Community Perspective

Sternwheeler Nenana is worth saving

The sternwheeler Nenana in Pioneer Park needs repair. There’s no wooden boat that doesn’t, especially after years of neglect. But, despite what you may have heard, there’s no reason the cargo deck of our National Historic Landmark can’t be reopened next summer for the enjoyment of borough citizens, the education of our youth, and the support of the tourist industry.

In March 2018, the Fairbanks North Star Borough announced the boat’s closure, saying that a report by PDC Engineers found structural problems that made it unsafe. Investigations have shown this claim is baseless. That’s something the Borough Assembly might want to consider as it puts together the list of potential projects for the Capital Improvement Program, a list assembly members will vote on at their Jan. 16 meeting. The draft list includes a proposal to salvage pieces of the Nenana — implying destruction of the rest — but none to repair it.

Pressed for details, the only public safety issue borough officials cited is the report’s claim that it is “unlikely” the boat’s floor joists “will meet current snow or assembly occupancy live loads.” The cargo deck’s design, the report says, is only safe for a live load of about 35 pounds per square foot – less than what code requires for your living room.

Common sense contradicts that. So does a 2009 report to the borough by USKH Architects and Engineers, which says the cargo deck is safe for 100 pounds per square foot live load. My own inspections and calculations confirm a 100-plus per square foot capacity. Paul Zankich, P.E., Principal Naval Architect with Columbia-Sentinel Engineers of Seattle, made his own calculations based on his inspection of the vessel last summer and reached the same conclusion.

How did PDC come up with its conclusion? I couldn’t check their calculations. They’re not in the report. The borough says they don’t have them. And PDC didn’t return calls, except to say borough staff told them not to discuss the report with the public. The answer lies partly in assumptions listed in the report: that floor joints are cedar and that “notched connections are half of the main member width.” There are no notched connections in the joists, and they are Douglas fir, a much stronger wood than cedar.

PDC’s report says the Nenana was moved to its present location in 1966 (it was 1983). It says the boat’s foundation is “cribbing” (it is reinforced concrete). The building code it cites applies only to new construction, not historic boats. I could go on.

Did the borough miss all this? I suspect they didn’t care about accuracy, just excuses to close the boat. It’s hard to be sure. The borough says they kept no record of their teleconference with PDC to discuss project objectives, and there’s no written scope of work.

There are signs, however. PDC doesn’t claim expertise with boats, but the Public Works Department asked them to evaluate the Nenana anyway, in a rush, in winter (when it’s hard to distinguish rotten wood from sound wood), and for far too little money (under $6,000) than needed for a thorough study of a 200 foot, four-story vessel. Emails show PDC asked for information about known damage and deterioration issues, and about previous repairs, but the borough didn’t provide them with existing reports.

PDC’s report, in fact, doesn’t recommend closing the sternwheeler Nenana. It recommends “that a specialty consultant versed in repair and restoration of boats be paired with local architects and engineers” for a more thorough study. It seems Public Works didn’t tell them that this had already been done.

USKH’s 2009 report, which cost the borough $76,000, is just such a study. It contains a detailed list of needed repairs and recommended improvements, with cost estimates. It incorporates previous comprehensive condition reports by the naval engineering consultant who worked on the boat for 20 years with local engineers and preservation specialists, including me.

There are legitimate reasons why access to the Nenana’s upper decks has been restricted in recent years. But there was no legitimate safety reason for closing the cargo deck. Nor was there reason to surround the boat with a fence covered with danger signs; they could have just left the boat’s doors locked. I think the fence and signs were put there just to frighten people.

Decisions about the fate of the sternwheeler Nenana, and of Pioneer Park as a whole, need to be made with accurate information and with the informed participation by the public. That’s not what happened when the boat was closed in 2018.

Matthew Reckard has been a licensed engineer for over 30 years and holds a master’s degree in historic preservation. He worked part time on the sternwheeler Nenana’s restoration for over a decade during the 1980s and 90s.


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