Preserve past with maritime museum

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A serendipitous turn of events may result in a new maritime museum for Juneau.

There is a very large steel building with cement floors on the waterfront close to the Douglas Bridge. It was constructed in the early 1960s by the city of Juneau and has been used for many years by the city's street department. Mike Scott is head of this division. He says he has 26 to 30 full-time employees.

A new facility is planned for Lemon Creek, and, hopefully by the winter of 2009 or spring of 2010, it will be ready. At that time, the street department will make the move.

John Stone of the Docks and Harbors Department hopes to use some of the building for storage and maintenance. He supervises 12 full-time, year-round workers with 12 more added in the summertime. Stone, whose title is port director, is under the supervision of the nine member harbor board.

Greg Fisk, one of the harbor board members, told me he would like to explore the idea of using most of the building as a maritime museum.

We are truly at the end of an era in shipbuilding. Just as the gasoline and diesel engine spelled the end of the small commercial sailing vessel, so new materials such as fiberglass mean that wooden boats are no longer being built for the commercial fishing industry.

Many wooden boats are still in use, but at some time in the future they will all be gone. Many are classics in design and utility. If boats were the equivalent of old cars, they would be worth much to preserve. But, instead, they will be left to rot at the dock or will be pulled up on the beach to disintegrate with the passage of time in the pulse of the tide.

We can save a few of these great ships. Fisk is especially interested in trollers and gillnetters. By putting one or two inside a large building we can preserve them as the center of a fine museum.

In our climate of wind, wave and storm, it is a tough task to create a museum by leaving ships in the water. Instead, the boats could be worked on, and visitors could easily move around in the large enclosed space.

I would also like to recommend for this collection, if it is created, a traditional halibut schooner. These were built in Seattle in the first couple of decades of the 1900s. Many are approaching 100 years of age and are still in use. They are true classics of design, built like Viking long ships, with sweeping foredeck and bow, with the house often on the stern.

A maritime museum would complement our collection of mining memorabilia, and the state and city museums. These maritime collections are unique enterprises. Only a few exist on the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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