News-Miner opinion: Pioneer Park is one of the Fairbanks area’s top attractions, not only for thousands of our annual visitors but also for thousands of our residents.
Summer days are filled with children having fun in the park’s playgrounds while watchful parents sit on nearby benches. The locomotive on the park’s railroad gives the occasional whistle as it rounds its circular course. People wander around, visiting shops and eating ice cream, a gyro or some other delight.
It’s a joyous scene.
Joyous, that is, except when it comes to the riverboat S.S. Nenana.
Long ago, back on May 15, 1933, excitement about the impending maiden voyage of the Nenana was noted in a sizeable advertisement in the Daily News-Miner:
“People of Fairbanks will be afforded an opportunity to enjoy a delightful four-hour excursion on the Steamer Nenana, 210 ft. in length, when she makes her trial trip on the Tanana River tomorrow.
“For the accommodation of Fairbanks residents desiring to make the trip, a special railway gasoline car — and if there are more than 50 persons a special train — will be operated between Fairbanks and Nenana. The steamer will be boarded in Nenana.”
The cost, the advertisement noted in large type, was “Something For Nothing” — $6 for the whole trip, including lunch aboard the steamer.
That excitement is long gone.
The old lady of Interior rivers has been allowed to become a dangerous eyesore. Access to the inside, which holds a fabulous and extensive diorama of the early Fairbanks region, has been closed since last year due to safety concerns. The entire vessel is now cordoned off, with a sign warning people to stay behind the fence for their safety.
The Nenana is rotting. Its rudders are close to falling off. Its paint is madly flaking. Water doesn’t drain away.
And yet there it sits, right at the entry to the park, a blemish on an otherwise pleasant canvas.
That’s a shame for a National Historic Landmark, a designation given to the riverboat on May 5, 1989. The Nenana is one of just three intact passenger sternwheelers remaining in the nation, according to the National Park Service.
But just how much longer will it remain intact?
The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation in 2018 put the Nenana on the group’s list of the 10 most-endangered historic properties.
What is to be done?
Some concerned residents last year started an effort to raise public alarm about the condition of the old sternwheeler, which has been referred to as the Queen of the Yukon for her time traveling Interior waterways in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. She was retired in 1955.
That group, known as Friends of S.S. Nenana Inc., is trying to negotiate with Fairbanks North Star Borough officials to take over the riverboat so it can deal with the immediate problems and then work long term to restore it.
The group deserves community support. It also deserves encouragement from borough officials, who should do what they can to ensure the S.S. Nenana can again become something to look upon favorably. To let the ol’ steamer fall into further decay doesn’t enhance the image of Fairbanks to our visitors.