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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

21 May 2014

❖ Live-Steamers from McConnell Island ❖ 1952

Thomas G.  Thompson, Jr.  and family
next to his driftwood-engined steamboat
FIRE CANOE on John's Island beach, 1952.
Bunkers were empty so they landed for 15 armloads of driftwood; 
they could steam c. 1.5 miles, on one armload. 
Each autumn FIRE CANOE was hauled up
into the timber and covered for the winter.
"Come the apple blossoms, she'll be painted and polished and ready
to add to the 2,611 nautical miles she has sailed since 1949." TGT.
Cropped original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
" Seeing this photo of FIRE CANOE on John's Island, collecting driftwood and stone brought back a flood of memories of Tommy Thompson and FIRE CANOE.
      After Tommy graduated from the U of WA in the late 1940s with a degree in mechanical engineering, he needed to get the cobwebs of academia out of his head, so he took a couple of years off and headed for the San Juans.
      During this time he constructed his parent's lovely, architect designed home on McConnell Island.
      This place was unique, not only in its site sensitive placement and form, but also in that it was massively constructed almost entirely of beach combed materials. Floors were sandstone flags [2.5 tons] from Stuart Island, roof beams were large fir timbers from many island beaches, and walls and fireplaces were beach granite. All of this was hauled to McConnell via FIRE CANOE.
      What you see in this photo is one of the many collecting expeditions. The double ended steamer is an ex-Coast Guard wooden lapstrake surf boat. Tommy built the Roberts style boiler from iron pipe and burned driftwood for fuel. The engine was a 1905 Thorneycroft compound of 12-15 HP±
      The box-ey boat along side was actually two boats. These were WW II surplus assault boats. The two were bolted together transom to transom. I suspect in this elongated fashion they towed easier than two separate boats. The military used these boats for everything from ferrying troops across rivers with paddles or outboards, or even as pontoons for floating bridges. They were built light of plywood with little framing and could be hand carried with enough men. They might also have been "nestable" like a banks dory (?) The last I remember they were upside down, side by side, next to the lagoon on McConnell, c. 1960.
      Colonel Thompson, Tommy's dad passed away 12 August 1961 and Tommy inherited the house he had beach combed.
      Tommy and Anne's young family (five children) lived and worked on Fidalgo Island and for the next 35 years± they would commute to McConnell on summer weekends. They put so many miles on FIRE CANOE that they wore out 3 or 4 boilers. Of course it didn't help that the fuel of choice was salt soaked wood! En route, stops at beaches on James Is or perhaps Spencer Spit, Lopez Island were mandatory to keep up steam.
      One of the joys of living on Wasp Passage was watching for FIRE CANOE, west bound, towards dusk, on a summer Friday evening. If we happened to be about in the boat we would get an enthusiastic whistle! More commonly we would just see her slipping along the Crane Is. shore with the flood. It would usually be calm and you could just make out the sweet, quiet, thump, thump, thump of the compound engine. On rarer occasions, someone might be practicing on the 10-whistle steam calliope!
      There was a peaceful appropriateness to that kind of boating that always had its charm.
      Tommy passed away in the mid 1990s and FIRE CANOE is mouldering away in the trees on McConnell. Steam has not left the Wasp Islands however, but that's another story!"
Text kindly submitted by Skip Bold©, Wasp Passage, San Juan Archipelago, 2014.
For the Saltwater People Historical Society.

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