Salmon Tender Duke–Oldest Boat on the Columbia River

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 many boatmen learned the hard way. On the lower Columbia River where there are still a handful of owners maintaining and using traditional wooden gillnetters. But it’s been about 60 years since the last one was built at the Blix workshop on Puget Island, Washington, where some of the last boats were launched into the Welcome Slough.

it’s not a coincidence that this is where the 38′ salmon tender and ferry boat Duke spent most of its 100-year working life, relying on local know-how to keep it afloat. It was still looking shipshape when it turned 100 in 2002, and I passed it a couple of times after that milestone while exploring the slough, an inlet that faces the Wauna paper mill on the Oregon shore. I could see the old boat was a fine example of its type but was unaware of its age and place in the history of local boat building.

I only started to learn more after it was donated to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in 2014. Only then I discovered that the Duke was built in 1902 at the Wilson boatyard in Astoria, which makes it the oldest wooden boat on the Columbia–as far as I can tell. The first owner was Johanes Ostervold, a ship captain from Norway who was the first permanent settler on Puget Island. He had begun clearing and draining his acreage 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 canneries in Westport or Clifton on the Oregon shore.

Wilson gave his new boat a long straight keel and very shallow draft like the sailing gillnetters that were mass-produced locally for the big canneries. they were 28′ long for the Columbia and 32′ for Bristol Bay and the Alaska coast. It was estimated there were more than 2,500 of the sail and oar-powered boats on the lower river in the early 1900’s, when the first marine gasoline engines became available.

The Wilson shop employed many craftsmen who had learned their trade in Scandinavia. They specialized in fishboats and tenders, then grew into a shipyard capable of building big wooden vessels, including a government contract for freighters in 1917, when the US entered the European conflict they called the “Great War.”

With a beam of 12 feet, a wide transom stern, and a long straight run aft, the Duke was built for speed rather than capacity, because there was no way to keep the fish cool in the holds fore and aft of the wheelhouse. Ostervold chose a reliable steam engine that spun  a very large propeller and gave the boat a good turn of speed when the pressure was up. A fast boat also gave him a chance to compete in the Astoria Regatta boat races. 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.

A century later, Olaf Thomason bought the Duke and maintained it as a piece of local history. He proudly maintained the boat and exhibited it at the annual Wooden Boat Show in Cathlamet. When he reached the age of 92, he decided it was time to pass the boat on to a worthy steward, so he donated it to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. It was lifted out of the water onto Puget Island by Heavy Hauling, a local moving company, and trucked to the museum’s new Maritime Heritage Resource Center.

This was formerly a lumber yard and builder’s supply store opposite the museum on Marine Drive. “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.”

Last fall, the Duke was rolled into the warehouse where I had bought lumber just a few years ago. This has become the museum’s Boat Hall where about 20 large local boats are now preserved  for future generations to study and admire. After a century, this unique survivor sits next to another survivor—a 1962 wooden sternpicker built in Astoria at the Bumble Bee shipyard for the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery. (FYI–the registration AK 8450 A is still visible on the bow and the number 13742 is on the cabin side.) The museum’s permanent collection also includes several powered gillnetters, lifeboats, and rowboats.

At that time, the only reliable way to reach the lower river from Portland was on one of the steamboat that ran every day. In 1925, the first all-weather road was pushed through, and the first inter-state ferry from Westport, Or. to Cathlamet, Wash. was established. In Astoria, a tug and barge was used to carry vehicles to the Washington shore until Wilson Shipyard launched the 100′ Tourist No. 2 in 1927. Wilson went out of business in the Depression, but the ferry worked the route for 40 years until the new four-mile long bridge put it out of work in 1965. (It then spent the next 50 years on Puget Sound, returned to Astoria in 2015, and a non-profit is trying to find a permanent place for it.)

Throughout the 20th century, the Duke had chugged serenely from the steam age to the computer age, outliving every other wooden boat–large or small—on the river, and witnessing the highs, lows and final collapse of the area’s huge salmon-canning industry. Those were the glory years of the salmon industry, when the Regatta was a huge event with thousands of spectators on bleachers or the seawall watching the racing. By 1900, the salmon-packing companies had amalgamated into the Columbia River Packers Association.

The CRPA was a large company that included many local canneries and had its own boatyard where all the craft used in its operations in Alaska were built and maintained. They bought the Duke in 1921 and used it to collect fish and deliver goods at all the small fishing settlements between Cathlamet, the seat of Wahkiakum County and Astoria, the seat of Clatsop County. Today Cathlamet is a fairly quiet place, but it was booming in the Roaring Twenties with “five gas stations, three garages, numerous stores, a theater, and a skating rink.”

There was still no modern road on the north shore, so the fish tenders and small ferries were an essential part of community life. The CRPA kept them connected with the outside world and the Duke served them well for the next 40 years—except when the river froze over for six weeks in 1929, when families went hungry trying to survive with only the most basic foodstuffs.

In the 1930’s, the company boat shop replaced the Duke’s original steam engine with a two-cylinder petrol engine from the Troyer-Fox company, based in Seattle. 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 Pearl Harbor, the cities of Vancouver and Portland played a significant part in the war effort by constructing naval craft of all sizes large at an incredible pace. Over 1600 vessels were launched given a one-day 200-mile sea trial to Tongue Point Naval station and back, then sent off to war. Downriver, retired Scandinavian shipwrights were called back to work at the Astoria Marine Construction Company, to help build wooden minesweepers, first for the British Navy in the spring of 1941, then for the US Navy in 1942.

Many fishermen volunteered for the navy, leaving their fathers to keep the canneries supplied with salmon, since they were also given priority as suppliers of valuable easily-transported food. A strict blackout was enforced near the coast, so that Japanese bombers could not navigate up the river, and larger craft were requisitioned for security patrols, their hulls and houses obscured by regulation gray paint.

In the 1950’s, the Duke was updated with a modern Chrysler Crown six- cylinder 240 cubic inch marine engine developing 60-90 hp, which was a favorite for gillnetters. The tender returned to the CRPA‘s Clifton Cannery in Oregon, where a gillnetter named Andrew Marincovich admired the boat’s lines for years as he delivered his fish. He was finally able to buy it in 1974 when the CRPA decided they needed a bigger, more modern boat..

He moored it close to his house in Clifton and used it for towing cattle barges across the channel to Tennasillahe Island, where 1700 acres had been diked drained, and turn into pasture land in the early 1900’s. A decade later, I was cruising along the Prairie Channel close to the Oregon shore when Andrew hailed me from the dock and invited me to visit. I didn’t hesitate as I put the helm over, rounded up to the ladder, and dropped a line around a piling. I climbed the slippery rungs, and emerged onto the deck where time appeared to have stopped in the 1950’s. I found the whole place was quite well preserved with net racks still in use and the bluestone tank intact.

One of the earliest salmon canneries was built there in 1873, and it was home to many Croatian and Italian families who logged and fished until the 1920’s. The Portland-Astoria railway line ran along the shore, but the village had no road connection to the rest of the state until 1937, and by then the population had already dropped precipitously. It was 1958 before electricity reached this out-of-the-way spot. When I walked the empty cannery to Andrew’s house, I realized he was probably the sole full-time inhabitant.

The Duke was tucked away under the net shed, but by then, the old tender was sorely in need of more maintenance. Andrew eventually passed it on to well-known boat builder Marvel Blix whose family had run a respected boat shop on Puget Island. Blix found that the boat still had some life in it and began the repairs with the decks that clearly needed replacing. With his son Dennis and grandson Bart helping, he tore the old planking off and found  the steamed frames, knees and timbers had been preserved by a thick coat of oil. (Was it painted on deliberately or did it leak out of the engine and run up the sides when the boat heeled?)

This inspired them to restore the Duke to seaworthy condition. The neighbors joined in the effort to bring the boat back to its former glory 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 another 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, seaworthy again, 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. The next owner was Curt Nielson who continued to use it as a pickup boat around the island until 2003, when he passed away.

Note that the CRMM boat hall is only accessible by special appointment.


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