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A new life for an old boat?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Deep into its retirement, the Duwamish quietly bobs up and down on Lake Union, rocking in the small waves that lap against the dock where it is moored.
But beyond that, the former Seattle fireboat no longer moves. Two of its aging motors sputtered and died a few years ago. Rust coats parts of the vessel, and cobwebs are threaded across the bright red manifolds where water used to pour out.
When the motors died, so did the interest of many volunteers who had sought to preserve the legendary fireboat.
But with new leadership, the Puget Sound Fireboat Foundation is hoping to refurbish the Duwamish by the boat's 100th birthday in 2009.
Ultimately, the fireboat could be put back to work, aiding in oceanography or water-quality surveys, or as a lighted, floating fountain, spouting arcs of water 700 feet into the air as it did in its heyday.
Restoring the Duwamish will cost upward of $3 million, said David Morse, who co-founded the foundation and returned to be president about two months ago. The cost will include hull repairs that would give the boat a new, decades-long life, and the manufacture of parts that are no longer made.
After a $7 million restoration effort from 1996 to 2002, the steamship built more than 80 years ago is back in operation. For the past four years, it has hosted weddings and other events and taken passengers on excursions. The boat that once ferried people and freight between Vashon Island, Seattle and Tacoma was also on Lake Washington for Seafair, with a sold-out crowd aboard to watch the Blue Angels. Hull repairs on the vessel continue but should be done within a decade.
Seventy years after this streamlined ferry's maiden voyage, a nonprofit foundation and private companies are hoping to bring the boat back to life. Rodrigues Enterprises and "It's the Water," two privately owned groups, and the Kalakala Alliance Foundation are working on a $6 million restoration they hope to complete by 2010. Ambitious plans include stores and restaurants, along with an amphitheater, to accompany the Kalakala, which would host receptions on its top deck. Project leader Steve Rodrigues hopes the Kalakala will find a home at Seattle's Colman Dock.
Docked at Lake Union, the Wawona's ragged condition provides few hints of the former strength of the boat that hauled lumber on the coast beginning in 1897. Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis sent a letter two months ago to Northwest Seaport, which owns the ship, telling the organization to relocate the boat before Sept. 30 so the city could develop the park around the vessel. Joe Shickich, board president of Northwest Seaport, said he is talking with city officials about the possibility of an on-land display of the Wawona at South Lake Union.
The foundation plans to start fundraising within six months, Morse said.
Puget Sound Fireboat Foundation: www.fireboatduwamish.org or 206-362-2591
Another challenge is maintaining a strong volunteer corps, Morse said. Only a handful of foundation members are active today.
"It's not just parts; it's not just the materials," Morse said. "It's the people — it's been passion-driven."
At 97 years old, the boat's ragged appearance reveals little of the dormant power that for years pumped water faster than any other fireboat in the world. Built in 1909, it battled flames in Seattle until 1984, taking a break during World War II when it operated as a Coast Guard patrol vessel.
The fireboat foundation began in 1989 as the Shipping & Railway Heritage Trust, which planned to create regional attractions, including a refurbished passenger liner and 240 miles of railway in Canada.
But the plans faltered early on. In late 1990, the trust withdrew its bid for the Princess Marguerite, a steamship it would have used to ferry passengers between the U.S. and Canada.
When the trust acquired the 120-foot Duwamish from the city of Seattle for $1 in 1994, members turned their energy to that vessel, later changing the organization's name to the Puget Sound Fireboat Foundation.
The foundation put $50,000 and hundreds of hours into refurbishing the Duwamish. Although members never performed the repairs that would have kept the boat afloat for very long, the vessel was able to tour and put on water shows for a few years.
Loren Herrigstad, a co-creator of the foundation, remembers the first day they brought the Duwamish online, the engines running, electricity lighting the boat and the ship pumping water.
"We'd seen pictures of the engine room with all the lights on. ... But to actually be on board and feel the rumble of the deck, and everything working, and poking my head in the engine room — it was absolutely just incredible," Herrigstad said. "It was like history's come to life."
Herrigstad also recalls one of the last trips the Duwamish took, to put on water displays in Bremerton for the 100th anniversary of the fire department there. The crew brought the ship back to Seattle via Agate Pass. Herrigstad had the wheelhouse to himself. There, he was surrounded by history.
In the pilot's cabin there is a kerosene lamp that would have lit the ship's compass on night missions of decades past. On the back wall is a large, circular instrument with a lever the captain would have pulled to ring a bell and tell the engineer below deck how many pounds per square inch of pressure to apply to water in the pumping system.
But the ship's new life was brief, and around two years ago, the foundation no longer could afford to insure the Duwamish, said Horton Smith, president at the time. The ship fell into disrepair soon after.
Morse said he is working to reinsure the vessel, and to create a restoration plan to present to volunteers and sponsors. He and colleagues are planning a retirement for the Duwamish that will respect its lifelong status as a workboat.
Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said he has talked to Morse about the possibility of calling on the Duwamish — if it is restored — to pump water if an earthquake or other emergency knocked out city mains. The foundation may also acquire the 80-year-old Alki fireboat, which Seattle plans to retire by 2008, Dean and Morse said.
For Morse and other volunteers, restoring the Duwamish means bringing a gem of years past into the present.
Today, the Duwamish engine room still smells of fuel. But the scent left behind by decades of firefighting has become stale, hinting at tons of machinery lying idle, unused.
Outside, from the dock, passers-by take snapshots of the fireboat on a recent afternoon. They watch as the ship bounces quietly on the waves, cracked and rusted, with nowhere to go for now.
Charlotte Hsu: 206-464-8349 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company