Cranes were used as part of work to stabilize the SS Klondike’s paddle wheel in late July. (Jim Elliot/Yukon News Files)

Cranes were used as part of work to stabilize the SS Klondike’s paddle wheel in late July. (Jim Elliot/Yukon News Files)

Ongoing SS Klondike work set to remove lead paint and support aging vessel

The boat has been dry docked near Rotary Park since the late 1960s. Work is required to keep it there.

The SS Klondike has sat on supports near Whitehorse’s Rotary Park since the 1960s, just a few metres from the river it once steamed up and down. A key goal of restoration work ongoing on the sternwheeler is to ensure it can stay there for decades to come.

Jeff Cyre, an asset manager for Parks Canada’s Yukon field unit, said the restoration project ongoing at the SS Klondike National Historic Site aims to fulfill Parks Canada’s responsibility to preserve the site and keep it alive for future visitors. Some objectives are the rehabilitation of the boat’s structural integrity and the removal and replacement of its lead-based paint with a non-toxic alternative.

Among those working on the Klondike is Terry Karlsen, a specialist in wooden boat building and restoration. A crew of between six and eight people will work directly with Karlsen over the course of the project but Cyre noted there is an even larger team behind the scenes. The project is guided by a structural engineer and also informed by historians, cultural resource specialists and archaeologists. The lead paint removal will be overseen by environmental specialists.

The historians and resource specialists are helping to identify artifacts that need to be removed from the vessel prior to the stabilization work. Cyre said artifacts aboard the Klondike include items in the ship’s galley and observation room such as furniture, dishes and navigation equipment. These are being packaged, documented and stored until the restoration work is complete and they can be returned.

“Then we will bring those items back to the vessel and set them up in a, you know, historic manner so that when people come visit it, they can get a very good picture of what the vessel would look like when it was underway,” Cyre said.

Karlsen, who has more than 20 years of experience in the wooden boat and ship building industry, said significant efforts are going into ensuring the workmanship of the renovations matches that of the original building of the Klondike.

“One of the mandates here at Parks Canada is that we want to preserve heritage-defining features of the various assets that we work on,” he said.

At 240 feet in length, the Klondike is the largest wooden boat Karlsen has restored and he said its size makes it a “rarity in the world.”

Karlsen said little changed in the methods of wooden boat construction between the year 1500 and the day the Klondike first slid down the dry dock ramp.

The SS Klondike that sits in the park is actually the Klondike II launched in 1937, the year after its predecessor crashed and ran aground on a gravel bar in the Yukon River. Klondike II would see service until the Mayo Road was extended to Dawson in 1952. The vessel was donated to the federal government in 1960. Six years later it was hauled through the streets of Whitehorse using greased steel runners and bulldozers from the Whitehorse Shipyards to its current location near Rotary Park.

Karlsen noted that the Yukon River boats incorporated a flat-bottomed hull rather than a keel that acts as a spine for other boats’ hulls.

“The Klondike is special in that these river boats that they would create actually hailed to a time before the full keel was introduced to a vessel,” Karlsen said.

The lack of a keel traded stability and durability for the ability to run in shallow water. Karlsen estimated the Klondike drafted about 10 feet fully loaded.

“So because of the shallow draft in the river systems, a keel just would hang up on the gravel bars and create more problems than it solves,” Karlsen said

Karlsen said the lack of a keel introduced an inherent weakness to the paddle wheelers’ design that was most often exposed by deep water and bad weather. He provided examples of Yukon river boats that met their ends by snapping in half on a wave, including one that went down near the north end of Richtofen Island in Lake Laberge.

The Klondike is free from the dangers of waves in the lake but Karlsen said its timbers are now strained by its own weight as it sits dry docked. He said the biggest challenge of the present restoration work is supporting the boat so it keeps its shape well into the future.

Cyre noted that the ramifications of the boat sitting out of water since the 1960s is the warping of the vessel’s timbers accelerating rot and deterioration. Karlsen said the rot is controllable if it is mitigated now and properly maintained in the future.

Some work already completed on the project is the removal of the lead paint from the paddle wheel at the stern of the boat before repainting and resealing it. Steel A-frames were installed to support the weight of the 21.5-ton paddle wheel.

Cyre said a structural assessment of the vessel found that the cantilever arms holding the paddle wheel in place were rotting from the inside. It was deemed important to take the stress off them as soon as possible and then stabilize the structure.

According to Cyre, the full restoration project is estimated to take between four and six years.

“We just want to reinforce that, you know, this work is for future generations,” he said.

The SS Klondike National Historic Site is open with some areas closed due to construction. The vessel’s lower cargo deck is open to the public.

Contact Jim Elliot at