear. The road trip was uneventful but spectacular….we encountered a prime 4-5 year old black bear, a golden eagle and deer as we drove thru hundreds of km of uninhabited wilderness and past some magnificent lakes.

Fall Foliage and Snow on the Peaks (1)

Fall Foliage and Snow on the Peaks

Our base in Dawson is the Whitehouse Cabins – a funky historic group of buildings only 20 minutes from the old shipyard at West Dawson, and run by old friends Doug and Ashley Cotter. We have small kitchenettes, showers, electricity and heat. From the cabins it is a 2 minute drive to the ferry that crosses the swift Yukon River, and then another 3 minute drive to a trailhead. On go the packs and we hike a short distance downstream to reach Schwatka, some 40 m from the river bank. The 44 m 1898 stern wheel steamboat is the innermost vessel in the upstream group of four ships abandoned at the old shipyard……and another three (!) lie downstream in a second cluster.

Dawson City from Across the Yukon River

Dawson City and the Yukon River

Day one on Schwatka involved sizing up the job, and numbering frames within the hull. As expected the superstructure has collapsed on top of the hull, and the foredeck has collapsed into the hull as well. Nonetheless the hull is three dimensional from frame 15 to the transom (83), the main deck overhead is intact, and most of the structural components of the hull are in situ. Within the hull headlamps and helmets are a must, and there are five large carriers – large transverse timbers supporting hog posts and the boilers – that you must crawl under.   There are also up to nine longitudinal keelsons and bulkheads that limit travel across the ship, and a complex system of steam pipes, so we spend  a lot of time crawling over and under obstacles.

Over the last three days we’ve been developing a plan view of the hull using a baseline measurement system, aerial (drone) photography at the bow, and hand held video to record construction details. We are roughly 50% finished with the plan view, and intend to complete it by Sunday after which the longitudinal and transverse cross-sections are our next priority.   The job has NOT been as straightforward as previous ships, as Schwatka appears to have been built in a unique and slipshod manner. We have found great variation in chine construction, and there is a general lack of symmetry in the framing. Accordingly every frame has required additional work to document.

It’s been a good start. For an aerial overview of the upstream cluster of hulks, please see our YouTube clip.   http://youtu.be/c8ADO1gNro0


Five Fingers Rapids

Five Finger Rapids – one of the many dangerous areas on the Yukon River between Whitehorse and the gold fields of Dawson.


The Long Road North to Dawson City https://nauticalarch.org/the-long-road-north-to-dawson-city/ Tue, 02 Sep 2014 23:11:06 +0000 http://nauticalarch.org/blogs/2014-yukon-river-steamboat-survey/?p=7 Since 2005 INA teams have documented the numerous and well-preserved wrecks and hulks of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon Territory of Canada.   One of the most intriguing sites is West Dawson where the remains of seven, great stern wheel steamboats lie in two groups at an historic shipyard.  The superstructures of these vessels have collapsed but four of the hulls are largely intact, and some ships still contain portions of their machinery and boilers.  When first visited by the team in 2006, it was immediately clear this was a riverboat archaeologist’s dream – the ships were undocumented in the literature, and none of them were listed the Canadian national archaeological inventory system.

Looking Across the hulks of Schwatka, Seattle No. 3 and Julia  B.  /  J. Pollack 2008

Looking Across the hulks of Schwatka, Seattle No. 3 and Julia B. / J. Pollack 2008

Since that first visit we have returned again and again to this amazing and neglected site.  To date four papers have been published in the ACUA proceedings on the site and three of the vessels.  This year we will tackle the fourth and last largely intact hull – the 1898 stern wheel steamboat SCHWATKA.  The work will involve days of “in hull” mapping with headlights and helmets, and some excavation of the collapsed foredeck.

We also plan to return to Steamboat Slough, some 3 km upstream of the shipyard.  The Slough was a popular wintering site where large vessels could be laid up for the winter without suffering ice damage during spring break-up.  In 1901 two large riverboats – MONA and GLENORA – were deliberately burned while in winter quarters.  In August 2013 we used a small Starfish 452F side scan sonar to locate several promising targets in the Slough, but could not explore them due to unexpected, due dangerously low visibility.  This year we are returning later in the season when the water may be less turbid, and it should be possible to check these shallow targets either in person, or with a drop camera.

Intact paddlewheel on Schwatka / J. Pollack 2008

Intact paddlewheel on Schwatka / J. Pollack 2008

About the team – our Yukon teams tend to be small, and this year four people will be on site.  The INA, Government of Yukon, and PAST Foundation are represented.  Dr. Sheli Smith from the PAST Foundation (of Ohio) will be using their BASECAMP software to make our activities available to US and Canadian schools.  This is a pilot project for us and we thank Sheli for making the commitment to come North.  Gisli Balzer of the Historic Sites Unit (Government of Yukon) will be joining Sean Adams and myself (John Pollack) from the INA.

That’s the general background.  The past two weeks have been devoted to gear and computer checks and packing – and yesterday the freight went north to be picked up in Whitehorse – the capital of Yukon.  Whitehorse contains 71% of the Yukon’s 38,000 people, and it is a very long way North – 5,600 km NW of College Station, and 2,700 km NW of my home near Nelson, British Columbia.   This Sunday (Sept. 7) we fly into Whitehorse, and the next day well pick up the gear and then drive 530 km further north to Dawson City.

Work will begin in earnest Sept. 9, and we will be posting periodic descriptions of our methods and progress along with photos and videos of the site.  Please stay tuned…………