Enthusiasts from the Northwest Steam Society are gathering their fleet of boats and historical memorabilia at Blaine Harbor for their 50th anniversary celebration of all things steam, Friday, August 11 through Sunday, August 13.
Five boats arrived for the Drayton Harbor Maritime Festival on August 5-6, but organizers said they hope to see 16 steamboats and two steam cars for their annual public event.
The steam society’s relationship with Blaine stretches back to the early years of the maritime festival, said Blaine Chamber of Commerce volunteer Carroll Solomon.
“They’ve always been a part of our event on a smaller scale, but this year there are going to be more of them, and they’re going to be here longer,” she said.
The steam society plans events throughout the year for members to swap parts and stories, discuss issues and solutions and, most of all, enjoy peace and silence on the water.
Those interested in learning more about the steam society can find them at Gate 2 in Blaine Harbor ready to answer questions and show off their steam collectibles on Friday from noon to 5 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon. The Blaine Harbor Boating Center, 235 Marine Drive, will also have an indoor display of steam memorabilia, including models, engines and two presentations chronicling the history of the steam culture from the 1960s to today.
Dave and Bonnie Hogan were in charge of planning the 50th annual steam meet. Dave inherited his love for steam from his father in the 1950s and joined the steam society at 10 years old. Bonnie got involved when the two married over 30 years ago.
The public’s interest in steam was so strong that the hobbyists decided to hold an annual public event where non-members could stop by and satisfy their curiosity about the steamboats. That was about 50 years ago, Dave said.
Today, even though steam society membership is lower than where the Hogans would like, they get plenty of comments when they take their one-of-a-kind vessels out on the water.
“We would take our boat and go down to the lake, and it would take us an hour and a half to launch because of the interest people would show,” Bonnie said.
In addition to sharing their collection with the Blaine community, the steamers hope to send a message to anyone interested in connecting with a regional group of steam hobbyists.
“We’re trying to stir a little bit of interest,” Dave said, adding that most members are in their retirement ages and it would be nice to see more young people involved.
At one time, the large fleet of hobbyist steamers in Whatcom County was endearingly called “The Mafia,” but now, Dave said, he’s watching his community shrink as members age and overall technological advancements charge ahead.
Some of the steam society’s boats were built over 100 years ago and, aside from navigation upgrades, still use the original machinery. Others have embraced modernity and offer more automated controls.
This year’s steam meet theme is “Remembering the past, inspiring the future.”
“Our goal is to get that through to the younger generation that it doesn’t have to all be ancient machinery,” Bonnie said.
When people ask Dave how fast his steamboat goes, he tells them it’s not about miles per hour, but about enjoyment per mile. He said the steamboat engine is closer to a human heartbeat than any other engine, allowing for a sense of peace on – and below – the water.
“We’ve had people have experiences where the fish come up close to them, the seals will come up and poke their head around,” Bonnie said. “It’s not a harsh piercing sound, so they’re curious about it.”
The Hogans said it’s not unheard of for visitors to be invited out on the water if they arrive before the steamers launch. Don’t be bashful, Dave said; those hoping for a ride should ask.
Owning a steamboat has been more than a hobby, Dave said. It’s education.
“The steamboat is what the boater wants. It’s their own creation,” he said. “We’re working with wood, fiberglass, steel and welding. There are so many different trades involved in putting it together.”
As the steam society celebrates its semicentennial steam meet, part of the steamboat’s appeal for Dave is the timeless simplicity.
“What are some of the necessities of life? Water. Fire,” he said. “It has that.”
Information about annual membership, upcoming events and quarterly publications are available on the steam society’s website northweststeamsociety.org.
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