By Stefanie Donahue
Expect to see about 20 old-fashioned steamboats navigating through Blaine Harbor this Saturday and Sunday, August 6–7. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time.
Seattle-based Northwest Steam Society (NSS) celebrates its 43rd annual steamboat meet in Blaine during Drayton Harbor Days. The boats are generally 25 to 30 feet in length and mimic styles that reached peak popularity in the late 19th century.
The international society has more than 200 members and makes an appearance at Drayton Harbor Days about once every five years. Twelve members live in Whatcom County, including Gordon Sullivan who cofounded the organization under a different name in the ’50s.
Sullivan grew up during World War II and started working in a steam plant on weekends when he was 13-years-old. Since then, he’s had a fascination with steam power, or live steam, as it’s typically called.
A master of machine and mechanics, Sullivan has become highly admired for his skill and passion for steam. He and his boat “Oesa” will join the NSS crew during Drayton Harbor Days.
“Oesa” has a top speed of about 9 mph and is equipped with an eight-horsepower triple-expansion engine. Affluent men typically used this kind of Edwardian-era boat for recreational purposes from about 1890 to 1910, he explained. Over time, the model became less efficient and less
popular than newer models on the market.
The annual NSS meets are one of the rare chances he gets to take his boat out on the water for all to see. Blaine, he said, is one of his favorite places to launch.
“Blaine has been very accommodating,” Sullivan said. “[It’s] truly appreciated.”
Whatcom County resident David Hogan shares a similar passion for live steam, and he has since he was a boy. His father helped to cofound Northwest Steam Society with Sullivan.
The pair were pioneers in making Edwardian-era steamboats popular again in the greater Seattle area, he said.
“Just about every time a steam boat was out, I was on it,” Hogan said with a laugh.
Hogan now cares for his sixth boat, called “Lueza.” The boat is equipped with an over 100-year-old engine that sat in a garage in Everett for about 30 years.
The boats’ mechanical works require a lot of time, money and attention to detail, Hogan explained. The steam society continues to act as a point of unity for individuals with the same interest, but with a variety of different skills.
“To take a piece of machinery and bring it back to life,” he said, “it’s a lot of fun.”
To learn more about the Northwest Steam Society, visit northweststeamsociety.org.