1992: Portland’s Sternwheel Tug Steams into the 21st Century

Vintage steamboat built in 1947 escaped the scrapyard–by PM

The sternwheel steamboat was an everyday sight on the Portland, Oregon, waterfront until the 1920s. And although those ferryboats disappeared long ago, steampower lived on until 1981 in the shape of the port-owned, “ship-assist sternwheeler” Portland. A group of volunteers formed the Oregon Maritime Center Museum and took on the preservation of this remarkable vessel. They have restored the 219-foot craft to working condition and preserved a unique piece of maritime history. In the 1930s, while the rest of the country was adapting to the improved diesel engine, enthusiasm for steam-powered sternwheelers remained strong on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. They continued to find work as tugs through the war era, which saw some 620 transport ships built at the Kaiser yards.

The culmination of this tradition was the steel, 219-foot, ship-assist sternwheeler Portland. Built in 1947, it ran until 1981–the last commercial steamtug operating in the U.S. In 1919, to speed the handling of the larger ships coming into the Willamette River, the Port of Portland financed the building of a new steam tug. It was to be the largest, most powerful of its kind, the 186-foot sternwheeler Portland. By the end of the Second World War, the wooden Portland had put in 28 years of service, and was showing its age.

In 1946 the port commission met to consider a replacement. A lively debate ensued between the elected officials favoring the economy of a twin-screw, Kort nozzle, diesel tug, and the pilots, wanting an updated sternwheeler. The river pilots, all veteran steamboatmen, claimed that sternwheelers were more maneuvrable and could better work ships under the city’s bridges and against the current in the Willamette River.

After lengthy consultations, the commission voted that the second Portland would be another sternwheeler. The final design showed a steel hull all of 219 feet LOA, with seven rudders. The twin, oil-fired boilers would produce a total 1800 HP. The lowest bidder was Northwest Marine Iron Works, which delivered the tug 200 days after the keel was laid. The cost was the considerable sum of $472,500. The last duty of the old Portland was to tow the new boat across to the Swan Island dry docks to be fitted out.

Shaver Transportation Company had the first contract to operate the new tug, with a crew of seven–3 deckhands, 2 engineers, a mate and a pilot. The new Portland was double the length and triple the power of any other local tug and would rule the river for 35 years, yet it was already an anachronism.

If the boilers were cold, it took four hours to build a head of steam. Once the pressure had built, each turn of the wheel could move the tug 62 feet, and the maximum 16 RPMs gave a top speed of 12 knots. The fuel consumption was in the region of 200 gallons of diesel per hour–but oil was cheap! There were no condensers on the single-expansion engines, so a lot of the power was wasted.

The port commission constantly complained that it cost too much to run. By 1980 its annual budget was close to $250,000, with the port’s subsidy running at 20% But it was still the first choice for the pilots responsible for working ships down the narrow Willamette, through as many as six narrow bridges. Many of those crewmen became captains of the Portland, then river pilots. Two of them, Jack Taylor and Dave Kasch, are now part of the restoration team and have seen their old command steam into the computer age.

Captain Taylor was skipper of the Portland from 1969-72. “Even in the 1970s, we still needed the old boat,” he told me. “Before the first big Z-drive arrived, there was nothing that could match the Portland’s ability to back through the bridges. Backing down, with that line of rudders in the paddle wash, you could do anything you needed.”

“We’d run a ship downstream stern first,” continued Captain Dave Kasch. “The Portland would be made up bow to bow-(with the paddle at the upstream end of the tow) and a half dozen lines keeping her snugged up. We might have a small tug take a line downstream off the stern for more control.” It was a time-tested system, but they often had trouble convincing foreign grain ships that they were actually capable of doing the job.

The Portland continued to be the workhorse of the Willamette River until 1981. In that year, Shaver took delivery of a 107-foot, Z-drive tug, again named Portland. Although only half the length of its predecessor, the new boat, built by Nichols Brothers, boasted a total of 3,600 H.P. Time had run out for the last, sternwheel tug in the nation (and probably in the world). It was laid up at the Portland Ship Repair Yard.

The Port made attempts to convert the craft into a tour boat, but only got as far as removing one of the two Babcock & Wilcox boilers, and stripping off the deckhouses. (The Coast Guard had placed severe restrictions on the use of the tug for passenger carrying, because of its wood superstructure.) Although the Portland’s remaining boiler was still in working order, an expensive, consultant’s report found little likelihood of the vessel ever becoming self-supporting.

The Portland was left to deteriorate until 1989, when the Oregon Maritime Center & Museum began restoration efforts. The ship is steel to the top of the maindeck house, with the three upper decks of wood. The pilot and Texas house had been stored onshore for a decade, but were in a sorry state. The main cabin was gone, with only a few panels kept in storage.

The effort began to renovate the two houses onshore, then moved on to the hull of the tug and the rusting upper deck. the cabin deck had been demolished during the first conversion attempts and only a few panels preserved. A new wood-frame cabin was finally erected with steel reinforcement and later fitted out as a meeting or conference room.

These early volunteer efforts convinced the Port to donate the tug to the Maritime Center and Museum. Under its new owners, the work continued and attracted more interest. Over the next four years, hundreds of volunteers put in some 30,000 hours labor in restoration work. The Port offered the old Terminal 1 as a base for the work and contributed $200,000 to the effort. As the work progressed, the community offered more support in the form of materials and expert assistance. However, the museum group was still severely short of working capital until the Fred Meyer Memorial Trust donated $300,000.

The replacement of the upper houses by crane became a media event, when the city’s paper, the Oregonian, headlined the re-birth of the old steamer. In May 1992, the Portland was towed upriver to join the annual Rose Festival fleet of US and Canadian warships.

There was still much to do however–from replacing the timbers on the 25-foot diameter, 35-ton, wooden sternwheel to repairing the firebox. Parts had to be chipped, scraped and painted, or copied and replaced if they were too far gone. The boiler work culminated in re-certification and the first steam up. In 1993 the volunteers made the first self-powered trip in 12 years.

With this landmark passed, the team returned to work, upgrading and re-painting the engine room to give greater visibility and access for visitors. Although the Portland would not be allowed to get under way with paying passengers onboard, the plan was to periodically pressurize the system at the dockside. The shoreside plans necessitated more work to convert an old tank barge donated by Tidewater into a pontoon with attached gangway.

During the 1993 Rose Festival, 1,000 visitors toured the tug and the museum, located on Front Avenue, opposite the seawall. Seventy people paid $10 each to watch the fireworks show from the sternwheeler. The third Portland, was provided by Shaver to move the second Portland back to its working dock. The steamboat also opened its doors to the public during the Port’s “Seaport Day,”

The trustees of the museum were aware that they had a valuable property on their hands, but were still soliciting donations in 1993–until some Hollywood casting directors came looking for a leading lady! Terms were agreed, and in a few short weeks the Portland was transformed into the Lauren Belle, a steamboat on the Mississippi River in the 1800s.

Adorned with twin stacks, a bow ramp, and all the frills, the Portland steamed the Columbia again, using the undeveloped shore downstream from Beacon Rock as a backdrop. The crew met the stars of the film, Mel Gibson, James Garner, and Jodie Foster, then returned to skills they hadn’t practiced in many years.

All the systems performed well during the week’s filming, although a tug was kept nearby in case of a mishap. The crew managed all manner of maneuvers to satisfy the cameramen, including steaming backwards for several hours to keep the sun at the right angle. Then, with its disguise gone and screwholes all plugged, the Portland spent one last winter at Terminal 1, receiving the finishing touches to the makeover before taking its permanent place at the Portland seawall for the ’94 Rose Festival.


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