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St. Helens possible berth for historic vessels

PT 658, a restored World War II torpedo boat, is already a familiar sight to St. Helens residents and attendees of the annual Maritime Heritage Festival.

Now the city of St. Helens hopes it can explore the possibility of bringing the popular boat to stay in St. Helens permanently.

PT 658 has made its home at the Naval Reserve Station on Swan Island in Portland for more than 20 years, but must move out by June 30. The hunt for a new berth began several months ago, said Wally Boerger, who along with a host of volunteers, including a number of aging ex-PT boaters, maintains and runs the boat.

“We told them we’ve been there for 20 years and now we have to leave?” Boerger said. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’”

He believes sequestration cuts and other budgetary concerns at the naval base are driving the decision.

In need of at least a temporary berth for their 78-foot wooden boat, the group scoured riverside sites. They hoped to also find a place for another World War II-era vessel, a Landing Craft Infantry, or LCI, a small steel ship used to land large numbers of infantry directly onto beaches. St. Helens was just one location they explored.

At a St. Helens City Council meeting April 3, the city councilors directed staff to continue talks with the PT 658 group, but they might be too late.

Boerger said the group has found a temporary home with a private company on Swan Island. They can even see the new location from the naval base. But they will still be searching for a long-term solution.

St. Helens has a lot of appeal, but there is one main objection: distance.

“The problem with St. Helens is that it’s so far away,” Boerger said. “And we’re working on [PT 658] constantly. For the people involved right now, many of them are older, that’s a long way to go.”

If PT 658 and the LCI were to settle in St. Helens, they could be located at the Grey Cliffs Waterfront Park, a small city park set between the busy marina and the steep Grey Cliffs.

“I’d love to see this project proceed,” said Councilor Susan Conn, echoing the other four councilors’ opinions.

Though he expressed concerns about the details of housing the boats (“What’s this going to cost and who’s going to pay?”), Councilor Douglas Morten said the boats would fit “uniquely” into the city’s waterfront plan. “This is a very exciting concept, I think.”

Even before the old Boise veneer plant near Olde Towne St. Helens announced it would be putting its waterfront property up for sale last year, the St. Helens City Council had been debating ways to promote and enhance the riverfront and downtown areas. The Maritime Heritage Festival and the Pirate Festival, both focused around the city docks and the waterfront park between the old county courthouse and city hall, has been a popular event for residents and visitors alike.

City Administrator John Walsh has said the city would be interested in the Boise property, which abuts the maritime park and would greatly expand the city’s stretch of public waterfront, but the price and conditions would have to be right.