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Ghost Queen: Story of the forgotten River Queen

Rotting River Queen lurks up the Columbia River from Goble, her story and memory fading with time

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The roof above the top deck near the stern of the River Queen has begun to collapse. A message warns trespassers to stay off the boat, and a vending machine sits as a sarcastic greeting for the 'tweakers,' according to owner Clay Jonak.

Editor's note at the request of the owner: the River Queen is on private property. Please respect his privacy.

It's been a ghost for nearly two decades, whispering memories from a bygone age.

Now, the River Queen sits and rots, its future unsure and its hull slowly sinking toward the Columbia River muck.

Curious travelers can get a glimpse of a hulking ship moored just upriver from the tiny town of Goble, peering through a thicket of trees between Highway 30 and the river. The mystery has drawn hopeful visitors for years, and the current owner has spent much of his time fighting off vandals and would-be explorers.

But now, says owner Clay Jonak, it's time to tell the old queen's story, lest it be lost to time — and to the river itself.

Born as the S.S. Shasta, the River Queen was originally constructed as a steam-powered ferry during the pre-Golden Gate Bridge days in San Francisco. The boat had a length of 216 feet, 7 inches, and room for 55 automobiles and 468 passengers who could to travel across the bay between San Francisco and Oakland.

In the late 1930s, when the newly constructed Golden Gate and Bay bridges effectively put an end to the ferry business, the Shasta and other ferries were sold off. One was taken to South America, but the Shasta made her way to Seattle and worked in the Puget Sound. By the late 1940s, it was already outdated. By the mid 1950s, it was used sparingly because of heavy smoke that billowed from her bright red smokestack.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Ornate crimson and gold wallpaper is still in good shape on the upper deck near the stern of the boat, where wait staff likely kept extra dishes and silverware for dining guests. The woodwork around the alcove in each direction has collapsed.
In 1958, the River Queen was retired from its run between Bremerton, Wash., and Seattle and replaced with a pair of ferries — the Klahowya and Tillikum — both of which still run today.

The River Queen's stint on the Columbia River as the “Centennial Queen” to celebrate the 1959 Oregon centennial celebration was short-lived. Three years later, in 1962, it was bought and converted into a floating restaurant.

For more than 30 years, both in Oregon City and on the waterfront in Portland, the boat entertained visitors as a unique floating attraction. The engines were cut apart to better utilize the space on the vehicle deck, with dining on both decks and a dance floor where cars once parked.

Without the powerful steam engines, the River Queen was just a barge below the water line. But from above, it was an opulent vessel. Delicate woodwork and stained glass adorned the aft-dining room on the upper deck, with trim around the walls painted a bright red to match crimson carpet and chairs. One wall was covered with a glimmering gold-colored paper and an intricate pattern of felt-like markings.

Outside, flags hung on wires strung between her smokestack, and red, white and blue awnings surrounded the upper deck's antique windows. The various pipes on her roof were either bright red or bright blue, depending on the year.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Ferns grow where diners and dancers once sat on the lower deck of the River Queen, long after she had been transformed from her days as a car ferry. Many of the large windows facing the river have been broken, their brass finishings stolen long ago.
Downstairs, cushioned red seats lined the outer edge of the dance and dining floor, stretching beneath large windows that dominated the walls of the lower deck. Between the upper and lower floors were a pair of elegant staircases, split up the middle with vibrant red banisters.

With a glimpse of the old River Queen's former glory in mind, it's easy to see what made it such an attraction. The old ferry boat was a destination for wedding receptions and anniversary celebrations, and even hosted top U.S. Navy brass at times when ships came into Portland for the Rose Festival.

The few collections of River Queen memories online draw countless comments from well-wishers who remember what dining and dancing on the floating restaurant was like. Those who can recall the experience paint the River Queen as an interesting place to visit. The food was good and the boat remained somewhat of a destination despite its attempts during river floods to work free of its bonds.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Antique glass remains untouched in windows on the river side of the 93-year-old boat, protected from vandals by the dilapidated kitchens. The roof on the side facing highway 30 is still in decent shape.But it was not to last. According Jonak, the renovators made mistakes when changing the vessel from a ferry to a restaurant. For one, they used household lumber for the ornate woodwork — not marine-grade wood. They also didn't care for the aging hull, and did nothing about asbestos belowdecks and inside the boiler room.

Eventually, in 1995, the boat fell into disrepair when a family illness forced the River Queen to close. More than two years later, it was bought by Portland-area developer Michael Beardsley who hoped to turn her in to floating condos: two units on the upper deck and two on the lower deck. The idea, because of an over-saturated market, fell through. So did later efforts to turn her into a floating casino.

Beardsley wrote in a blog post in November 2009 that he was willing to give tours of the dilapidated boat to anyone “with even a passing interest” in taking it off his hands.

“The ship is in a state of disrepair that, while not beyond hope, would still require many man-hours of elbow grease and no small amount of dollars to bring her around to her former glory,” Beardsley wrote.

Shortly thereafter, the River Queen was put where many unused and unwanted items end up, though it might come as a surprise: Craigslist.

The ad attracted Jonak, a marine salvor who had kept his eye on the Queen for several years. Jonak says he immediately went to Beardsley's office and bought the boat for $2, cash.

What he found, though, was disheartening. The River Queen was in far worse condition than he expected, having nearly succumbed to 10 years of vandals, squatters and “tweakers.”

Jonak says the boat was full of trash, including discarded needles and shattered glass. The unique brass finishings from the boat's interior were gone, and many of the antique windows were missing. At times, it was apparent people would take potshots at the side of the River Queen from nearby Columbia River Highway.

Once, Jonak remembers, a rock band arrived by boat, broke into one of the starboard windows, and filmed a music video inside using his electrical hookups to power their instruments and equipment before escaping the same way it had come.

The trash has been mostly cleaned up, and it's possible to walk on the main deck and parts of the upper deck, but the floors remain littered with shattered glass. Now, there are just a handful of barrels and the frame of a rusting trailer on the inside of what used to be the car deck. A single broken chair and a few kitchen items lurk upstairs.

Jonak says the boat is basically ready for the next step in her life.

But he had no idea he'd bought more than just a project in 2008. He was about to see his business slowly wash away and spend the next seven years battling to simply keep himself and the old monarch afloat.

More to come: This is part one of a two-part feature story exploring the former glory and current state of the historic River Queen.