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Steamboats take to Tacoma waterway

Allan Dunlap of Spokane adds wood Friday to the boiler of his steamboat, the Cheng-Tze, as it glides through the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma. A variety of steam vessels will meet today at the Foss Waterway Seaport for the Northwest Steam Society's annual gathering and races.
Allan Dunlap of Spokane adds wood Friday to the boiler of his steamboat, the Cheng-Tze, as it glides through the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma. A variety of steam vessels will meet today at the Foss Waterway Seaport for the Northwest Steam Society's annual gathering and races. The Olympian

Allan Dunlap enjoys taking people for rides aboard the steamboat he spent more than two decades designing and building.

Nine people had signed the 70-year-old Spokane man’s logbook by early Friday afternoon as the Northwest Steam Society kicked off its 38th annual meet at Foss Waterway Seaport.

“We get to rub elbows with people who are really creative and proud of making something other than money,” said Bruce Jahn, who hauled his new steamboat up from Livermore, Calif.

At least 21 steamboats are expected to participate in the weekend event, which drew participants from Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

It features a parade and bang-and-go-back races where the steamboats power out on the water and must hurry back when a shot sounds. The first to return to the dock wins.

It is the first time the meet has been held in Tacoma. Organizer Tom Kane said the museum is an ideal host because it is right on the water and large enough to accommodate the 80 or so guests who will attend the society’s private dinners.

Dunlap, a retired airplane mechanic, started work on his boat in 1978. He modeled the craft – named Cheng-Tze, after his wife – after what he envisioned a yacht would look like in the 1880s. Made with Honduras Mahogany wood, it is 27 feet long, has a red paddlewheel in the back and includes a kitchen sink and cassette player.

On Friday, he pulled the whistle and blew white steam into the air as he pulled away from the dock with four strangers. Dunlap’s gloved hands would stoke the fire and steer as he answered questions about his boat.

Onboard was Tana Hasart of Puyallup, who came with her husband, Rex, to marvel at the steamboats.

She sat contentedly during the half-hour ride, reveling in the experience with such a historical mode of transportation.

“It’s a wonderful way to preserve history and to teach people about former uses of power,” she said.

Each steamboat is unique. Some barely stretch 15 feet and are completely open while others have covered tops. Most owners stoke their fires with wood, but a few use oil. Several bought and restored boats, but a few inherited them from family.

The common denominator was the owners’ enthusiasm to share stories, help each other tinker with mechanical problems and catch up with old friends.

“This is a big family for me,” said Jenni Kane, who traveled from Seattle with her steamboat, Beaver. “I probably have 10 sets of grandparents in this group. I can’t get away with anything.”

Even those unable to bring their steamboats because of last-minute issues drove up from Oregon, eager to spend time with those who share their passion for steam.

“The docks will be loaded with people who are fascinated by (the boats),” said Dave Bell, who drove from Wheeler, Ore., with his wife. “Everybody wants to know how it runs and hear the whistle blow.”

Although many enthusiasts have dabbled with steamboats for decades, Jahn is a newcomer to the scene. He bought his propeller steamboat last year and named it Reward.

“It’s my wife and I’s reward for 90 years of working,” he said. “But it has really proven my passion. I didn’t know something could be so fun.”

His moment of glory will be today, when he gives the original owner’s widow a ride. Jahn bought the boat from a fellow who let it fall into disrepair, and he has worked hard to restore it.

Jahn can’t wait to see the widow smile when she sees the spiffed-up boat. That’s reward enough.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 stacia.glenn@thenewstribune.com

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