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Fairbanks needs new effort to save Riverboat Nenana for future

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Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2012 11:54 pm | Updated: 10:36 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — In the 1950s the Sternwheeler Nenana was saved by a small group of community leaders active within the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. 

While their original plan to turn the wooden boat into a museum and tourist attraction was far from an overnight success, a decade after they acquired the riverboat, it became a fixture at A-67, now Pioneer Park.

On Friday afternoon, a series of plaques was placed on the riverboat to commemorate the effort that brought the Nenana to Fairbanks in 1957. The riverboat was berthed in the Chena River downstream from the power plant that summer.

Nearly a decade later, a channel was cut from the river to the center of what is now Pioneer Park and the riverboat was pulled into place by Mitchell Truck & Tractor.

The board of directors of Greater Fairbanks Opportunities Inc. included Chuck Taylor of Reed Martin Contractors; Lee Linck of Alaska Architectural and Engineering; attorney Bill Boggess; Don Pearson of the Cripple Creek Resort; tourism promoters Dick and Millie Webb; and Jerry Nerland of Nerland’s Inc. Dutch Derr, the manager of Chamber of Commerce, was the visionary behind the plan. He was later the head of the Alaska Visitors Association.

They bought the riverboat for $40,000 from the federal government, personally guaranteeing the bank note. A plan to sell stock to cover the debt came up short, however, and the directors ended up paying off the note personally when called by the Alaska National Bank.

The idea had been to create a 200-seat theater on the boat, along with  a restaurant, dance floor, gift shop, artists’ shops and museum.

The important thing to stress today is that it was only because of their efforts that the riverboat was preserved.

For that, the plaques installed on the boat are a some measure of recognition that is long overdue. They saved the Nenana at considerable cost to themselves.

Jerry Nerland was here for the event, along with his son, Rick Nerland, the veteran Anchorage advertising executive.

Jerry, the president of Fairbanks Opportunities Inc. said he and others had to pay about $7,000 each when the note came due.

“The only gratification at that point was that we had saved the boat,” he said. “We all realized that at some point it would be a good tourist attraction.”

In the 1980s, the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation picked up the restoration effort and accomplished  a great deal through volunteer efforts, revenue from pull tabs, state grants and community support.

In reflecting on the actions of that pioneering group in the 1950s, it occurs to me that a renewed focus is needed today if the riverboat is to be saved for the future. It requires a great deal more maintenance than it has been receiving and we need a preservation plan for this important piece of Alaska history.

Otherwise it will be lost.

Perhaps the place to start is with the borough Parks and Recreation Commission, which could inform the community about the condition of the vessel and its potential. There has been a mixed record over the years, but it’s time to try again.

In the 1950s, there were many people in Fairbanks who said it was going to be impossible to get the giant sternwheeler upstream from Nenana to the center of town, its first and only trip to Fairbanks.

While the smokestack had to be cut in two and the boat cleared the bottom of the railroad bridge at Nenana by six inches, the crew accomplished the impossible.

The volunteers who got it upstream included Don Pearson, Bill Bacon, Al McCune, Wayne Pelton, Fritz Noble, Dutch Derr, Mo Joseph, Al Larsen (chief engineer) and Captain Howard Adams.

Those who think that another preservation project is worthwhile might find a valuable lesson in their experience.

•••

GARDENING SEASON: The growing season may be drawing to a close, but if you need some early inspiration for next year, Terry Reichardt may provide some help.

For the past four decades Reichardt has been learning about gardening in Fairbanks by growing and preserving vegetables for her family.

She has offered classes in recent years to share tips on selecting the right varieties, preservation techniques and other facts.

“I usually teach it in the spring, but people are saying that they are so busy in the spring, they’d prefer to take a gardening class in the fall,” she said.

So Reichardt plans to dig into gardening instruction on Monday evenings at First Presbyterian Church downtown this fall. The class is to be from 6-8 p.m. from Oct. 1 through Nov. 19.

To enroll, call the church at 452-2406 and make a $10 deposit.

Reichardt, who has about 2,000 square feet in her home garden, grows and preserves all the vegetables her family needs for a year. The Reichardts have a root cellar for some crops, while others are frozen or canned.

She said the class is aimed at those who have not grown a garden before or for those who have lots of experience and want to try something new.

“Everybody can raise a lot of their own food,” Reichardt said. “The more you do, the more you find corners you can cut.”

She said that one advantage of preparing for 2013 this early is that you give yourself plenty of time to make seed orders for next spring.

Dermot Cole is on vacation until next week. Look for his next column Sept. 6.

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