feature February 28, 2012 Bill Lascher/cf ]
ASTORIA, Ore. - Every old boat tells a story about its culture. You can see a big part of the Northwest’s history in its vessels.Now, history buffs, students and hobbyists are documenting the region’s maritime history. They’re doing it with new high tech tools.
Steve Hubbard has seen old fishing boats lying around as long as he can remember. He never realized how important they were until a few years ago. So he drove to Astoria from Lebam, Washington to learn how to make three-dimensional images of vessels.
“Before roads, there was boat traffic, that's how everything got in and out of there," Hubbard says. "And I guess living near the water I've always had an interest in boats, so this is just a continuation of that interest.”
Puget Sound. The Columbia and Willamette Rivers. The coast. The vessels that plied each define the Northwest. Hubbard said knowing how to take intricate measures of these boats is crucial to preserving them.
That was part of Sam Johnson's goal too. He's the executive director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. Johnson created a project to document as many boats in the Northwest as possible ... before it’s too late.
“Even the modern gillnet boats are disappearing slowly but surely," Johnson says. "The fishery is declining, and as it declines people take these boats and they don't take care of them. They just get rid of them. They're a tool.”
On one recent Saturday, about a dozen people milled about a squat, weathered watercraft. We were in a warehouse a couple blocks from Johnson's museum. Everybody pointed cameras and surveying equipment at a Columbia River gillnetter. That’s a type of fishing boat that was common for catching salmon.
A trio of experts taught the group how to target digital cameras. Some also used the kind of laser telemetry developed for land surveys.
This workshop was part of a partnership between Johnson and Clatsop Community College's historic preservation program. Together, they'll package these technical schematics with what narratives of a boat's history and use they can gather. That will all be sent to the Library of Congress.
Clatsop Community College professor Lucien Swerdloff says museums can only exhibit and store so many vessels. Old boats that are exposed to weather and left to rot can just disappear. That’s why digital documentation matters.
Maritime conservationist Jonathan Taggart surveys an old vessel for a digital preservation workshop. Photo by Bill Lascher
Lucien Swerdloff: “It's kinda like the next best thing. You can't preserve this, you can't save this thing, so at least, if we document it we have a record of what it looks like.”
Boat documentation isn't only happening in Astoria. A similar workshop on photogrammetry recently took place at the Cama Beach campus of the Seattle-based Center for Wooden Boats. The center wants to document eleven small boats that were designed, built and used in Washington.
Andrew Washburn manages the project. He says it's important to focus not just on elaborate, well known vessels, but on workaday boats too.
“The small boats represent the sort of everyday boats, everyday people, working people would have used and they're not the big, sexy schooners,” Washburn says.
Among those attending the Astoria workshop was Bruce Weilepp, a historian from Washington's Pacific County.
Weilepp, who used to work at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, wants to preserve the Willapa Bay oyster fleet.
"Tools like this tend to be used and used up and thrown away. That's their nature," Weilepp says. "It's only us weirdos nowaday that see that they have a larger significance, both for now and into the future. Museums are about the future."
Johnson and Swerdloff’s future includes a summer documenting more boats. They also plan to build a boat preservation center with the hope of spreading these techniques to other communities.
On the Web:
Columbia River Maritime Museum:
Center for Wooden Boats:
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network
This boat preservation workshop was a collaboration between the Columbia River Maritime Museum and Clatsop Community College’s historic preservation program. Photo by Bill Lascher