Detail of the drip lubrication system for the two-cylinder engine on board the steamboat Susanna.
A young Canadian passenger pulls a rope and triggers the steam whistle on Captain John George's steamboat tour.
Left to right: Pam Horton, left, dispenses historical knowledge on a group of tourists during a steamboat tour.
The Juneau Steamboat Co.'s vessels are almost an exact replica of the ferries that operated between Juneau and Douglas during the early part of the 20th Century.
From left to right, Pam Horton, Frankie Miller and Captain John George stand in front of one of two steamboats in operation by the Juneau Steamboat Co.
Story last updated at 8/26/2009 - 2:10 pm
JUNEAU - Rising fuel costs have been a thorn in the side of many vessel-based tour operators, but not for Captain John George of the Juneau Steamboat Co. He runs his operation on scrap wood and rainwater, making his tour one of Juneau's most eco-friendly.
Prior to starting his business, George spent about 10 years as a bus driver for Princess Tours. One day while on the job, George and his fellow drivers were addressed by Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess. Day said that there was a need for new ideas for shore excursions, as all the existing tours were being booked to capacity by the then growing number of cruise passengers. This got the wheels turning in George's head, and he began to brainstorm.
"I thought, nobody goes out to the Treadwell, but how would you get them there?" George said. "There used to be a steam ferry, that would be a kick."
George got online and found two steamboats for sale, one in Washington and one in Maine. He purchased both and the Juneau Steamboat Co. was born.
Now in its fifth season, the Juneau Steamboat Co. boasts two steam-operated vessels, the Laurie Ellen and the Susanna, each with the capacity to hold about 18 passengers. Both are almost exact replicas of the ferries that ran between Juneau and Douglas in the early part of the 20th Century, and they are the only two of their kind existing in the U.S.
The vessels run on the heat from a wood-fired boiler, generating steam at pressures that are high enough to power the double expansion engine. The firebox eats up about 80 pounds of wood per hour, all of which would have otherwise ended up
in the landfill. George is always on the lookout for scrap lumber from construction sites and woodworking operations, and he spends much of his time chopping it to the appropriate size to fit inside the boiler's firebox.
The steam, which began as collected rainwater, is also recycled. After powering the engine, the exhaust steam is sent through a keel cooler where it is condensed back into water and sent through the boiler once again. About 50 gallons of water per hour go through this state-shifting cycle to keep the Laurie Ellen and the Susanna sailing along.
"This year we only have one boat in the water, trying to see what the economy is going to do," George said.
Despite his precautions, George reported that business is actually up this year from last. He attributed that to the ticket price, which is much lower than most tours in town. He also offers a $5 discount for locals.
The steamboat departs from Marine Park and sails at a cruising speed of about six knots down Gastineau Channel to the waters near the ruins of the Treadwell Mine. Along the way, passengers are told the stories of the early days of Juneau and Douglas.
"It's neat showing people the town and the history," George said.
Though the tour is aimed at being entertaining, it also provides a comprehensive history of the events from Juneau's founding to the happenings of the present day. According to George, the steamboat tour provides more history than any other in town.
"Juneau's here because of gold mines, not because of the glacier," George said.
George jokes with his passengers that there will be a test at the end of the tour about what they've learned. But as the steamboat docks and they disembark, they learn that they are off the hook.
"I guess we won't have time for the test," George jests. "Next time."
For more information about the Juneau Steamboat Co. visit juneausteamboat.com.
Libby Sterling may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org