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The SS Columbia, ghost ship on the Buffalo River

The tattered SS Columbia looks like a ghost ship.

The three-deck steamboat that last transported passengers a quarter-century ago between Detroit and an amusement park in Canada now sits docked on the Buffalo River in the middle of the old grain silos.

Peeling paint, rotted wood and rust mark the once-gleaming boat. The ballroom on the second deck could have staged the ballroom-dancing ghouls in the cult classic “Carnival of Souls.”

The boat arrived here about two years ago to undergo restoration. When the crew’s work is eventually completed – 2023 or 2024 is the current timeline – the plan is for the boat to once again carry on open waters. But not here or elsewhere on Lake Erie.

“The whole mission of the project is to restore the tradition of the day-liners, that grand tradition of excursion boats on the Hudson River,” said Liz McEnaney, an architectural and urban historian who serves as executive director of the SS Columbia Project.

The steam engine is also envisioned as a teaching lab for science and math students, and a floating platform for arts and cultural programming.

“This is a regional story of generations who remember what it was like to be on these boats, escape the city and see the shoreline slipping away without a care in the world,” McEnaney said. “It was more about the journey than the destination. This was the vehicle for escape.”

The stairway from the crew's quarters to the main deck aboard the SS Columbia. Click on the image to view more photographs of the Columbia. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Before the boat can return to the water, more money will be needed. The cost is pegged at $18 million, with just $4.4 million raised to date. Those funds have been used to scrape 2 tons of zebra mussels off the hull below the waterline, shore up decks, clean the engine room and remove asbestos.

Most of the restoration work will be done in a Kingston boatyard. To prepare for its planned transport in 2019, the ship is being stabilized in Buffalo.

But step aboard, and the boat reveals its aging beauty,  from her long corridors and ornate mahogany markings, to the old-school engine room, a deck level below water.

Daytime travel was once a tradition

The 115-year-old Columbia  conjures another ghost, too: the Canadiana, the steamboat that ferried millions between Buffalo and Crystal Beach Amusement Park from 1910 to 1956. Both boats were designed by marine architect Frank E. Kirby.

Excursion steamboats were active on the Great Lakes from the early 1800s to the late 20th century.  The Columbia, with a capacity of 3,200 passengers, got its start in 1902. A slightly smaller sister ship, the SS Ste. St. Claire, was also launched for Detroit excursions in 1910.

Kirby designed a lot of the Great Lakes vessels, including the Americana, which for a short time made the same run from Buffalo to Crystal Beach.

“I was a kid when I rode it,” recalled Ian Danic, a member of the Columbia Project’s board of directors.  “I remember the Columbia being exciting from the very moment you lined up because it seemed so big.

“After we got established and the boat left the dock, I don’t think I hung around my family very much. I watched the engine room from a viewing platform, looking down to see the pistons moving with lots of interesting smells and noises. Because the vessel was self-contained, there was no place a kid could get in trouble.”

After the Columbia made its last trip on Labor Day weekend in 1991, the engine was greased and readied for the following season. Only there wasn’t one. The boat sat idle for years until a nonprofit took ownership with the goal of preserving the National Historic Landmark. The boat was shrink-wrapped for safekeeping, but that had the unforeseen effect of allowing moisture to get in, accelerating ship rot.

A view of the engine room in the hold of the SS Columbia. Click on the image to view more photographs of the Columbia. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Enter Richard Anderson, a Manhattan art collector and marine preservationist who wanted to bring the day-liner back.

Anderson located the Columbia in an inlet off the Detroit River and bought the boat in 2007 for $1. He established the nonprofit SS Columbia Project and obtained the original drawings and plans for the boat.

The Columbia was hauled to a shipyard in Toledo in 2014, one year after Anderson died. That’s when the zebra mussels affixed to the hull were found. Two-thirds of the underwater hull was replaced, at a cost of $1.6 million.

“The Columbia is entirely sea-worthy now, which is the most important thing you can do for a restoration project,” McEnaney said.

The boat spent a year there before coming to Buffalo in September 2015, where it’s docked behind Silo City’s Marine A grain elevator.

In Buffalo, work to stabilize the boat’s steel support structures and removal of wood rot is ongoing. The crew’s dining area, including two bunk rooms, have been cleaned to make the space accessible.

Why here?

“It’s cheaper to be in Buffalo, where the day rates are far lower than at a shipyard,” McEnaney said.

A view of the two stairways leading to the promenade deck from the main deck in the stern of the Columbia. Click on the image to view more photographs of the Columbia. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The state of New York is also invested in the project. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation gave it $1.2 million.

“This is a New York State boat now,” McEnaney said.

The project is raising the $1.5 million needed before the boat can be towed on the Hudson River for the journey to the Kingston shipyard, where the bulk of restoration work will be done.

To get there, the Columbia will make its through the St. Lawrence Seaway, past Quebec and down the Eastern Seaboard. It’s still to be determined whether the boat will be transported on a barge, or pulled by tugboats or a semi-submersible boat.

Art and science

The engine room is the heart of the boat. The tightly confined space is a whirl of steam-run pumps and generators, including cylinders, wheels and pipes of various sizes.

The original machinery from 1902 includes the triple-expansion steam engine, with 1,200 horsepower.

Keeping the engine running well is as much of an art as a science, said Ann Loeding, the boat’s restoration coordinator and port captain.

“While today’s propulsion technology is very connected to computer-driven analytics, the engineers were actually putting their hands on the bearings to feel the temperature to check it,” Loeding said. “That and the sound of the engine, including odd smells, alerted them to anything going wrong, or if it was time to maintain something.”

Paul Redding, maritime historian with the Buffalo Maritime Center, said one of his fondest memories of the Canadiana was the smell of coal, steam and oil in the lubricant when you stood near the engine room.

“It’s a smell you never forgot,” he said.

Luckily, the Columbia’s engine is in good condition.

“When the engine was laid up in the fall of ’91, it was done with the expectation the boat would go out the next year, so everything that was supposed to be greased was greased,” Loeding said. “So there’s no reason to think there has been degradation that would make it impossible to run the engine.”

The control room at the top of the Columbia. Click on the image to view more photographs of the Columbia. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The original steam boilers – one in use, plus a backup – are also in the engine room.

“She ran for 89 years without a breakdown, so clearly the compatibility between the engine and the boilers is very good,” Loeding said.

But there are challenges. When the ship was operating, it wasn’t necessary for the engine to condense steam to reuse it, because the boat was running on the Great Lakes and the water was relatively clean. But operating on the Hudson – where salt water from the ocean combines with freshwater – will require a different condensing system.

Ornate details

Just like the early 20th-century movie palaces, signs of elegance are all around the boat.

Ballrooms were coming into vogue at the dawn of the 20th century, and the Columbia was the first boat to have one, complete with small bandstand.

The salon on the backside of the ballroom offered leaded glass windows, and mahogany with dentil and egg-and-dart moldings. Cigar humidors were in a snack bar on the main deck. Even the crew dining room, with its curvy stairs that pass a built-in hat rack, had classical details, including Corinthian pilasters.

“It’s ornate but not overwhelming,” McEnaney said. “You don’t feel you don’t belong here, but it takes you to that next level.”

Old steamboat brings back fond memories of Crystal Beach shuttle

But there’s no mistaking the amount of work needed. That’s especially true of the third deck, surrounded by a promenade level that allowed people to stroll without interrupting the view.

“People who never rode one of the day-liners have no sense of the size, the scale or the details,” McEnaney said.

The nonprofit is pursuing arts and cultural programming. Torn Space Theater presented “Burden” on the boat last summer, drawing around 1,000 people to four days of performances. Other arts uses, including film and dance, are underway or under consideration.

“Buffalo is just a great creative place, honestly, for us to start trying programming,” McEnaney said. “The Columbia’s not Broadway-ready, but she is ready for a lot of different performances.”

Hipster cool

Detroit residents, marine enthusiasts and engine buffs were the only people who initially seemed to care about the Columbia.

Now the boat has obtained a measure of hipster cool, in the same way people are drawn to the grain elevator ruins of Silo City, and in the way millennials and others seek out authenticity, McEnaney said.

“There’s a whole different crowd of people who see her as a space that can be transformed,” McEnany said. “Silo City is a great place for us to be, because that’s a space that’s open to new interpretation, where old meets new and new meets old. I think that same vibe is going on here.”

“The grain silos are totally her contemporaries,” she added. “She’s found her home – until she gets to Kingston.”

Redding is hoping the Columbia can succeed where efforts to preserve the Canadiana, the Ste. Claire and a number of other day-liners failed.

“It would be great to see the Columbia run again on the Hudson River,” he said.

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