By Andre Stepankowsky, March 28, 2014, The Daily News
WN3629B — a century-old gillnet boat reputed to be Washington’s smallest artifact on the National Historic Register — may return to service this summer, this time as a monument to an industry in eclipse.
The all-wood vessel was one of the first to be built with an engine, a one-cylinder “lugger” that pioneered the change from wind-powered to motorized gillnetting on the Columbia River in the early 20th century.
The boat has been in storage for decades, first in a old cannery building in Altoona and, for the past several years, under covered storage at the Wahkiakum County Fairgrounds in Skamokawa.
Officials from Wahkiakum Port District 2 hope this summer to complete a restoration of the vessel and put it under a covered display at Skamokawa Vista Park. The plan is to surrounded it with signs describing the history of gillnetting and the importance of salmon fishing to the development of the Lower Columbia area’s economy.
The port estimates it needs $15,000 for the project and is looking for grants and donations of money, labor and materials, Port Commissioner Kayrene Gilbertson said Friday.
“It is a piece of our history. It is a one of a kind. You just don’t find these any more. In this kind of climate they didn’t survive,” said Gilbertson, a port commissioner whose father and father-in-law were gillnetters. “To have this and to be able to show how tough fishing was — pulling in nets in by hand out in stormy weather with boats that did not have a lot of power — it is so (good) to have this and to be able to preserve it.”
WN3629B — Gilbertson said gillnet boats of that era didn’t have names — was built in Astoria’s Wilson shipyard in 1913-1916, according to the port, or in 1911, according to other sources. It’s a “bowpicker” — so named because nets were pulled in at the front (or bow) of the boat, not the stern, as the old sail-powered boats were.
In 1917 it was sold to Walter Jacobsen, an Astoria resident, who fished with it for many years before selling it to Herman Raistakka of Rosburg. Raistakka used it at least into the mid 1950s, according to the port’s research. It’s not clear who last used it as a gillnet boat, but at some point it was stored in the old cannery at Altoona, then owned by Daniel Stephan.
In the 1970s, Ed Stephan (Dan’s father) and others interested in preserving the area’s gillnetting history took interest in the vessel. Largely through the efforts of Skamokawa gillnetter Kent Martin and his wife, Irene, WN3629B was placed on the National Historic Register in 1978. (State historical preservation officials have told the port the boat is the smallest Washington artifact on the register.)
“We realized it was something that was very early (historically). We originally wanted a sailboat, but there were none of them left,” Kent Martin said Friday. “We had to be satisfied with what was the first iteration after sailboats were phased out. These were disappearing very rapidly. Here was something to hang on to.”
The historical listing made grant money available for some restoration, Martin said. The work included replacement of the vessels unique “strip deck” — made of one-inch wide boards nailed together — by Gilbert Vik of Puget Island.
The boat was moved to the fairgrounds some time ago because the old cannery, built in 1903, was in danger of collapsing and, indeed, it crumbled into the Columbia River in November 1998.
WN3629B has had no work in more than 30 years but is in reasonably good shape because it’s been covered since the 1970s. It needs paint below the waterline, new windows on the cabin and a new net roller.
The impetus to complete the restoration and display the boat at Skamokawa Vista Park came this year because the Wahkiakum Fair Board wants it moved and gave the boat to the Port, Gilbertson said.
The boat — and the restoration effort — are a powerful reminder of a time when gillnetters caught millions of Columbia River salmon annually, but it’s also a bittersweet recognition that the industry here is on life support. A whole host of reasons have led to the near extinction of the industry.
“It was a way of life for this community,” said Gilbertsen, a Puget Island resident. “We’re like the last of the hunters and gatherers. Your boat is the only thing keeping you afloat on the river and keeping you afloat financially. (The decline in commercial fishing) has devastated our community. This is hard for those of us who grew up on the river with fishing a part of our lives.”
By restoring and displaying WN3629B, Gilbertsen said, the port hopes to make visitors “see and understand what fishing on the Columbia did for the development of this part of the state.”