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The Snagboat W. T. Preston: A Case Study in the Dry Berth Preservation of Historic Vessels

Scott Stroh, Curator, Anacortes Museum, Anacortes, Washington


Hello. My name is Scott Stroh and I am the Curator at the Anacortes Museum in Anacortes, Washington. I would like to begin by saying what an honor it is for me to have the opportunity to speak to you all today, and also to attend this conference. I would also like to thank the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, and the National Maritime Museum Association, for this special opportunity.

To begin, I arrived in Anacortes in June, 1995, to start my first full-time museum job after receiving a Master's Degree in History and Museum Studies from Middle Tennessee State University. The Anacortes Museum opened to the public in 1970, and exists to promote and inspire an understanding and appreciation of the heritage of Fidalgo and Guemes Islands, two islands that are part of the San Juan chain in northern Puget Sound. The Island's history is characterized by periods of "boom and bust," as the salmon and lumber industries rose and fell. Having grown up both in Philadelphia, and along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, this history, and the Puget Sound itself, intrigued me. But what really attracted me to Fidalgo Island, and to the Anacortes Museum, was the opportunity to work onboard the W. T. Preston a National Historic Landmark snagboat, and the largest artifact in the Museum's collection. It is the W. T. Preston, and specifically its history and its preservation in dry berth, that I would like to talk about today.

Characterized by a large, steam driven sternwheel, the W. T. Preston is an important and distinctive part of Western Washington's continuously evolving cultural landscape. Constructed at Seattle's Lake Union Drydock in 1939 for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the W. T. Preston removed navigational hazards from the rivers and tributaries of Puget Sound. These duties required the W. T. Preston to travel as far north as Blaine, Washington, along the Canadian border, and south to Olympia, Washington. Active in this service until her retirement in 1981, the W. T. Preston was the last working sternwheeler on Puget Sound, and currently remains one of only two extant snagboats in the United States.

The early settlers in Western Washington recognized the need for a snagboat soon after arriving in the territory in the 1850's, and the W. T. Preston was the third such vessel to ply the tributaries of Puget Sound. The development of snagboats paralleled the development of the early communities in Western Washington, communities that were hindered by two primary difficulties; heavy timber and impassable rivers. Thick stands of old growth timber soon fueled a profitable lumber industry, but this only intensified the problem of river navigation because loggers commonly floated timber down rivers to the larger commercial centers along Puget Sound, such as Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma. As early as 1880, several rivers became completely impassable because of log jams. As a result, the citizens of Washington petitioned the United States Congress for funds to construct a snagboat and reopen river traffic, by now the region's primary means of travel and commerce. Congress responded in 1882 by allocating $20,000 for the construction of a self-propelled snagboat. The first such vessel, christened the Skagit, was launched in 1885. The Skagit served until 1914 when she was replaced by the Swinomish, which was followed by the first W. T. Preston in 1929.

Named for William T. Preston, the only civilian to serve as district engineer for Seattle, the first W. T. Prestonhad a wooden hull. She was built primarily with various components taken off the old Swinomish. Engines, equipment, deck houses, and interior furnishings from the Swinomish were simply placed onto a new wooden hull. This adaptive re-use of components was not without precedent, and the Swinomish carried some furniture, a ship's whistle, and a ship's bell from the Skagit. All these artifacts also eventually found a home onboard the W. T. Preston The W.T. Preston's new wooden hull, however, was short-lived. In 1939 the existing superstructure was lifted off the rotten, wooden hull of the first W. T. Preston, and affixed to a new, steel hull.

The resulting vessel retained the name W. T. Preston and was commissioned on January 19, 1940. Following sea trials, and several necessary alterations, the Preston began working. With a typical live-aboard crew of fourteen men, the Preston worked eleven months out of each year removing drift wood, waterlogged pilings and logs, and derelict ships, cars, and airplanes from area waterways. In over forty years of service, only minor modifications were made onboard the snagboat, including the addition of an evaporative toilet system in the 1960's, the installation of two Perkins diesel generators in 1967, and their replacement with two General Motors 'jimmies" in 1970, and perhaps most importantly for the cook, the addition of a KitchenAid dishwasher in the late 1970's. Her working career, excluding a three year period during World War II when she was laid up, continued until 1981 when high costs of operation and Federal budgetary constraints forced her retirement. Although another snagboat currently performs similar duties around Puget Sound, the retirement of the W. T. Preston marked the end of working steamboats on Puget Sound. In recognition of these significant contributions to our collective heritage in the areas of government, maritime history, naval architecture, technology, and transportation, the W. T. Preston earned National Historic Landmark status in 1989.

After her retirement in 1981, the W. T. Preston officially became government "surplus," but both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Government Services Administration (a branch of the Federal Government responsible for property transactions) hoped to see the Preston preserved. Both groups also wanted the vessel to remain in Washington. As a result, in 1982, the Army Corps and the Government Services Administration asked for proposals from interested parties outlining plans for the vessel's future preservation and use. Over thirty municipalities and private organizations submitted proposals. But the City of Anacortes won, and in March, 1983, the Army Corps transferred ownership of the vessel to the City.

One of the distinguishing features of the Anacortes proposal was a commitment to placing the vessel in dry berth, and opening her for tours as part of the Anacortes Museum. The Army Corps and the City strongly believed that a dry berth was the best and most cost effective way to ensure the vessel's longevity. It was this decision, however well intentioned, that is the cause of several contemporary threats to the vessel's structural stability and historic integrity.

The problems with the dry berth began almost as soon as it was decided to employ this method. The area chosen for the W.T. Preston's home was a waterfront lot adjacent to the Burlington Northern Passenger Depot, also on the National Register, and sited two blocks east of Main Street in Anacortes. The Depot was the home of the Anacortes Arts Foundation and it was thought that this area would produce a centralized cultural attraction for the City. But enthusiasm for this particular location masked several legitimate deficiencies in the site. First, this area had originally been a wetland, and although filled-in some time ago, the land was by no means stable. To make matters worse, when the area was filled, it was filled with dredge spoil from the construction of a marina located approximately two hundred yards off the vessel's port bow, and also very unstable.

Secondly, the original plan for the dry berth indicates that the vessel was to be placed upon a graded sand pad, under which log pilings were supposed to be driven to provide additional support. This plan was not entirely realized. When the City acquired the vessel it towed the W. T. Preston to a shipyard in Anacortes. The Preston was to wait patiently at its moorings until the dry berth was properly prepared. Unfortunately, the shipyard received a large contract during this time period, necessitating the removal of the Preston from its facility earlier than anticipated. With no where else to go, the Preston was moved into its present dry berth before preparations were complete, and we are still unsure exactly how much of the original plan was implemented.

These conditions are unfortunate, and understanding this history is important. But, the question remains; what does this mean as we preserve the W. T. Preston today? Furthermore, what can we learn from this experience? Concerning theW. T. Preston's preservation, the first step for the Anacortes Museum was to engage the services of a certified marine surveyor in order to ascertain the condition of the entire vessel, and to compile a prioritized list of preservation concerns. This base line assessment was performed by Captain David Jackson, a local surveyor, and finished in January, 1996. Aware of the problems relating to the vessel's berth, priorities for the survey were determining the extent of deterioration throughout the hull, and if possible to quantify the vessel's position in the berth; that is to see if the she was still in a level position, and if not, the ramifications this had on the condition of the deck houses and rigging.

The survey's findings proved enlightening. Presently the vessel is down in the bow approximately nine inches and four inches to port. This condition impacts the vessel in several ways, all of which threaten the structural stability of the vessel and could potentially shorten her lifespan. First, being bow down, the vessel is unable to shed or drain water as designed resulting in areas of standing water on all decks and in the bilges. This condition produces rot and corrosion at an alarming pace. In fact, when I arrived in Anacortes, my initial inspection of the bilges revealed almost two feet of standing water in the forward sections, and lesser amounts throughout. This water was pumped out, but always returns; albeit in lesser amounts. The standing water on the decks threatens the deck houses, and in particular the bed logs of the superstructure. This problem was combated by extending the existing drainage pipes, with PVC piping, to discharge clear of the decks. But, as with pumping water out of the bilges, this measure is a temporary fix at best.

Secondly, the fact that the vessel is no longer in a level position in her berth is indicative of other problems, particularly the inadequacy of the berth itself. Louis Linden, executive director of the Constellation Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland, writes, "ships are, by definition, enclosed vessels supported by their own buoyancy in a fluid medium, water. The structure's weight is meant to be spread evenly over the surface of the hull."1 A dry berth provides this support in one of two ways; man-made supports at various locations throughout the ship, or by placing the vessel in a berth that conforms to the shape of the hull. When dealing with a flat-bottomed vessel like the W. T. Preston, the second method, placing the vessel in a berth that conforms to the shape of the hull, is seemingly the easiest and most effective method.

The W. T. Preston's dry berth, however, does not provide the vessel with the necessary support because it is not a stable environment. I also do not think, given the inherent instability of sand, that positioning a flat-bottomed craft directly on a sand pad meets all the requirements of conformity or support. As the sand beneath the vessel settles, as it inevitably will over time, the boat no longer receives the uniform support it requires to remain structurally sound. This results in the vessel essentially "sinking" into its dry berth, placing undue stress on the W.T. Preston's decks, rigging, and superstructure.

Resting directly on the sand also poses other problems in preserving the W. T. Preston. Despite myths about something called the "rain shadow," Anacortes has a rather wet and moist climate. The term dry berth is therefore somewhat of a misnomer, and frequently, following a large or lengthy rain storm, the boat appears to be floating because of the large amount of water that accumulates around the exterior of the W.T. Preston's hull. Even in dry weather, the sand beneath the Preston retains water for long periods of time, and remains damp. Finally, almost ninety percent of the vessel's hull is inaccessible, and therefore unable to be properly surveyed, maintained, or preserved.

So, as you all can see, there are several critical issues that must be addressed if the W. T. Prestonis be properly maintained and preserved. But, the situation is not hopeless. The Preston remains in relatively good physical condition, and most of the threats facing the vessel resulted from insufficient preventive maintenance since arriving in Anacortes, not shoddy construction or worn-out structural members. Furthermore, through our marine survey and other measures, Museum staff and the City in general are increasingly aware of the vessel's needs, and a plan has been formulated to address these needs. The W. T. Preston also remains open for tours, attracting over five-thousand visitors during the summer season, and hosting an annual educational program for families known as W. T. PrestonHeritage Day in August, and an annual crew reunion in September.

The hull, however, still required attention. Taking an unofficial survey of other steel hulled vessels preserved in dry berth in the United States and Canada, and learning as much as I could about the challenges, failures, and successes of my more experienced colleagues, comprised the first step in addressing my concerns for the vessel's dry berth. This is also one reason why I am here today, and the first thing I learned was that there are a lot of people within, and outside, the professional world of maritime preservation who are willing to offer assistance, advice, and guidance. Fortunately, I had a lot of help from David Jackson, retired crew members, local shipbuilders, the National Park Service, and other museum curators and preservationists.

Eventually, after corresponding with others in the field, and researching various methods and techniques, it came time to formulate, and carry out a plan of action that would address our concerns for the W. T. Preston's hull. Let me add, however, that over the course of my research there was some discussion with others in the field, and with the Museum's Advisory Board, concerning the validity and relative merits of improving the vessel's dry berth, especially in light of the need to also properly maintain and treat the W.T. Preston's wooden superstructure. We ultimately decided on the dry berth improvement project for several reasons, and made it the focus of our first major capital fund-raising project for the W. T. Preston.

First, improving the dry berth, and in so doing, preserving and maintaining the steel hull, constituted an obvious and urgent need. Secondly, although a large project, it was a project with tangible parameters. We knew the vessel had to be leveled and stabilized, and that the hull required treatment. On the other hand, the extent of rot and water infiltration in the deckhouses, and their subsequent condition, was less clear. We knew of several leaks, and identified areas in need, but, the fear remained that once a few boards were removed the damage would be more extensive than originally anticipated. Given our limited funding, and the need to definitively articulate the scope of the project in various grant applications, we did not want to receive a set amount of money, begin the project, realize it was far more involved than we thought, and come up short financially. But, let me clearly state; we do not, and will not, ignore areas in need, or fail to fully assess a project before beginning. In this case, however, a choice, had to be made.

Finally, we believed that the dry berth improvement project possessed the greatest potential for galvanizing community support for the vessel and its preservation. We thought the dry berth project would be a highly visible and enticing way to provide the community with a tangible link to the preservation process and its benefits, without asking them to commit too much in the way of time or energy towards a vessel that many in the community have traditionally been reluctant to embrace. Hopefully, we reasoned, if the community rallies behind the berth improvements, they will contribute to less glamorous, but equally important future projects such as scraping paint. Likewise, we knew of several businesses in town who professed a strong interest in donating equipment and expertise directly related to lifting and repositioning the vessel in its berth.

To assist with the development and implementation of an improved berthing arrangement for the vessel, the Museum hired Columbia-Sentinel Engineers, Inc., a Seattle based firm with extensive experience in maritime preservation and, in particular, dry berth vessel preservation. They assisted with a similar project in Alaska, were familiar with, and used to working within the framework of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects, and were aware of the W. T. Preston's important history and her present preservation status. After several on-site meetings, and a comprehensive review of the vessel and our collection of ship's plans, the firm submitted a proposal outlining their ideas for the project.

First, they expressed the need for a comprehensive soil and site survey. These surveys will provide information on the consistency of the ground beneath the vessel, and will indicate whether or not bedrock is present at an accessible depth. If not, a boring depth must be determined, based on the amount of friction generated between each piling and the ground, that will adequately support the vessel for the longest possible period of time. Information gained from the soil survey can also help determine the pressure per square foot that exists with the vessel in dry berth, and therefore, can help calculate the projected rate of any future settling.

Secondly, their proposal involves boring six steel pilings, approximately twelve inches in diameter and coated with an epoxy inside and out to ensure their longevity, into the ground at strategic locations along each side of the W. T. Preston. The location of transverse and longitudinal bulkheads, and the structural and support needs of the vessel, determined the proposed placement of the pilings. Next, using sixteen heavy-lift jacks positioned beneath steel brackets extending three feet from the hull, the vessel must be raised approximately six feet off the ground. These brackets are essentially I-beams, welded to the hull in eight places on each side, and left in place after the vessel was moved to its present berth in 1983. Once off the ground, eight steel I-beams, thirty-six inches deep and registered at two-hundred-and-thirty pounds per foot, will be placed transversely beneath the vessel and welded to the corresponding piling at each end. Also while the vessel is off the ground, the hull will be surveyed and examined for any hogging or distortion, cleaned, and treated with a marine grade anti-corrosive paint, probably a two part epoxy such as Devoe 235. Once completed, the vessel will be lowered onto the transverse beams and secured in place with a minimal number of welds; gravity will take care of the rest.

If successful, this proposal eradicates many of the problems threatening the condition of the W. T. Preston's hull. The vessel will receive the support necessary to maintain her structural and historic integrity. The W. T. Prestonwill rest in a level position in her berth, allowing onboard drainage systems to work properly and also presenting a more pleasing view to visitors. Museum staff will have access to the hull for maintenance and preservation purposes, and, through the injection of anti-corrosive fluids through the load bearing support pads, even those areas inaccessible can possibly be treated without raising or repositioning the vessel. Finally, raising the hull, and thereby enabling the hull to be seen, allows Museum staff to better interpret this important feature, and opens up the possibility of exploring with visitors why a steel hull was necessary, why a flat-bottomed hull was preferable, and how the hull, steam engines and paddlewheel, and the superstructure, are incorporated into an efficient and effective working vessel.

Columbia-Sentinel Engineers, Inc. estimates the total cost of the project to be approximately one-hundred thousand dollars. Currently, the W. T. Preston is funded entirely by money from a two percent motel/hotel tax in Washington, money that Museum staff must apply for each year and, therefore, money that is a variable commitment of resources at best. To help meet the expenses associated with the dry berth improvement project, we have already applied for twenty-five thousand dollars in grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Historical Society, and are pursuing funding from area businesses, foundations, and private individuals. We hope to begin the project during the coming summer, and finish by January, 1998.

Nonetheless, it is a ambitious goal and a large project. I also think it is achievable. What is exciting about the prospect of success, however, is not simply improving the condition and the future of the W. T. Preston. Although obviously the primary goal, this is an expected outcome of the project. Equally as important, and perhaps more exciting for historic preservation in general, I believe this project will tap previously unrealized support for the W. T. Preston, local history, and historic preservation in our community, region, and state. Therefore, if successful, not only will the Preston receive the attention and support it deserves, but hopefully so will other historically significant and under-funded structures and vessels. Not only will Museum staff feel pride at a job well done, but an entire community will feel pride at preserving a part of their heritage. Preserving the past, and in this case the W. T. Preston, will therefore inform and invigorate the present, and help teach the future.

Thank you very much for your time and I will be happy to answer any questions at the conclusion of the session.

1Louis Linden. "Ships Out of Water," Baltimore Sun, April, 1995.

Appendix I: Photographs

Picture 1: The W. T. Preston underway. (1 1-65-PC135-996)

Picture 2: The W. T. Preston moving to the next job. (1 l-16-PC27-996)

Picture 3, Picture 4: Removing "snags" from the tributaries of Puget Sound. (top, 1 l-19-PC3O-996; bottom, 1 l-13-PC24-996)

Picture 5: The W. T. Prestonin dry berth. (1 1-257a-PC482-996)

Picture 6: W. T. Preston's area of operation.

Appendix II: W. T. Preston Statistics

Built in 1940 by Lake Union Drydock and Machine Works

A. Dimensions

  • Length overall 163' 5-7/8"
  • Length of hull 138' 0"
  • Beam 34' 8-1/2"
  • Draft 3' 8"
  • Freeboard From 2' 0" to 2' 6"
  • Cruising speed 7.5 to 8.0 knots
  • Material, hull Steel
  • Material super-structure Wood
  • Depth, amidships, molded 6' 0"
  • Keel draft forward 3' 0"
  • Keel draft aft 2' 11"
  • Displacement long tons 494 gross
  • Clearance top of main mast to water line (this mast lays down) 56' 2"
  • Clearance top of stack to water line 42' 6"
  • Fuel capacity 190 barrels, Diesel #2
  • Fresh water capacity 4,000 gallons
  • Boiler water 8,000 gallons
B. Engine
  • Gillette & Eaton Horizontal, Non-condensing
  • Speed 27 RPM Maximum, 16 RPM Cruise
  • Bore 14 inches
  • Stroke 72 inches
  • Cylinders 1 per engine, double acting
  • Steam pressure 180 lbs. per square inch
  • Horsepower 338
C. Paddle wheel
  • Length 18 feet
  • Diameter 17 feet
  • Buckets 48 each 6' 6" X 18"
D. Boiler, Main
  • Built by Commercial Iron Works, Portland, Oregon
  • Firetube locomotive type - horizontal
  • Pressure 180 lbs.
  • Heating surface 1850 iq. ft.
  • Tubes 149 each 2-1/2" X 18'
  • Steam supply lines 6 inches
  • Safety valve line 4 inches
E. Boiler Auxiliary
  • Built by International Boiler Works, East Stroudsburg, PA.
  • Vertical fire tube boiler 46" Dia. X 6' 2" high with 120 tubes, 2" Dia.
F. Diesel Electric Generators
  • 2 each - Diesels, GMC, Md. 3-71 N-30
  • 2 each - Generators, 30 KW 120/208 Volts, 3 Phase, 60HZ
G. Donkey Engine for Derrick
  • Built by Washington Iron Works, Seattle
  • 3 drums 16" diameter
  • 50 HP 2 cylinder 10" X.12" stroke
H. Crane or Derrick
  • Stiff leg
  • Capacity 70 tons
  • Boom 16" X 16" X 70' 8" fir treated
  • Maximum snagging lift 30 tons at 28' radius
  • Maximum bucket lift 15 tons 60' radius 40' above W. L.
  • Clamshell dredging bucket 1-1/4 Cu. yd.
Lines for Snagging:
  • Forward drum boom lift l00'-5/8", 6 X.19 wire: rope
  • Aft drum fall blocks 400'-5/8", 6 X 19 wire rope
  • Middle drum boom pennant block 250'-7/8", 8 X 19 wire rope
Lines for Dredging:
  • Boom topping lift 150'-1" 8 X 19 wire rope
  • Bucket hoist aft drum 225'-7/8" 6 X 19 wire rope
  • Middle drum 225'-7/8" 6 X.19 wire rope
I. Spud Hoist
  • Built at Hesse-Ersted Iron Works, Portland Oregon
  • 2 each - 11" X 5"1/2" drums, one for forward spud, one for aft 8pud, roller chain driven from hoisting engine.
  • Spud lifting Cable forward 150'-5/8", 6 X 19 wire rope
  • Spud lifting Cable aft 250'-5/8", 6 X 19 wire rope
Spuds are used to navigate, maneuver and hold boat on station while working in waters from 3 to 20 feet deep.

J. Swing Engine

  • Built at Washington Iron Works, Seattle
  • 2-cylinder steam 7" bore 8" stroke
  • Compound geared single drum
K. Steering Gear
  • The steering engine is of the steam ram type with 9-l/2" bore and 36" stroke. A hydraulic cylinder is installed on the opposite end of the shaft to absorb shock and assist the follow-up gear to hold the rudders in the desired position. The follow-up gear is of the screw type) whose function is to stop the steam cylinder when the rudders reach the desired point dictated by the position of the wheel in the pilothouse.
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