For decades, visitors and locals alike have been fascinated by what they find when entering the Harbor History Museum. Inside is a fully restored school house from the late 1890s alongside hundreds of artifacts that preserve the maritime history of the area. Roughly 1,500 Peninsula School District children visit the museum on field trips—a chance for them to see and experience what life was like when the first European settlers were coming to the area. Just about everyone’s favorite experience, however, is getting up close with the museum’s prized possession, the Shenandoah.
According to Museum Executive Director Stephanie Lile, the Shenandoah is one of only two Skansie-built seiners left in Gig Harbor; one of a handful still in existence; and the only Skansie-built fishing boat that is open to all. The fact that it was made from wood makes it even more rare and all the more delicate. Keeping the Shenandoah in pristine condition and restoring it to its original look is of paramount importance to the Harbor History Museum, and the restoration project is one of the focal points of its current capital campaign.
Project 224606 is named after the Shenandoah’s vessel documentation number. The campaign came about after Lile and the museum’s development committee decided they needed to have a more defined goal with regard to the vessel and take better care of the museum’s collection.
“We realized, when looking at museums all around the world, that if you don’t have an enclosed space it will continue to rot and deteriorate,” said Lile.
While the vessel now rests at the museum, it had a long life at sea, contributing to a lot of wear and tear. The 65-foot wooden purse seiner was built by Pasco Dorotich at the Skansie Shipyard for service as a cannery tender. Little did Dorotich know that the boat would wind up having three lives: one as a cannery tender, one as a purse seiner and its last as a museum artifact destined to teach about the lives and livelihoods of those who built and skippered her.
“It was built here in Gig Harbor, for Gig Harbor fishermen, and fished by two Gig Harbor families,” said Lile of the vessel’s importance to the area.
During its time at sea it underwent many changes. The pilot house was rebuilt in 1948 and additional updates were made in the 1960s. This makes for a unique situation for volunteers who are working on the vessel on both sides.
“The Shenandoah will feature a full restoration on the starboard side and careful conservation on the port side. This approach will highlight various boat building and restoration techniques as well as allow for engaging interpretation of the commercial fishing industry and the stories of the men and women who have made it their livelihood,” said Lile.
Once completed, the space will provide a truly one-of-a-kind learning opportunity for school groups and other visitors.
“Students will come on board and be able to be very interactive with life aboard the fishing vessel. There will be characters in period clothing depicting jobs on board,” she said.
Volunteers have already put in thousands of hours on the restoration but, with the boat exposed to the elements, that work could be lost. Project 224606 aims to enclose the area around the Shenandoah and also the gallery itself, which is also open and exposed. “Right now it’s not very secure and you could actually be snowed on in the winter,” said Lile.
Enclosing the gallery will not only provide more security for the artifacts but also keep them away from exposure and provide a better experience for museum guests. Plans call for an additional 3,000 square feet of enclosed space which will allow the museum to bring out additional artifacts that are currently in storage. The added space will also provide more opportunities for events and educational and interactive exhibits.
“For example, ‘below the waterline’ exhibits will offer a peek inside the hull to see how the Shenandoah was built, how the engine worked and where the crew lived. ‘At the waterline’ will allow visitors the opportunity to discover life aboard a salmon seiner, from work deck to galley to pilot house,” said Lile.
A specially designed preservation workshop will allow museum staff and volunteers an area for restoration project where guests can also watch the process.
The fundraising goal of project 224606 is to raise $2 million to complete both the enclosure and refurbish the Shenandoah. Lile is hoping to have all the funding by 2021 and be able to celebrate a fully restored Shenandoah on its 100th birthday in April of 2025. About $400,000 has been raised so far through individuals, corporate donations and sponsorships, and grants. The museum was recently given a $100,000 grant from the Washington Heritage Capital Project, and other monies have been promised once fundraising reaches certain levels.
The museum is also calling for volunteers in other areas. “There are 10,000 screws that need to be put into the boat,” said Lile. “We accept wood donations, milled lumber and any artifacts that might be connected to the Shenandoah.”
Staff continues to find new unique pieces as the restoration continues, and they were even given the original bronze name plaque by someone who by happenstance found it at a swap meet in California.
“We are also looking for anyone who crewed on board the vessel so we can continue to expand the oral history of those who were on board,” she said.
Those interested in making a donation or learning more about the projects can stop by the museum or visit HarborHistoryMuseum.org. You can donate as an individual, and corporate sponsorships are also available at various levels. If you would like to offer your skills in the restoration of the vessel, the museum is more than happy to meet with you.
The Shenandoah is indeed a rare treasure and something that can keep the early history of the area alive so that future generations will remember those who first came to the area and the life they lived.
“We have lived, breathed and eaten from Puget Sound waters. Completion of the Maritime Gallery—through its enclosure and creation of engaging exhibits and interpretive experiences—will provide intriguing lenses through which we can see our past, explore our present and imagine our future while, at the same time, fulfilling and improving upon the original vision for the space,” said Lile.