Taku Chief a relic of Interior Alaska’s steamboat days

FAIRBANKS - When the tug boat Taku Chief began its career in Southeast Alaska in 1938, the age of steamboating on Interior Alaska rivers was dying. Gold mining, which had spurred a few decades of frenetic activity along the Yukon River and its tributaries, was waning. Airplanes were taking over much of the freight and passenger service, and diesel and gasoline engines were beginning to replace steam as boat propulsion systems.

By the 1920s only two large river navigation operations remained: the Alaska Railroad (based out of Nenana), which operated steamboats from Fairbanks on the Chena River down to Marshall on the Yukon River; and the American-Yukon Navigation Co. (AYNC, a subsidiary of the White Pass and Yukon Railway), which controlled river navigation from Tanana upriver to Canada. Several smaller navigation companies survived by serving small communities beneath the notice of the two giants, and by plying the smaller tributaries of the Yukon River.

Interestingly, the rise of air travel also brought about the entry of another river navigation operation in Interior Alaska. The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA, a precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration) was tasked with helping to build and maintain the infrastructure required by Alaska’s fledgling aviation industry. Beginning in 1939 the CAA began constructing and improving air fields and installing and operating radio communications facilities throughout Alaska. In order to ferry workers and supplies around Interior Alaska the CAA was pressed into the river navigation business, requisitioning several boats to serve its needs.

The CAA acquired the Taku Chief in 1945 and moved it to Interior Alaska. The boat has two diesel engines, is 59 feet long and has a beam of 18 feet. It only draws 30 inches of water, so it was ideal for navigating Interior rivers. In a biography of Edgar Nollner Sr., who was a river pilot for the CAA, Nollner says the Taku Chief worked on the Tanana, Yukon and Koyukuk rivers while he was with the CAA. It probably operated on other Interior rivers as well. He also states that it ran with a five-man crew: Captain, pilot, two engineers and a cook.

In 1956 the Taku Chief was acquired by Yutana Barge Lines, which had not even existed a few years previously. The Alaska Railroad’s riverboat commerce had steadily declined for years due to inroads by air service and smaller, more efficient boats. The AYNC had already thrown in the towel, selling all its Alaska operations to the Alaska Railroad in 1943. In 1950 the Alaska Railroad stopped all passenger boat service and in 1955 it ceased riverboat operations entirely.

Several of the smaller river navigation businesses saw an opportunity and formed a partnership to bid on the railroad’s riverboat operations. At first called B&R Tug and Barge, the winning bidders soon became known as Yutana Barge Lines. Yutana, which is based in Nenana, has carved out a successful niche for itself. Most freight and passengers still travel to villages along Interior rivers by plane, but large freight and bulk fuel deliveries still have to be delivered via boat and barge. Yutana has become virtually the only freight carrier on the Yukon River and its tributaries.

After 40 years of service, the Taku Chief was retired in 1978. It now rests in Nenana, on land between the Parks Highway and A Street, greeting people as they enter town.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at http://sketchesofalaska.blogspot.com.