The engine in Bruce Jahn’s steamboat has a squeak.
“It’ll go away. They generally do,” he says, delighted, from the deck of his boat. “They’ll go away, or the boat’ll explode, and we’ll have to swim back!”
The California resident is in Oregon for a steamboat meetup. Every June, up to a dozen steamboats gather at Rocky Point on Klamath Lake to swap stories, explore the lake, and spend some time with people who share their uncommon hobby.
Jahn’s boat did not explode on Klamath Lake and probably never will. But you need a sense of humor — and a sense of adventure — to own and operate a steamboat. These aren’t the grand, multistory paddlewheel steamships that Huckleberry Finn floated past on the Mississippi. These boats are smaller, towable “steam launches.” To the untrained eye, they seem top heavy: Their cabins are dominated by large boilers and towering smokestacks. The engines sit, exposed, on the floor of the boat.
And, of course, steam engines are powered by pressure and a roaring fire. It’s a safe combination, but only if the boat is properly maintained, Jahn says.
And maintaining a steamboat takes a lot of work. When you’re working with technology that’s more than 200 years old, you can’t exactly take your boat to a mechanic for repairs.
“Within a week of my retirement, I was a full-time student at a machine shop program at a junior college nearby so that I could learn how to use tools to make my own parts,” Jahn explains, “My wife likes to say owning a steamboat is the easy part. Keeping it going is the hobby.”
You have to constantly check the pressure in the boiler and keep the engine well lubricated. It takes half an hour just to build up enough steam to even start the engines.
There are certainly easier ways to get out on the water. But most steamboaters, like Stephanie Hylton, are enamored with steam. Hylton grew up on the ocean and fell in love with steamboats the first time she road on one. She used to take her father’s motorboat, a “cabin cruiser” from island to island in the Puget Sound.
“It was noisy, and it was cold,” she recalls, “but the first time I saw a steamboat, it was warm and quiet. It was, like, this is what I want to do.”
Hylton’s boat, the Uno, is the oldest ship in the fleet. The Uno started out as a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, hauling goods from one roadless area to another.
Later, the Uno was used to sneak alcohol in from Canada during Prohibition. Eventually, the bootleggers were captured. The Uno was so fast the police kept the boat.
“She’s old, she’s pretty,” says Hylton, stoking the fire in the boiler. “She leaks a little, but you would if you were a 124 years old.”
Not all of the steamboats are old. Jahn’s boat, for example, was launched in 1980, and the engine was built in 2011. Another boat was a World War II lifeboat, later modified to run on steam.
The Cheng-tze, one of the most eye-catching boats in the fleet, is a miniature version of the grand paddlewheel steamships. Her captain, Al Dunlap, spent almost thirty years crafting the boat. He designed everything with meticulous detail: from the woodwork to the shining brass engine to the hand-crafted lamps that hang on the wall.
“The amazing thing about it is, it works,” Dunlap says wryly. Going for a ride on his boat feels like a journey through time.
Steam has a long history on Klamath Lake. In the early 1900s, steam trains connected the rapidly growing city of Klamath Falls to the rest of the country, sparking a local lumber boom.
The area was mountainous and disconnected: cars need roads, and trains need tracks. A steamboat only needs water. So canals were dug through the shallow reaches of upper Klamath Lake, connecting the tiny logging communities like Rocky Point to the hub of Klamath Falls. Steamboats plied those waters, moving tall ponderosa logs down the lake, where they would be loaded onto trains and shipped to the rest of the state.
Today, you can drive to Rocky Point. But the steamboaters who visit every year prefer to get around the traditional way. They follow the same winding canals through the upper reaches of the lake, to tiny boat ramps where they stop for lunch and other resorts that they visit for breakfast.
It’s a mashup of the old and the new: hundred-year-old designs mimicked in modern, fiberglass hulls.
Two months after the Klamath Lake steam meetup, the Northwest Steam Society were the guests of honor at the Toledo Wooden Boat Show near Newport, Oregon. Most of the steamboats weren’t wooden — they were fiberglass. But given that they were historical, they were allowed.
On the last day, Al Dunlap was sitting on the Cheng-tze when a man approached him holding a large brass whistle. It was clearly old. And although it was well cared for, it didn’t shine like the brass on Dunlap’s boat.
The man told Dunlap that his father and grandfather had worked in one of Toledo’s lumber mills. They’d used the steam whistle to let workers know when heavy machinery was coming or going. For years, it had sat on this man’s shelf.
The man held it up to the shiny brass whistle on the Cheng-tze. Dunlap had built his boat with meticulous attention to historical detail: the man’s whistle was almost exactly the same size. With a little work, they were able to remove Dunlap’s whistle, and attach this man’s to the boat. Dunlap stoked the fire and built up steam in the boiler, and pulled on a small string.
For the first time in decades, one of Toledo’s old lumber mill whistles sounded across the water.