Thursday, May 31, 2012

Charles Adams and the S.S. Lavelle Young were icons of Alaska steamboating

The S.S. Lavelle Young at Fairbanks in 1904
Two riverboats are represented at Pioneer Park: the S.S. Lavelle Young (first commercial steamboat to navigate the Chena River in 1901), and the S.S. Nenana (last steamer to Fairbanks in 1957). In between many steamboats and steamboaters came and went, but one of the constants was Charles Adams. He was the majority owner of the Lavelle Young and was on board when E.T. Barnette chartered the boat in 1901. Later, Adams was appointed captain of the Nenana when it was launched in 1933.

According to Adams autobiography, "A Cheechako Goes to the Klondike,"  before he became a steamboater he was a successful Klondike miner, and also participated in the Nome stampede. Returning from Nome, he and his partners (Tom Bruce and George Crummy) bought the Lavelle Young at St. Michael in 1900. None of the partners had steamboating experience, so they hired a captain and crew, with Bruce serving as steward and Adams as purser.

The next summer, Barnette was eager to reach Tanana Crossing (present-day Tanacross) and establish a trading post. Unfortunately, his boat wrecked before clearing St. Michael harbor, so he chartered the Lavelle Young to run his supplies up the Tanana River.

Adams checked with more experienced river men who felt it unlikely the Lavelle Young could get beyond Chena Slough. After negotiating with Barnette, Adams wisely inserted a provision in their contract stating that if the boat got beyond the mouth of the Chena but couldn’t go further, Barnette and party would get off wherever that spot was.

Sure enough, the Lavelle Young didn’t get past Bates Rapids on the Tanana River (just above the Chena). Barnette convinced Adams to try and bypass the rapids via Chena Slough but sandbars prevented them from getting very far. The boat lacked a capstan winch and Adams was hesitant to go back down the Chena with a fully loaded boat and risk getting hard stuck. So, an unhappy Barnette, his crying wife, business associates, and all their trade goods were unloaded on a bank of the Chena. Thus was Fairbanks born. The drawing shows the Lavelle Young in front of Barnette’s Cache in 1904.

Adams eventually earned his captain’s papers and enjoyed a long career before retiring in 1942, but the Lavelle Young had a relatively short steamboat life. Built in 1898, she was 140-feet long and could carry about 500 tons, and was actually designed for clearing snags on the Columbia River. (She was named for the granddaughter of a prominent Oregon businessman.)

Northern Navigation Co. bought her from Adams and partners in 1903 and moved the boat to the Kuskokwim River in 1910. She operated there a couple of years, but was considered too large and expensive to operate and was mothballed. The White Pass acquired all of Northern Navigation’s fleet in 1914 and sold the Lavelle Young in 1920 to Alaska Rivers Navigation Co. which converted her into a cold-storage barge.

She was later abandoned and sank around 1930. The Alaska Heritage Records Survey indicates the remains of her wheelhouse were found near McGrath in the 1970s. What was left of the wheelhouse was returned to Fairbanks and reconstructed by the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation. It is now on display at Pioneer Park.

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