ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page

Search ExploreNorth

The Story of the Sternwheeler Nenana

    The sternwheeler Nenana was built during 1932 and 1933. The Alaska Railroad commissioned the boat to be built. It was especially designed with a flat bottom and a beautiful curve. The parts were made in Seattle, Washington by a shipbuilding company and brought to Alaska. It was then assembled in Nenana, Alaska. The sternwheeler was launched into the water on May 15, 1933. It was then named "Nenana" after the river and the place where it was built.

    The deck of the Nenana is 20,000 square feet. It measures 237 feet in length (the hull is 210 feet) and is 42 feet wide. The Nenana could carry up to 260 tons of cargo and could also push barges.

    After the Nenana was launched in 1933, the boat had some problems. It was then taken from the river and modified.

    There are 5 decks on the Nenana. The cargo deck was designed for carrying freight. It was closest to the water. It had big, wide doors for loading freight and wood. Wood was used as fuel in a wood burning boiler. The boiler could burn a cord of dry spruce wood in one hour. There were two engines which were run by the steam from the boiler. These engines turned the two pitman arms and made the paddle wheel turn. This action made the Nenana move in the water. There are hogging posts attached to the deck. These special posts help hold the boat together. The galley and crew quarters were also on the main deck (also called the cargo deck.)

    The next deck above was called the passenger or saloon deck. This deck had cabins where passengers stayed while on the boat. Also, on this deck you would find the observation room, saloon, dining area, smoking room, toilets, pantry, purserŐs office and quarters.

    Above the passenger deck is the boat deck. Life boats hung from davits here. Above the passenger deck was a smaller deck called the Texas deck. On this deck were larger cabins for the captain and officers of the boat. Important people had cabins on this deck too. On the very top of the boat was the pilot house. Inside the pilot house was a large wheel used for steering the boat. The captain commanded the boat from here. The pilot house has very large windows all around it for looking out. In front of the pilot house was a very large light to help the captain see in the dark. There was a whistle which the captain could blow. The whistle was used to call the crew. It was also used to alert the people on land to get the wood supplies ready for loading onto the boat. The whistle was sometimes used as a warning signal for danger too.

    The Nenana's maiden voyage took her from Nenana, the place where she was built, to Marshall on the lower Yukon River. This trip was 774 miles long.

    Charles Adams was the first captain of the Nenana. He was captain for 14 years. Earl Weir served as the Nenana's second captain. Howard Adams, nephew to Charles, was the Nenana's third captain. Howard was the captain of the Nenana until its retirement.

    Sometimes the Nenana had a crew of 32 people. The Nenana was approved by the Coast Guard to carry 16 passengers. Sometimes, however, the Nenana really carried up to 35 passengers.

    To help cut expenses, a new oil burner was put in to operate the Nenana in 1948. After 1949, passengers were not able to ride the Nenana anymore because the company had to spend more money than what passengers would pay.

    When the Nenana was no longer used, she was tied up in the town of Nenana in 1956. The Nenana was left to sit for two years in the river at Nenana, Alaska. During this time, the boat sat in the water during two winters with no care.

    In 1957, several businessmen, called The Greater Fairbanks Opportunity Incorporated bought the Nenana for $40,000. They bought the Nenana to make her into a restaurant and boatel with hopes to make money. They wanted to move the Nenana to Fairbanks and dock her on the Chena River.

    To bring the Nenana to Fairbanks, they had to remove the smokestack and other tall things so she could fit under the bridge at Nenana, Alaska. When the river was low, the new owners drove the Nenana under the bridge with only one inch to spare! The Nenana arrived in Fairbanks in May 1957 from Nenana under her own power. For three years the Nenana was used as a restaurant and boatel. She was finally closed down because the owners did not make enough money. The Nenana then sat in the Chena River from 1960 to 1965 not being used by anyone.

    The cold weather damaged the abandoned boat. Souvenir hunters during this time stole many things from the Nenana. The Nenana became a dark, quiet shadow of her former self, as an active sternwheeler on the mighty rivers of Alaska.

    The Alaskaland Centennial Committee wanted the Nenana in their Centennial Park (which is now called Alaskaland) to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Alaska being a part of the United States. The opening was in 1967.

    The Nenana was moved into the park from the Chena River through a temporary ditch that was dug between the river and the park. The ditch was then filled with dirt when the Nenana was moved. The Nenana was then in a small pond of water in the park.

    Changes to the Nenana began to happen. Inside walls were removed on the Texas and saloon decks. The walls were covered with paneling to make it look modern. Electricity, fire sprinklers, steam heat and bathrooms were also added to the Nenana. The restaurant and bar ruined a lot of the Nenana's interior. The Nenana had not been built for winter use. Heating the boat in the winter caused vapors which then rotted the wood.

    During the Fairbanks flood in1967, the Chena River rose and flooded the park. People didn't want the Nenana to start floating around the park to cause damage, so holes were drilled in her hull. Drilling holes in the hull caused the Nenana to sink into the pond. The hull became water damaged.

    In 1978, grant money was secured to help restore the boat. A roof was built over the boat to help stop future damage. The boat was rotting, sagging, full of holes and in need of a lot of repairs.

    In 1987, bow reconstruction was started. Shelf members and deck beams needed repair. The decks had so much wood rot that, in places, you could put your finger through the cracks! Much of the finished mill work was specially cut locally in Ester, AK. The vertical grain had to be historically accurate. A rubber membrane was put on top of the sub deck.

    A temporary roof had been put on many years earlier to protect the boat from getting rained and snowed on . But it was really hurting the boat because it put too much weight on it. Work crews took the roof down during the spring of 1988, piece by piece.

    During the winter of 1990, work was done to restore the interior of the boat. They worked on the observation room (on the saloon deck), replaced the ceiling and put in the staterooms. All the walls had been taken out when they changed the boat into a restaurant and lounge. Now the staterooms had to be put back in!

    In the summer of 1991, workers did a fantastic job of bringing the mahogany walls of the dining room and observation room to a mirror-like finish. It took 11 coats of varnish! Other workers leveled the paddle wheel. It wasn't easy, as the support structure was rotted in places. Milling of the wood was done by hand on site.

    On July 12,1992 there was a dedication ceremony for the S.S Nenana at Alaskaland. It was a big party honoring the Nenana.

Construction and Launching of the Nenana

S.S. Nenana Showcases History of Fairbanks

Nenana - NPS report.

Roster of Yukon / Alaska Sternwheelers & other Riverboats