The River Queen
The River Queen was moored along the banks of the Willamette River in downtown Portland for decades. Down near the Broadway Bridge. She’s now moored on the Columbia, in a ghostly sort of way. Here’s the information that I could gather on the famous vessel. It was a Portland Icon.
Radio call letters: WH6754
Built: San Francisco, CA, 1922.
Length: 216′ 7″
Beam: 63′ 8″
Speed: 13 knots
Autos: 55 Passengers: 468 Gross Tonnage: 919
Name Translation: Shasta is taken from the mountain of the same name in northern California.
It’s been a ghost for nearly two decades, whispering memories from a bygone age.
Now, the River Queen, once a Portland floating attraction, sits and rots, its future unsure and its aging hull lurking just above the Columbia River muck.
Curious travelers can get a glimpse of a hulking ship moored just upriver from the tiny town of Goble, peering through a thicket of trees between Highway 30 and the river. The mystery has drawn hopeful visitors for years, and the current owner has spent much of his time fighting off vandals and would-be explorers.
But now, says owner Clay Jonak, it’s time to tell the old queen’s story, lest it be lost to time — and to the river itself.
Born as the SS Shasta, the River Queen originally was constructed as a steam-powered ferry during the pre-Golden Gate Bridge days in San Francisco. The boat had a length of 216 feet, 7 inches, and room for 55 automobiles and 468 passengers who could travel across the bay between San Francisco and Oakland.
In the late 1930s, when the newly constructed Golden Gate and Bay bridges effectively put an end to the ferry business, the Shasta and other ferries were sold off. One was taken to South America, but the Shasta made its way to Seattle and worked in Puget Sound. By the late 1940s, it already was outdated. By the mid-1950s, it was used sparingly because of heavy smoke that billowed from its bright red smokestack.
JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD – Ferns grow where diners and dancers once sat on the lower deck of the River Queen, long after she had been transformed from her days as a car ferry. Many of the large windows facing the river have been broken, their brass finishing’s stolen long ago.
In 1958, the River Queen was retired from its run between Bremerton, Wash., and Seattle and replaced with a pair of ferries — the Klahowya and Tillikum — both of which still run today.
The River Queen’s stint on the Columbia River as the “Centennial Queen” to celebrate the 1959 Oregon centennial celebration was short-lived. Three years later, in 1962, it was bought and converted into a floating restaurant.
For more than 30 years, both in Oregon City and on the waterfront in Portland, the boat entertained visitors as a unique floating attraction. The engines were cut apart to better use the space on the vehicle deck, with dining on both decks and a dance floor where cars once parked.
Without the powerful steam engines, the River Queen was just a barge below the water line. But from above, it was an opulent vessel. Delicate woodwork and stained glass adorned the aft-dining room on the upper deck, with trim around the walls painted a bright red to match the crimson carpet and chairs. One wall was covered with glimmering gold-colored paper and an intricate pattern of felt-like markings.
Outside, flags hung on wires strung between its smokestack, and red, white, and blue awnings surrounded the upper deck’s antique windows. The various pipes on the roof were either bright red or bright blue, depending on the year.
Downstairs, cushioned red seats lined the outer edge of the dance and dining floor, stretching beneath large windows that dominated the walls of the lower deck. Between the upper and lower floors were a pair of elegant staircases, split up the middle with vibrant red banisters.
With a glimpse of the old River Queen’s former glory in mind, it’s easy to see what made it such an attraction. The old ferry boat was a destination for wedding receptions and anniversary celebrations, and even hosted top U.S. Navy brass at times when ships came into Portland for the Rose Festival.
The few collections of River Queen memories online draw countless comments from well-wishers who remember what dining and dancing on the floating restaurant was like. Those who can recall the experience paint the River Queen as an interesting place to visit. The food was good and the boat remained somewhat of a destination despite its attempts during river floods to work free of its bonds.
JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD – Ornate crimson and gold wallpaper is still in good shape on the upper deck near the stern of the boat, where wait staff likely kept extra dishes and silverware for dining guests. The woodwork around the alcove in each direction has collapsed.
But it was not to last. According to Jonak, the renovators made mistakes when changing the vessel from a ferry to a restaurant.
For one, they used household lumber for the ornate woodwork — not marine-grade wood. They also didn’t care for the aging hull and did nothing about asbestos belowdecks and inside the boiler room.
Eventually, in 1995, the boat fell into disrepair when a family illness forced the River Queen to close. More than two years later, it was bought by Portland-area developer Michael Beardsley, who hoped to turn it into floating condos: two units on the upper deck and two on the lower deck. The idea, because of an oversaturated market, fell through. So did later efforts to turn it into a floating casino.
Beardsley wrote in a blog post in November 2009 that he was willing to give tours of the dilapidated boat to anyone “with even a passing interest” in taking it off his hands.
“The ship is in a state of disrepair that, while not beyond hope, would still require many man-hours of elbow grease and no small amount of dollars to bring her around to her former glory,” Beardsley wrote.
Shortly thereafter, the River Queen was put where many unused and unwanted items end up, though it might come as a surprise: Craigslist.
The ad attracted Jonak, a marine salvor who had kept his eye on the Queen for several years. Jonak says he immediately went to Beardsley’s office and bought the boat for $2, cash.
What he found, though, was disheartening. The River Queen was in far worse condition than he expected, having nearly succumbed to 10 years of vandals, squatters and “tweakers.”
Jonak says the boat was full of trash, including discarded needles and shattered glass. The unique brass finishing’s from the boat’s interior were gone, and many of the antique windows were missing. At times, it was apparent people would take potshots at the side of the River Queen from nearby Highway 30.
Once, Jonak remembers, a rock band arrived by boat, broke into one of the starboard windows, and filmed a music video inside using his electrical hookups to power their instruments and equipment before escaping the same way they had come.
JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD – Antique glass remains untouched in windows on the river side of the 93-year-old boat, protected from vandals by the dilapidated kitchens. The roof on the side facing highway 30 is still in decent shape.
The trash has been mostly cleaned up, and it’s possible to walk on the main deck and parts of the upper deck, but the floors remain littered with shattered glass. Now, there are just a handful of barrels and the frame of a rusting trailer on the inside of what used to be the car deck. A single broken chair and a few kitchen items lurk upstairs.
Jonak says the boat is basically ready for the next step in its life. He hopes to turn the River Queen into some type of floating workshop instead of scrapping it but has struggled to make headway with a handful of state agencies to continue work on the boat.
In close to eight years after Jonak bought the Queen, it still rests in a few feet of water near Goble, the roof partially collapsed, most of the west-facing windows missing and surrounded by a growing crowd of unused tugs, sailboats, and barges. Jonak lives in a small dwelling at the crowd’s center, cut off from the shore with the exception of a rickety wooden walkway. There are no water or sewer pipes, and no electricity running from the shoreline — and that’s what Jonak has been fighting for over the past five years.
The Coast Guard has concerns that the river isn’t navigable, and that some of Jonak’s boats might break free. The Department of Environmental Quality worries that fuel or other debris might leak from some of the boats and damage the river. The Department of State Lands has similar concerns, but for the surrounding wetlands. The Department of Justice is even involved, helping to sort out the issue and move forward.
Jonak, though, stresses two things. First, he has no intention of letting the boat rot indefinitely, and he hopes to eventually get a return on his $2 investment — even if that’s by scrapping the River Queen for what he believes may be nearly $100,000 in steel. His other concern is intrigued explorers, for whom Jonak has a clear message scrawled across part of the boat:
The River Queen is private property, and anyone caught trespassing will be held
A Fictious story about the famous sternwheeler, ‘The River Queen,” entitled, “The night the River Queen was saved.”
It was a terrible storm the night of, “The Columbus Day Storm.” Back in 1962. It was Thursday, October 11, 1962. I was four years old at the time. Most people that were native Oregonian’s and that were growing up at this time in Portland, Oregon will remember this famous storm and the unprobeable set of circumstances that happened that frightful night.
The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was otherwise known as the Big Blow, which began as Typhoon Freda. It was an extratropical cyclone that ranked among the most intense to strike the United States. It roared through the Pacific Northwest, killing thirty-eight people, and causing damage estimated close to 200 million dollars.
The quintessential windstorm became the standard against which all other statewide disasters are now measured. Wind gusts reached 116 mph in downtown Portland and 90 mph in Salem. Cities in Oregon and Washington lost power for two to three weeks and over 50,000 homes were damaged. On a larger scale, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 is a contender for the title of the most powerful extratropical cyclone recorded in the U.S. in the 20th century.
October, fall of 1962. A Thursday afternoon. Reports had come in from radio stations located in Medford and Grants Pass that day, winds approaching over 100 miles an hour. The afternoon skies became dark and yellow in Portland, around 4:30 PM or so is when you could see the change with the intense wind gusts.
The River Queen had come to rest at its moorings at Oaks Park, since around 1962, “The River Queen,” had been relocated to the Willamette River. Different companies had bought an sold her through the years. It sat at one time in Oregon City, came to rest at Oaks Parks in the spring of 1962.
It had a beautiful ballroom, “The Kingman” played there. It had a restaurant and observation viewing decks. There was a small crew assigned to the sternwheeler, her engines had been pulled a few years earlier, she was a barge basically, she had a steering wheel and a rutter. She had a captain’s quarters and an observation deck. There was a parking lot and a long ramp that led you to the famous sternwheeler. It had come to rest now on the banks of the Willamette River, in the small town known as Sellwood, Oregon.
For more than 35 years, the famous sternwheeler sat on the banks of Portland, the boat entertained visitors as a unique floating attraction. The engines were cut apart to better use the space on the vehicle deck, with dining on both decks and a large dance floor where cars once parked.
Without the powerful steam engines, the River Queen was just a barge below the water line. But from above, it was an opulent vessel. Delicate woodwork (working with native woods from the west coast) and stained glass adorned the aft-dining room on the upper deck, with trim around the walls painted a bright red to match the crimson carpet and chairs. One wall was covered with glimmering gold-colored paper and an intricate pattern of felt-like markings. It was elaborate.
So, the wind began to blow that late afternoon. The clouds got dark. They closed Oaks Park that afternoon, employees were urged to get home after receiving the news about the storm approaching. The Willamette River got choppy and started to push things around, the west hills became earlier dark, people left the ship as the storm started to kick in. Debreu started to fly in the air, it got dark around 6:00 PM. Some customers toupee flew off his head. Maintenance and a small hand of crewmembers made sure that the boat was secure as could be. They checked the lines and scurried about. Some of the crew was urged to leave, a few customers left, and a few crew members ran to the parking lot. They watched from their cars as the big boat began to rock and bank into I’s lines. There was large banging going on each time the winds blew about.
Within a few hours the small crew in charge was found on the deck of, “The River Queen.” Shortly, and without warning, and while the winds were peeking at 115 miles an hour, the mainlines snapped and there was a loud pop as electrical wires that ran long shimmering strings of lights following the gangplank broke away from the vessel, the lights popped as they broke. The gangplank broke away from the boat and went crashing to the ground. Someone screamed. The boat broke it’s ties and started to float out into the dark night.
Suddenly the boat drifted out near the Sellwood bridge; the winds were coming from the west. Soon, in the officers’ quarters of the sternwheeler one of the hands tried calling the Port of Portland, “Emergency! Emergency! This is the sternwheeler River Queen. Our lines have broken away from the docks at Oaks Park, were drifting north towards Ross Island. Please advise tugs to be deployed. May Day! We need assistance. Please send help.” There was silence on the phone, the telephone lines had broken.
So, the boat drifted, people on shore started to scream, some of the crew got worried, there was no way to stir the boat, basically it was a floating barge, a police car soon arrived, its sirens screamed in the night, the storm started to really pick up, dark clouds rolled in. People on shore got in their cars and left, the police officers called in to the Port of Portland, advising them of the problem, and requested help with deploying tugboats if possible. They reported the condition that the ship was in. “Help is on the way!” yelled the Port of Portland official as the storm raged on.
She drifted towards Ross Island, the storm kept blowing and every so often the paddle wheeler would twist in the currents of the Willamette. They drifted west past Ross Island. The storm blew water onto the boat, flotsam and jetsam scurried about in the water, the winds whipped up, it got closer to 8:00 PM now. The skies were dark. They broke out big kerosene lamps and waved them as a small ship that had been blown off course approached the sternwheeler. The crew yelled as the small boat narrowly missed their ship. The Ross Island bridge now was fast approaching.
Within a few minutes two small tugs from the Port of Portland appeared from the north, near the Hawthorne bridge. They had been called in to rescue the ship and its crew. The two tugs were the “Portland” and the “Tillicum,” powerful tugs, the pride of Portland, they headed into the raging storm to find the big sternwheeler, they slowly made their way up to the south end of the Ross Island Bridge. They approached the distraught ship. Lanterns flashed in the night, relaying signals to both crews. The tugs revved their engines as they narrowed up to the “River Queen.” The big tugs blowed their loud horns, the waters got choppy, the crew of the sternwheeler got in position to help tie down lines that were going to be thrown out. They wanted to make sure that the big hooks affixed to each rope would be set and secure in holding the drifting boat.
Suddenly, Captain Lamar Hassenpfeffer appeared in his long worn black raincoat, he was the captain of the “Portland,” tug. The rain poured on top of him as he scurried about his tugboat. He had been assigned to the tug three years ago, back in 1959. He was a master navigator and sailor. He watched the sky as the winds wiped up. Wearing a large yellow scarf wrapped around his thick neck and sporting his famous dark blue captain’s hat, he wore it titled to the side, he was African American and had a black eye patch covering his left eye. He had lost his eye in a knife fight. He had a tattoo of the battleship Oregon on his big hairy chest, he sported a goatee and talked loudly and was cranky at times. He called woman winches occasionally. He smoked a large carved wooden pipe and had a bit of a limp.
Out of college he had gone in the Navy, after his tour, he went into being a tugboat captain for the city of Portland. He was well versed on the Willamette and the Columbia rivers. He knew the tides and the currents. He studied charts and had a long portable telescope. Well, the good captain traversed up and down through the Willamette River in his tugboat, he knew the river well. His left hand was missing a few fingers, one night when they had to cut a line, he sliced a few of his sausages off.
He looked at the crew on the sternwheeler, one of the crews’ hats flew off his head in the wind. He picked up a large bullhorn and yelled out to the crew of the sternwheeler, “Look alive! My crew will throw a few lines your way, were going to try and get you to rest down near the west end of the Willamette River, between the Broadway Bridge and Albers Mill!”
They sent out lines with grappling hooks, there was the tug, “Portland,” placed behind the sternwheeler, and the other tug (Tillicum,) on the port side of the vessel. Soon one more tug was called in, (The Hood,) was called in, she was a good tug, she came in out in the storm and lended a hand. An umbrella that was on the deck of the sternwheeler flew off and smashed a window on the “Tillicum,” tug. It started to rain. Lights and big beams flashed in the night, the bright lights casted long images of flickering light that shimmered off the rough waters.
The tugs blared their horns, their smokestacks billowed big plumes of smoke in the air. Their horns shook the “River Queen.” They slowly rolled through the Ross Island Bridge. They slowed down a bit, the captain screamed instructions. They seemed to tread water out on the Willamette; the wind continued to blow as the tugs tried to get the proper coordinates needed to get through the Hawthorn bridge. It would be difficult.
The Bridgetender on the Hawthorn bridge and the Morrison and Burnside bridges were notified about the drifting sternwheeler. They sat in their small offices that were attached to the bridges. The storm ragged on into the night, people tried to communicate by phone, some used telegraph. They had to use flashlights to see anything. They flashed lanterns at the tugs. The heavy winds kicked up and the storm raged on. The tugs roared their engines, the heavy lines were checked and secured on the, “River Queen,” they held tight as they positioned the boat into a better angle to go through the Hawthorn bridge, The deck on the bridge moved up slowly, sirens and alarms went off as the bridge moved slowly up, finally the bridge got in position for the sternwheeler to move through, the smokestack moved slowly through as, “The River Queen,” moved north through the Hawthorn bridge. The tugs inched through the Hawthorn, the bridge had a section that lifted a large cement section of the road and gave the large smokestacks plenty of room for the steamships and tugs to get through. It was an eerie night out.
Now on to the Morrison and the Burnside. They stopped for a moment and made their calculations, the good captain and his crew looked at tide maps and made more calculations.
The tugs waited for the winds to die down, the tugs positioned themselves and soon the decks of the Morrison bridge opened, the tugs gently pushed the big ship through the Morrison bridge. The storm raged on, it was close to 10:00 PM, the ship hands and crew of the “River Queen,” had been trying to make sure that everything was battened down, umbrellas and chairs and tables had gone overboard because of the strong gusts of wind. Some hands jumped ship and got aboard, “The Portland.” Tug and, “The Tillamook,” tug. The “Hood,” tug was positioned in back of, “The Tillicum.”
The tugs kept pushing the “River Queen,” along. They tried to push her into place and slowly went through the Steel bridge as she opened her bridge. Horns blared and horns screamed in the night. Their engines roared in the dark night. The rivers waters became choppy, white caps could be seen in the water and the wind blew across the Willamette. A tree went flying by as the tugs pushed the sternwheeler down river.
Captain Hassenpfeffer screamed and yelled at his crew, lanterns flashing signals to the other tugs waved as they approached the Broadway Bridge, the bridges horns blasted warnings as the gates lowered to stop the cars, the wind was blowing and the bridgetender flashed a signal to the tugs and to captain Hassenpfeffer.
City officials had talked through the night once the “River Queen,” broke her ties. It was decided that they would put the,” River Queen,” down in-between the “Broadway bridge and Albers Mill.” There was a vacant field there and the old docks would make a good place for the boat to be moored. The docks had been used at one time by Albers Mill.
The storm raged on, the wind blew, it was getting close to midnight by now. The skies were black. The bridgetender for the Broadway Bridge peered out of his office window, his office was attached on top of the Red Brick bridge. He flashed a lantern as the tugs billowed heavy gray-black smoke from their enormous smokestacks. The tugs were waiting down below, ready to push the sternwheeler into place. Crews on the tugs scurried about with their lifejackets on. The rain poured and the wind blew as the tugs circled around, “The River Queen.” She twirled in the water and finally the tugs moved her forwards, to the west, heading through the bridge as the draw bridge went up and room was made for her smokestack to get through. The tugs pounded alongside the,” River Queen.”
Suddenly there was a scream as a crew member lost his footing and went overboard off the “Hood,” tug. Crew members threw a lifejacket and a rope his way, soon he was on board, shaken, but alive.
Slowly they made their way through the bridge, the captain knew the waters near the Broadway bridge. He was going to steer the, “River Queen,” to the west, near the banks of the Willamette. The tugs pushed her down river, their engines roared, crews in big Ford and Chevy pick-ups and flatbed trucks were waiting at the docks. They had rope and cable, winches, and generators, they would help tie up the “River Queen,” they pushed her into place, the crew threw lines out to the tugs and to the crew of the “River Queen.” Reporters for the Oregonian were there taking photos. The captain got his photo in the paper. People came out in the middle of the storm to watch the amazing feet. The tugs came to rest as, “The River Queen,” came to rest, she landed like a soft feather.
They saved the “River Queen,” they saved her that night, it could have been a terrible disaster. The captain was awarded an Honoree Medal. They had a big celebration at “Huber’s,” they feasted on Turkey and Ham.
Nobody will forget, “The night the River Queen was saved.” The storm finally calmed down early the next morning. The Willamette River was covered with durée and trees and limbs. Some of the bridges lost power and some of the towers on the bridges lost parts and antennas.
“The River Queen,” would rest at her location near the Broadway bridge for nearly 35 years, up until 1996 when she was finally sold and moved down the Willamette into drydock. She’s a ghost of a ship now, but people will never forget the terrible night back in 1962.