I grew up listening to stories about riverboats on the Yukon river. My father and mother met working on those riverboats. Many of their friends they met while working on the riverboats. We had riverboat pictures all over the house and my father even has a tie with a picture of one of the Alaska Railroad riverboats painted on it. Some of my earliest memories is playing on riverboats, pulled out of the water onto timbers on the Nenana, Alaska waterfront.
The stories I listened to were happy or funny or reminiscing about the “good old days”. Which isn’t surprising since this was the early part of my folk’s careers. They were young, had a war (World War II) to win and they had the world by the tail. People were always dropping by to share stories at our home in Anchorage on their way to and from the riverboat port in Nenana. The stories were so enchanting, at the first opportunity I worked two seasons on one of the riverboats following in their footsteps. I worked with several of our family friends and heard their stories.
Somehow the old stories I heard in my childhood and youth were not quite what I experienced during my two seasons on the rivers. The stories I heard from the old timers were not quite the same either.
Years later, when asked through the laughter and reminiscing whether we were having much fun at the time, my father put everything in a nutshell. “We were always cold, wet, overworked and tired, no, we were not having much fun”. But even now, when I see of picture of one of the old boats or even the river tug I worked on, I remember waving to my work friends on a passing boat, sharing a joke or listening to old stories. Stories I am passing on to my children and grandchildren. My experiences were like being in the Army; I would not have traded the experience for a million bucks. I would not do it again for a million bucks either.
Back during those days, and even today, many of us still think of the Yukon River as a giant, international superhighway through the interior of Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. The land access the river provides is more than 25% larger than Texas or Alberta along its 1980-mile length. I remember scores of villages, seasonal camps and mining operations that still only have air and/or river access for their supplies. Often at the river landing, the whole community turned out to greet us; as if we were the only show in town. We were always greeted with the news, who had done what since we were last there, who had left, who was new to the village and who was mad at who.
The story of the riverboats along the Yukon river is actually quite short. The heyday of the original sternwheelers was only about 13 years, from about 1897 to about 1910. These riverboats, owned by the Alaska Railroad, were used to distribute supplies out of the railhead in Nenana to places along the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Outside of the “rush” job to build Army airfields during World War II, it was largely a losing operation that lasted only about 30 years.
These images, other than the picture of the MV Tanana, were taken by my father during the 11 years he worked on the Alaska Railroad riverboats. After half a century of neglect and mishandling they have been “restored” in a way I think he would have liked.