ALASKAN RIVERBOATS


Though not as glorious and ornate as some Mississippi riverboats, steamers in far away places served a purpose, usually as hard working boats for railways, fur traders or mining. Many times their tales were more interesting than ther graceful sister's.

On this page I will list various Alaskan boats and their stories.

BOATS of the COPPER RIVER
BOATS of the YUKON RIVER

Alaska Magazine


BOATS of the COPPER RIVER

In 1907 the Copper River and Northwest Railroad Co. needed a boat to help complete its tracks. Below is the tale of the CHITINA and how she came to cruise the Copper and Chitni Rivers of Alaska.

 

These are excerpts from the book The Copper Spike, by Lone E. Jackson,
which were submitted to me by site visitor Dixie Lambert.

. . . in 1907 when extraordinary feats were becoming the norm, the 70 ton river steamer Chittyna (Renamed CHITINA) was moved from Valdez over the Marshall Pass and down the Tasnuma River to the Copper River. The Chittyna was hauled overland in bundles on hugh freight sleds. The largest single piece was a 5,700-pound boiler.

There was no road to follow. No highway or broken trail--only frozen rivers and the mountains. At the confluence of the Tasnuma and the Copper, the steamer was assembled and put into service on the Copper River. George Hazelet was in charge of getting the steamship in and hired Andrew J. Meals and his son George to haul the heavy parts over the Tasnuma Pass to the mouth of the river for assembly.

George Meals took the boiler in. He recalled that, "I worked freighting and packing from 1906 to 1910, mostly in Copper River and Slate Creek, so handling heavy stuff was in our line. "I started hauling for the Copper River & Northwestern Railway in the fall of 1905 and winter of 1906 to Keystone Canyon. . . . I got paid by the pound and some by the day or trip. "Well, in February 1907 the riverboat Chittyna arrived in bundles, also some 20 or more horses (arrived). They started moving in and breaking trail."

Breaking trail over ice and snow required patience, imagination and strong horses. A man on snowshoes would lead a soft-shod horse over the light snow to pack it down. The main body of horses followed the lead horse to further pack the trail. The sleds came last. The lead horse was used only for short distance and then returned to the string because breaking trail was grueling work. ("Sharp-shod" horses wore shoes with protruding sharp nails for traction. "Soft-shod" horses had neither sharp shoes nor snowshoes. Snowshoes had been used effectively by Jack Dalton and by Abercrombie. Abercrombie noted that the horses appreciated the snowshoes, because without them they fell through and wretched themselves badly.) The first sleds, loaded with the bundles of parts for the steamship, broke the trail for the largest sled-load of all, the boiler.

"I left March 12th with the boiler," Meals said. "It weighed 5,700 pounds. Had a heavy sled made for it. I didn't like the hitch but the boss thought it was okay. In making turns the horses would be pulling on only one tug and throw the sled off the trail, which it did before we got off the streets, and upset. I told the boss it was the hitch but he said it was the drivers. Took some time and work to get back on the trail, so I asked him to go aways with me.

"Didn't get very far till we were upset again. He told me I was right and to put on a hitch that would work. I put an evener and each horse on a ring-tree so the pull came on both tugs. No more trouble till we reached Tasnuna.

" No more trouble till Tasnuna! That was a 79 mile journey over trackless wilderness with a huge sled carrying a nearly three ton boiler, through Keystone Canyon on the frozen river and up to the summit of Marshal Pass, 1,7oo feet high, in the dead of winter! Here the climb to the summit was a series of sharp turns or "switchbacks" because of the steep grade involved. There was no road other than the trail established by the freighters themselves in hauling freight to the gold "diggings" in the Interior.

"Going up the switch(back) I used a block and tackle in order for the horses to stay on the trail, chain to a tree and as they made a turn, throw the cable off the block. That would give them a straight pull. Used six horses on the cable and one in the staves. Took three or four days to reach the summit. Going down the river in places had to rough-lock (hitch ropes to the trees, hauling back on the sled) to keep it from breaking loose and running over the horses pulling it. "Once on the ice we made good time and overtook the rest of the outfit.

"Most of the parts were now at the Tasnuna ready for assembly. The steamship was double-decked, 110 feet long, 23 feet wide, with a draft of only 22 inches of water fully loaded. It was built by Joe Supple of Portland, and assembled under the direction of Captain George Hill. In May some missing parts came in, and Meals was asked to take them in. But he waited for June and breakup's end. "Some of it was too heavy to pack, so dry sledded it to the river and got some Siwash to boat it the rest of the way. . . .

" The missing Part was a steam winch weighing 3,900 pounds. It had to be taken on sleds drawn by ten horses, because it was too heavy for wagons. You can bet the "Siwassh boat" was no Indian canoe; more likely a stout raft. Although it was believed the steamer would easily run in 30 inches of water, she had equipment for getting over sandbars. The Railway and Marine News in describing the steamer's ingenious equipment claimed that, "In order to get over the worst places a capstan, operated by steam power, will be placed on the forward end of the cabin. This derrick is intended simply to handle the spars, putting them in place for operation. Should the boat get stuck on a bar, these spars are used to help the boat over in exactly the same manner as a person lying on the floor might hitch himself along with his elbows. This, together with the action of the wheel, forming a heavy suction to draw the sand from under the hull, enables these boats to actually pass over bars which have several inches less water than the boat draws. Then, too, all the main timbers, together with the planking, are made in one continuous piece by attaching the butts together by straps so that the hull can actually conform itself, to a certain extent, to the contour of the bar.

" The ship's reassembly was completed in July. On July 17, 1907, after a successful trip from the mouth of the Tasnuna her arrival in the Copper Center was reported. Here she took on a load of wood and started back down the river. By August she had felt out the river bottom and was navagating the Copper and Chitina rivers above Abercrombie Rapids for a distance of 170 miles.

Later in the book we find . . .
On July 2, 1909, The steamship TONSINA joined her sister steamer CHITINA. (The newer spelling of Chittyna, which had been adopted for the river and the town, was now taken for the steamship.) The TONSINA was assembled and launched at Rapids Landing, the steamship slip at the upper end of Abercrombie Rapids. The TONSINA was a bit larger, measuring 120 feet. The new vessel was built by G. H. Hill. She had two 300-horsepower engines with oil-fired boilers to turn a 16 1/2-foot paddlewheel on the stern.

Her skippers were Captain Pinkerton and Captain Bailey. She was built to carry passengers that the Copper River & Northwestern was to bring that summer. The 14 staterooms each featured two berths. the steamship was equiped with the most modern systems available. Electric lights and steam heat were found throughout.

Another smaller sternwheeler, the GULKANA,was placed in service for the missing bridge link that summer of 1909. On July 29, it was announced that the Copper River & Northwestern was a common carrier for freight and passengers with service from Cordova to Rapids Landing, where connections could be made with the steamships now plying the upper river. Passenger fare was $8, or $11 round trip.

The keel and framework for another river steamship had already been put down by builder Thayer. It was to be named NIZINA and was in service that same summer. The total cost of building these three steamships was $215,000. These steamboats kept busy the following summer, too.

One of the workers in an advance camp recalled that, "The three sternwheelers, the steamboats, plied the river very buisily all summer of 1910 from Tiekel to Chitina, a distance of 30 miles. They hauled up great quantities of supplies and equipment, particularly bridge material for the Kuskulana Bridge at Mile 146. But not only for that one. There is as total of over eight miles of bridges on the Copper River & Northwestern route. The crossing at Chitina originally called for a steel bridge, too, but the company decided on a wooden trestle, letting it go out with the ice each spring and redriving it.

It was originally thought that there wasn't enough copper to justify the expense, but more copper turned up than expected, and the steel bridge would have been the cheaper structure in the long run.

"The steamboats also brought up lumber and hardware to build the town of Chitina, and another town sprang up overnight.

"The men who operated the steamboats the three seasons on the Copper River were almighty good steamboat men from the Mississippi. They knew steamboats and the Mississippi River all right, but they had to learn about the Copper. This river flows so fast that it moves tremendous lots of sand and small bolders down toward the ocean in high water. For this reason it is continually changing channels, which chase back and forth from one side to the other. Where there is a deep channel one day there could be impossibly shallow water the next. The steamboat men found that due to long and toilsone experience on the river, some of the Indians had acquired an uncanny sense of the channels. They seemed to feel which channels would keep on deep, and which would fade into shallow water where the steamboat would ride onto a sandbar and get stuck so high and tight it might take hours or even days to get her off. "For this reason they hired some of the husky, intelligent Indians to sit in the pilot house and make the best guesses they could. It appeared that theirguesses averaged somewhat better than the white man's. This Indian 'piolets' were treated with great consideration and respect, and Tony Pete and Sport MacAllister were wonderous proud as they sat in the 'piolet house' and told the white captains where to go."

 

Great American Products


BOATS of the YUKON RIVER

Excerpt from The ORIGINAL Lost Whole Moose Catalog, now defunct.

Sternwheelers, Steamboats, Paddlewheelers
by Rob McCandless


Yukon history was written by its steamboats. The Yukon River once had the largest fleet of riverboats north of the Mississippi River. In fact, river navigation as a science reached its flowering right here, long after Mississippi traffic had declined to a pale memory.

Steam power is the original "alternate technology." How else can one describe power that moved thousands of tons of ship, barges and freight on fast dangerous rivers powered by cordwood, with slow-moving engines that never wore out? There were steamboats on the Yukon River every summer from 1869 to 1955--nearly 100 years, yet the basic ship did not change in its design or operation. In fact, the design of a stern-wheeled riverboat goes back to about 1830, on the Ohio River.

The river steamboat has to move cargoes "uphill" in fast, shallow rivers at an economical speed. It has to be cheap to build and operate, and it has to be safe. A flat hull solves the first problem and powerful engines allow it to move upstream, against the current; however, the problems are only starting. The hull has to be able to bend in the middle without breaking in half. This problem is solved by adding "hog poles" towering above the upper decks like the girders of a bridge; they keep the hull from working or twisting out of shape.

The boats have to be cheap to build because they were frequently lost through running into boulders or snags or other mishaps, and their replacement costs had to be low. Yukon boats were built from West Coast fir. Three of them -- the WHITEHORSE, the DAWSON and the SELKIRK -- were built in 1901 in Whitehorse in merely 43 days by a work force, imported from Seattle, of about 250 men. The total cost of the three boats was only $30,000. The boats were cheap to operate. For decades the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN) used to buy cordwood along the river at five to seven dollars per cord.

Going downstream, a boat might use as little as a cord an hour; upstream, though, it might use ten. The operating cost for most boats averaging both upstream and downstream was about $1.50 a mile: not bad when you figure it moved sometimes three hundred tons of freight and up to 100 passengers. The big problem was safety for the ship and its passengers.

Everything depended on the crews. The pilot had to know the river; every bend, bar and rock, day or night, at every stage of the river. In the beginning the boats used to carry massive spars, slung with block and tackle. If the boat ran aground, the crews would sling these spars down over the bows and use them to lever the ship back into deeper water. After twenty years of learning the river, the pilots got to be so good that they took the spars off the boats: they didn't need them any more.

In the old days, steamship boilers blew up with terrifying regularity. In the 1850s the U.S. government passed a steamship safety law which required boilers to have gauges and safety valves, and to be tested annually. They saw that boat operators would invariably compromise safety for speed and power and therefore, profits. Naturally enough, the law was denounced as an infringement on free enterprise. Canada has always had tough safety laws and Yukon boats have a near-perfect record.

Before the gold rush, the Americans dominated Yukon River traffic with boats operating out of St. Michael on the Bering Sea. Immediately after the Klondike discovery every shipyard along the coast started turning out riverboats. Most were towed thousands of miles north to the Yukon's mouth, loaded with cargoes for Dawson City. The White Pass and Yukon group of companies cracked this monopoly by building a railway to Whitehorse and a shipyard for its own boats. Soon it established its own monopoly on the river and made it cheaper to get freight 460 miles downriver to Dawson, instead of hauling it 1,600 miles upstream from the sea. After the gold rush tapered off, the boats continued to carry heavy mining equipment and pipe to Dawson along with that community's dwindling need for supplies.

Throughout the twenties and thirties BYN operated anywhere from six to ten ships in a busy, 16-week season. While the company's first boats were patterned on the proven designs of the Columbia and Missouri riverboats, it soon evolved its own designs which were vast improvements on the early boats. The Klondike in Whitehorse is the best example of the work of the BYN engineers.

There is no other boat like it in the world. Even the big tugs presently working the Mackenzie River using 1,600 horsepower and four propellers would be hard-pressed to equal the Klondike's performance as a work boat. After a brief flurry of activity helping to build the Alaska Highway, Yukon riverboats went into a slow decline. The last boat was hauled out in 1955, except for the Keno's poignant last voyage in 1960.

The end of river traffic meant the end of a way of life for hundreds of people. The following table gives times taken by steamers without barges to make the run to Dawson during good stage of water in Yukon River. From: Whitehorse. . .36 to 40 hours Lower Laberge. . .33 hours Hootalinqua. . .30 hours Big Salmon. . .27 hours Carmacks. . .20 hours Yukon Crossing. . .17 hours Selkirk. . .12 hours Coffee Creek. . .9 hours Stewart. . .5 hours Ogilvie. . .3 hours -- (from Dawson Daily News, June 18, 1931)

See The Tribune Telegraph, Pomeroy, Meigs County, Ohio for some more of the story.

A Partial List to be expanded
DAWSON NENANA SELKIRK WHITEHORSE

Back to Top of Page
Open The Alphabetical Index For Boats, Captains & Owners