The paddlewheel of the Empress of the North spins close to a window from a lounge onboard the vessel, which made its inaugural call in Skagway on Aug. 19. DL

New boat harks back to another time

Empress of the North to berth here 14 times in 2004

“It looks like a toy boat!” a Skaguay Alaskan visitor guide newsie exclaimed as she headed down the dock to hand out papers last Friday.
Sure enough, riding low in the water on a low tide morning, the brightly-colored boat was dwarfed by the larger cruise ships and, and in fact, looking down Broadway from Seventh Avenue, Seattle’s American West’s new steamboat Empress of the North looked as if the carnival was in town with a big top tent because of the fluted steam pipes.
Local historian Carl Mulvihill said it’s the first sternwheeler to land here since the City of Seattle in 1898.
And therein lies the difference.
The Empress has a decidedly Mississippi River steamboat decor where the Pacific Northwest and Yukon steamboats were much more austere inside as well as outside.
Mulvihill said the Seattle had side paddlewheels, the Empress sports a rear wheel, much like the steamboat Schwatka, which is on display in Dawson City.
But, in defense, the steamboats plying the Inside Passage and the Yukon, could probably be compared to the nags run over the Chilkoot – they were the dregs off Northwest’s harbors.

Michael Brandt, White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Planning, laughs as Skagway Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue presents Empress of the North’s Capt. Bob Wengel with the gift of an inscribed goldpan on the boat’s first week here. Behind the pair is a real time videocam of Skagway’s Broadway Dock. DL

About 30 locals trooped through the ship on a tour of the main decks and art-filled hallways. Large blow-ups of historical photographs of steamboats lined one wall, but if there wasn’t a notation on the picture itself, there wasn’t any indication where the picture was taken. Near the stairs there was one from Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River.
The other art and wildlife and scenic photographs also lacked description, and possibly this oversight is due to the rush put on putting the boat in the water directly from the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders boatyard in Freeland, Wash. It was to make its debut in May, but did not embark on an Inside Passage tour until last week.
The American-flagged boat is more than 360 feet long and 58 feet at the beam, weighs seven tons, cruises at 14 nautical miles per hour, carries 235 passengers and 80 crewmembers. It took 20 months to build at a cost of $50 million.
Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue, while presenting the traditional gold pan, said to Capt. Bob Wengel that he was pleased to see a paddlewheeler back in town, and that when National Park Service interpreters talk about the role of steamboats in the Klondike Gold Rush, they only have to point people to the dock to see one.
“It’s contemporary history,” said Donahue. –DL