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Don't call it a swan song, swan boat returns to Tualatin River after 50 years

BARBARA SHERMAN - On a glorious fall day, Charlie Stalzer peddles the restored swan boat on the Tualatin River at Tualatin Community Park with the railroad trestle in the background.After more than 50 years, a swan has returned to the Tualatin River.

This year, the 76-year-old swan-shaped boat plied the waters of the Tualatin for the first time since the mid-1960s, sliding into the water at Tualatin Community Park early last month.

The boat was restored by Charlie Stalzer and Paul Whitney, who worked for months to restore the two-person boat with help from Tualatin Riverkeepers.

The boats harken back to an earlier time in Tualatin’s history, when boaters and swimmers headed to Avalon Park every spring and summer.

Rose and Johnny Frederick opened “Ava-lon Pleasure Park” in 1933 or ‘34 after the family purchased 15 acres along the Tualatin River where the Commons at Avalon Park apartments are now located on Pacific Highway.

COURTESY OF TUALATIN RIVERKEEPERS - Charlie Stalzer sits in a dilapidated swan boat brought to the Tualatin Riverkeepers' property from John Frederick's farm, where it sat for decades.At the time, Avalon Park was the largest of several “picnic parks” in the area, drawing 2,000 to 3,000 people at a time in its heyday. The park had canoes for rent, a dance hall, a softball field and more, but one of the biggest attractions were the brightly-colored swan boats, which Frederick’s parents purchased at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair and transported to Tigard.

“You peddled them with your feet and turned them using the swans’ necks,” said son John Frederick in a 2009 interview.

The park was a successful venture for decades until 1953, when the Oregon Highway Commission condemned more than an acre of Avalon Park to widen Highway 99W. The arrival of free state parks in the 1950s and a series of windstorms and floods lead Avalon Park to close its doors in the 1960s.

Last spring Frederick donated two swan boats to the Riverkeepers. The boats were missing parts and rotting after being stored on his Scholls-area property for 50 years.

Whitney and Saltzer got the call to bring them back to life.

“We need to get those swan boats,” Whitney recalls hearing. “(They) knew I had restored canoes for the Riverkeepers, and I said, ‘Sure, I can help.’”

Stalzer and Whitney decided to rebuild only one of the boats, so they could utilize parts from both to restore a complete one.

The duo got together on Saturday mornings over the summer to work on the project, never knowing what problems they would encounter, Whitney said.

“We kept telling ourselves, this is not a dining room table — it doesn’t have to be perfect,” he said.

BARBARA SHERMAN - On one of many Saturdays spent restoring the swan boat, Charlie Stalzer (left) works on the paddlewheel while Paul Whitney is busy in the background.Over the months, the men rebuilt rotten pieces with new wood, screwed sections together, and sanded and painted the boat; Stalzer even had to re-create the missing top of the swan’s head.

“I nicknamed Charlie ‘MacGyver’ for the way he could fit things together and make them work,” Whitney said. “Charlie and I have an affinity for keeping junk around, and we used scrap wood for much of the boat so didn’t have to buy a lot.”

The boat was officially restored in October, but didn’t hit the water until last month, when the Tualatin River rose high enough to launch the boat on its first voyage in 50 years.

“I was so pleased that it moved and Charlie could peddle it,” Whitney said.

While the swan boat was put into storage for the winter, Whitney, Stalzer and the others are hopeful that it might end up on display at the Washington County Museum in Hillsboro or another local agency that can appreciate the boat’s long history, Whitney said.

“I’m glad it’s over, but it has been a pretty pleasing project, and we had a good feeling doing it. Now the challenge is what to do with it,” Whitney said. “The whole history of the swan boat is such a good story.”

BARBARA SHERMAN - Paul Whitney (left) and Charlie Stalzer wave as they take a victorious lap in the swan boat they restored  over a several-month period last summer.