After 112 Years Afloat, the Duke Retires to Museum in Astoria
The older a wooden boat gets, the more work it takes to keep it seaworthy! That’s a lesson that has been learned the hard way by all the local owners of traditional motor and sailing vessels. So there are only a handful of classic motor yachts built in the 1920’s and 1930’s still in use on the local waterways. Most of them were built in Astoria by Scandinavian craftsmen and survived into the 21st century, thanks to regular maintenance and repair, and a boathouse roof to protect them from winter rain.
But as far as I can judge, the oldest wooden boat on the Columbia appears to be the Duke, a 38′ workboat built 1902, which spent 112 years on the water on the lower river. It was built at the Wilson boatyard in Astoria, a shop that specialized in fishing tenders and grew into a shipyard that built wooden freighters at the end of WWI.
The Duke’s first owner was Johanes Ostervold, a ship captain from Norway who was the first permanent settler on Puget Island. He had begun clearing his acreage of trees in 1884, and went on to establish a fishing operation on the shore. He began horse-seining for salmon and soon found he needed a bigger tender to collect the catch and deliver it to the cannery in Westport or Clifton on the Oregon shore.
His new boat had a beam of 12 feet, a shallow draft and a central wheelhouse with large fish holds fore and aft. The first gasoline engines were just becoming available, but Ostervold chose a reliable steam engine like most of the old timers. It spun a large propeller and gave the boat a good turn when the pressure was up. Before refrigeration, it was important to move the fish to the cannery as quickly as possible and a fast boat also gave him a chance to compete in the Astoria Regatta boat races.
These were the glory years of the salmon industry on the lower river, when the Regatta was a huge event with hundreds of spectators on bleachers watching the racing. There is a newspaper account of the Duke winning the cannery tender handicap race in 1910 in a close finish with the other seven starters. Ostervold ran the Duke for nearly 20 years until he sold out to the Columbia River Packers Association in 1921.
The CRPA was a large organization that included many local cannneries and a company boatyard where all the boats used in its operations were built and maintained. In the 1930’s, the CRPA shop replaced the Duke’s original steam engine with a two-cylinder Troyer-Fox engine. These motors were actually cast and manufactured in Astoria by the Astoria Iron Works, which also produced other heavy iron equipment like bollards and winches.
After World War II, the Duke was updated with a modern Chrysler Crown six- cylinder 240 cubic inch marine engine developing 50-90 hp. The boat returned to service based at the CRPA Clifton Cannery in Oregon until the early 1970’s. In 1974, Andrew Marincovich of Clifton bought the Duke and used it for pleasure trips and towing cattle barges to Tennasillahe Island. In 1983, he gave the old tender to boat builder Marvel Blix, who had an established boatshop on the Welcome Slough on the west side of Puget Island, where many wooden gillnetters were built.
Blix realized the boat was worth saving and began with the decks, which needed replacing. With his son Dennis and grandson Bart helping, he tore the decks off and found the steamed frames, knees and timbers had been preserved by a thick coat of oil. This inspired them to restore the Duke to seaworthy condition, and neighbors joined in to bring the boat back to its former glory.
They began by scraping off the oil and checking the condition of the bilges.
Some planks needed to be replaced, so they used a portable sawmill to cut new planks from cedar logs donated by a neighbor, Dale Walker. After they fastened and caulked the planking in traditional style, James Gorley installed new wiring for the engine controls and running lights, donated by Louis Jasper.
By 1987, the Duke was fully restored and seaworthy, and ready for use. Olaf Thomason painted the name on the bow and the Blix family ran it as a fish tender for several more years. Curt Nielson bought the boat from the family and continued to use it as a pickup boat around the island until 2003, when he passed away.
Finally, Olaf Thomason bought the Duke from Curt’s widow and maintained it as a piece of the local history, proudly exhibiting it at the Elochoman Marina Wooden Boat Show and explaining its history to anyone who wanted to know. When Olaf reached the age of 92, he decided it was time to pass the Duke on to a worthy steward and donated the boat to the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
It was lifted out of the water onto Puget Island by a local company called Heavy Hauling and trucked to the Maritime Museum’s new Maritime Heritage Resource Center across the street from the museum. “We’re very pleased to have the Duke,” Jeff Smith, the museum’s curator told me. “We’ve had our eye on it for many years. It represents a style of boat that was seen on the river for a long time. It was built in Astoria and our collection wouldn’t be complete without it,” Smith added.
Fortunately, the museum had purchased the two large buildings across Marine Drive that had been used as a lumber yard. One of the buildings is now used for storage of all kinds of nautical equipment, the other has been converted into the newly renovated “Boat Hall” where about 50 local boats large and small are now preserved for future generations to study and admire. Before the Duke was rolled inside its new home, I stopped by several times to admire its underwater shape.
It has a moderate displacement hull with a fine bow, a broad stern and very fair lines that create minimum resistance at low to moderate speeds. It shows how the traditional sail-powered hull was adapted in the early 1900’s to incorporate a heavy steam engine with relatively low horsepower. Today with a modern lightweight diesel, we would call it a great shape for “economy cruising.”