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Night Watch: Mysteries of the Shenandoah

by Officer Hootie

Gather around friends. The Museum is closed, and I'm in charge. Tonight, we're going to take a little adventure. We're doing what my little owlets call a "reverse Jonah." We'll venture into the belly of a boat, rather than the belly of a whale. Are you ready?

For those of you new to my tours, my original position here at the Museum was Guardian of the Bridge, which meant I was stationed on the tip-top flybridge of the FV Shenandoah. "FV" stands for "Fishing Vessel." Built down the road at the Skansie Shipyard in 1925, the Shenandoah is being fully conserved here at the Museum by a crew of dedicated and talented volunteers and our spunky Shipwright, Riley Hall.

When the Museum had to close due to the dreaded Coronavirus, the director appointed me to night watch. I keep watch inside and out to make sure that all is safe and sound on the museum grounds. Occasionally, I get to show my friends around, and tonight is one of those nights. Get your feathers on and we'll get going. We're headed out to the Maritime Gallery and it's a little chilly, but nothing like what those fishermen face out there on the big water.

So, this is the mighty Shenandoah. She's 65-feet long and made of Douglas fir, oak, and cedar wood. She was built for a man from Croatia named Pasco Dorotich and his son John. To keep things all in the family, they partnered with Pasco's son-in-law Nick Bez who had just bought a cannery in Alaska. The Shenandoah was to be a tender, which meant she would haul salmon from the fish traps to the cannery for processing. She did that work for a few years then was rigged to purse seine for the following sixty-some years.

In the picture to right, I'm perched in an old net tarring chute and the Shenandoah is right behind me. She's lost her bulwarks here because Shipwright Hall and his crew have had to remove dumpsters of rotten wood, riddled with white-rooted fungus. Now, all the rotten wood has been removed and she's ready for reconstruction. Both skippers Dorotich and Janovich would be proud. Shenandoah will live on for both of them.

This is the Shenandoah when she came down the ways at Skansie Shipyard in 1925. She was a mighty fine vessel, complete with electric lights in her engine bay.

Pasco Dorotich died in 1943, and his son John skippered the boat for the next 23 years. He fished mostly in the San Juan Islands rather than going all the way to Alaska. John had the deck house fully rebuilt in 1949 so he had cushy quarters and full galley to feed the crew. They put a fly bridge on top of the deck house so the skipper had a great vantage point from which to guide the boat. I love it up there!

This is the Shenandoah in the 1950s, after John had her deck house rebuilt. Her flybridge was built on top of the deck house so the skipper could see for miles around. A wheel was installed up there that connected to the steering gear in the pilot house below. Best spot on the boat. My spot.

As we get closer to the boat where she currently stands in the gallery, you'll notice her original (dark) planks and lighter new wood. Shipwright Hall is sanding all the "bungs" or wooden plugs that fill the screw holes where the planks are attached to the frames. Above me, you'll see the new, bright, shiny white sponson. Pretty huh? The crew is working hard to save as much of the original wood as possible. And that's no easy task. But the original wood is part of the boat's story, in fact it's part of our local story of logging and milling right here on the museum site.

This is my friend Shipwright Hall. Like most humans, he wears a mask most of the time, not just because of the virus, but because he's always sanding and painting and doing his boat magic. He and I like to have staring contests when no else is looking.

Riley is one of a long line of talented shipwrights who have worked on the Shenandoah. I've been making a list. It begins at the Skansie Shipyard with Sam Kazulin and his crew, then has Nels Stokke at Glein Boat, Henry Moller, Hugh Denny, and later Mike Vlahovich, Matt Dyer, and Nate Slater. They are all amazing, but this "fix-er-upper" project has taken a loooooong time. They've been working on the boat since she was pulled out of the water in 2003. Do the math. That's more years than I have talons.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As we go up the stairs to the work deck of the boat, you'll find the story of the Shenandoah. One of the most important parts of that story is when Tony Janovich donated the Shenandoah to the museum. You see, Tony bought the boat after John Dorotich died in 1966. He wanted a boat that could fish the salmon banks in the San Juans, and he especially liked the Shenandoah because he was born the year she was built. He and a few other skippers fished her until 1998. Two years later, Tony donated her to the museum. And then the work began.

Above me, behind the dangling rope, is the door to the boat's head, or toilet. In the early days, the toilet just flushed right out into the water. Now, the toilet doesn't flush at all because there isn't one. It's just an empty room waiting for a new throne. Things would be so much simpler for humans if they just upchucked nice little compact waste pellets like I do.

Here on the back work deck, I about tripped over a pile of cotton and oakum (good thing I have wings). These are used to fill the cracks between planks to make the deck water tight and ready for a sealer of tar. The cotton is the white stuff, and the oakum, the tan.

Sam, below, is filling the cracks with a special tar-like sealer that comes in big blocks and has to be melted and then poured into the cracks. It's stinky work, so he's wearing a mask, too.

Let's take a peek in the galley. We're in the "new" deck house built in 1948. Here, the cook would make meals for the fishing crew. Back in the days before the powerblock was invented (1950s), the crew would have been 9 or 10 men since many hands were needed to haul the net. Now, the powerblocks do the heavy lifting and seiners only need a crew of five.

The deck house has a nice galley with room for the crew to gather around the table. Behind that, is the skipper's bunk, and behind that (well, actually it's in the front) is the pilot house. I like to perch in the pilot house on stormy days. It's a great place to get out of the weather.

If we were crew, we'd drop down to our quarters below via a secret ladder just off the galley. But all that is taken apart just now, so we'll have to fly. Here we go!

(Left) Looking to the stern, or back, of the boat, you can see the rows of frames that give the boat her beautiful shape. The long boards running horizontally are called stringers. They hold the boat from front to back.

(Center) Have you ever seen a boat's knee? Well, now you have. This big L-shaped thing is a beautifully conserved knee that helps hold the deck in place. These were originally made of a single block of wood, but in this case, the rotten wood was removed, and new wood glued and bolted into place to save most of the original knee.

(Right) Believe it or not, I'm perched in the crew's quarters...or at least what's currently left of them. All the bunks had to be removed in order to fix all the structural framework once hidden underneath. Now that Shipwright Hall and his crew have finished their work on the frames in the bow, they will begin to reconstruct the bulwarks.

For those of you who get claustrophobic, don't worry, we're heading above decks so we can go down, down to the outside of the boat.

I brought you here because I want you take take a close look and think like a detective. These are some of the oldest pieces of wood on the whole boat. Take a gander at the stem piece behind me. See the lines in the wood? Each line represents a year in the life of the tree from which this boat was made. Zoom in and count as many as you can, and when you reach 100, keep going. The tree was likely more than twice as old as the lines you count. That's one big old tree! They don't grown 'em like that anymore. I know, I've looked.

Well, It's time for me to say good night and return to my post. I hope you've enjoyed this brief tour of the mighty Shenandoah. We'll return after a while to check the crew's progress. But for now, this is Officer Hootie, signing out.


Photo Credits

All photographs by Stephanie Lile, Harbor History Museum, except:

Shenandoah, 1925. Photograph by Boland. Tacoma Public Library.

Shenandoah, 1950s. Photograph by Kenneth Ollar. Harbor History Museum Collection.

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