Rescuing the Jean

Historic steamboat faces life in Independence or extinction



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Steamboat Jean sits in Asotin Wash., its final resting place unless it finds its way to Independence's Riverview Park.

INDEPENDENCE -- Steamboat Jean faces two possible fates.

The 65-year-old riverboat will either find a new home in Independence. Or she will be scrapped.

Whatever happens will happen within the next two weeks.

The steamboat is docked at the Chief Lookingglass Marina in Asotin, Wash. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the dock, wants to the boat gone.

Independence city officials want to see it come to Riverview Park and find new life as a convention center, restaurant or bed and breakfast.

And the price is right.

Elmer Earl, the 87-year-old Asotin resident who owns the boat, wants to give Steamboat Jean to the city. No charge.

There's only one problem.

The boat is 42 feet wide. The Willamette Locks in West Linn are 40 feet wide.

Capt. Richard Chesbrough of the Willamette Queen sternwheeler in Salem thinks he can help. He went to Asotin March 31 to check out Steamboat Jean.

The boat has rubber rails along the side. Chesbrough thinks he can shave off a couple of inches and get the boat through the locks.

"Lockmaster is supportive," Chesbrough said. "If there's any physical way we can make this work, he's willing to do it."

He suspects it may just be a matter of removing the rails. "That and maybe a whole lot of Vaseline," he said.

If Steamboat Jean can't trim her waistline, she's doomed.

The Army Corps of Engineers has set an April 16 deadline. Unless Steamboat Jean finds a new home, she will be taken apart and sold for scrap.

That would be a crime against history, Chesbrough said.

Up to 55 riverboats once roamed the Willamette, carrying people and cargo. None of the boats remain.

All were sunk or scraped.

The average life expectancy of a steamboat in the 19th century was 36 months.

Chesbrough wants to see Steamboat Jean -- and the history she represents -- preserved for generations.

"I would hate to see her lost," he said. "That's the main reason I'm motivated to do what I can do."

Earl, a former riverboat captain who bought the boat in 1994, agrees.

"This is absolutely a nonreplacable, super-historical artifact," Earl said.

"I am 87 years old and in no health to do anything with it, and my daughter doesn't want anything to do with it."

Asotin Mayor Steve Cowdrey also wants to see the boat preserved.

"Any solution that gets it removed by the 15th is great to me, but I would like to see it preserved," he said.

"As it is, it's a major liability to the city. It would be nice for Elmer if they can actually get it out of there and do something with it."

The only problem is navigating the locks.

Steamboat Jean has no engine. She would have to be tugged all the way to Independence. Chesbrough already knows tugboat captains willing to help.

The boat faces one other deadline.

With spring coming, water levels in the Willamette River start to sink. The river between Salem and Independence becomes unnavigable.

If Steamboat Jean is coming to Independence, she needs to come quickly.

Keizer city officials want the boat too. However, Ellis thinks Independence has the superior claim. Independence was a main river port between Portland and Eugene.

"We should have it here," he said. "We have more of a history of steamboats here than Keizer."

All the same, Ellis said Independence will not fight for Steamboat Jean. "If it came to a bid, we would drop out pretty fast."

Keizer officials say they might consider some kind of joint custody agreement. The final decision rests with Elmer Earl and the Asotin City Council.

Before anything happens, Ellis said Chesbrough needs to determine if the boat can even make it to Independence.

If it all works out, Ellis said, Steamboat Jean would be welcome in Independence.

"I think it could be a real addition to our park down here."

The thing is huge.

It is three stories tall and more than twice the length of the Willamette Queen.

Ellis envisions using the boat as a small convention center or maybe someone would like to operate it as a restaurant or bed and breakfast.

A lot depends on how much rehabilitation the boat requires.

Chesbrough is optimistic. He said he has heard good things about the condition of the boat.

Because Steamboat Jean is a boat with no engine, it presents some regulatory loopholes.

Without an engine, it would be exempt from Coast Guard regulations.

It would also be exempt from most local codes because it is on a federal waterway. However, it would still be subject to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and Oregon Health Department.

Chesbrough, a former marine engineer, has been obsessed with riverboats most of his life. He heard about Steamboat Jean from fellow enthusiast Ron Bielenberg.

Properly excited, Chesbrough contacted Independence Mayor John McArdle.

McArdle has long been a supporter of bringing a riverboat to Independence. He immediately brought the idea to Ellis and the city council.

The Independence City Council will likely vote on the issue at its meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 8.



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