Local man gives 1920s-era steamboat new life

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

There’s an old Scout song and a movie about Steamboat Bill, but this is a story about Steamboat Phil, who went to Foster Lake to see if his old craft could ride the waves still.
Phil Nelson, who lives in the Mountain Home area, acquired an antique boat named “Argonaut,” that is powered by a steam engine, and is believed to have come from the USS Argonaut submarine from the 1920s.
After spending the past couple of years fixing up the historic craft, Nelson took it for a trial run at the lake early on a recent Saturday morning.
“This is the first time it’s been in the water. It’s either gonna sink or swim, but it runs,” Nelson said, before launching the craft.
Nelson, who restores old tractors, had gone to check one out in Tangent, he said. That’s when he spotted the 14-foot boat “stashed in (the seller’s) barn,” and Nelson made a deal to acquire it.
The motor and boiler were disassembled, so his brother helped Nelson get the motor running, and a friend helped reinstall it. Nelson himself repainted the steel hull of the boat. He decided to keep the wood trim mostly untouched.
“I wanted to leave everything original,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want to replace the wood or nothing.”
A metal plate on the boat reads, sometimes illegibly: Built by Tregoning Boat Co. Boat Builders, No. 2100, USI DBH, 10 1927, GA Steel 18 64 Ft. Persons (illegible), Seattle Wash.
Nelson and his friends have been trying to find the origin and history of the boat.
“It’s supposed to be either a lifeboat or a troop transport boat off the USS Argonaut,” Nelson said. “It was the biggest submarine that the United States had back in the ’20s.”
But for him, rebuilding the steamboat and giving it whirl on the lake has been fun. Nelson imagines what history it may hold.
“Them old sailors, they probably made moonshine on this thing while it was sailin’, and they could cook their fish on it and everything,” he said with a chuckle.

NELSON LIGHTS fuel in the firebox before launching his steamboat at Calkins Park. The fire creates steam which causes pressure to move the engine.

To prepare for the launch, Nelson stuffed the boiler with wood and paper, and started a fire. Watching the pressure gauge rise, he yanked on the steam whistle a couple times. Then he started the motor, which made a light chug-chug sound.
Samuel Franklin, 10, the son of a friend, hopped in to act as the whistle man, but mostly because he wanted to ride around the lake.
“I like it,” Sam said of the boat. “It’s fun.”
More than a dozen friends showed up to watch the launch, some from as far away as Vancouver. Even the guy who sold it to Nelson was there, Floyd Jenks, who said he bought it from “an old steam guy” in Junction City in the 1980s.
After about 15 minutes or so maneuvering around the boat launch at Calkins Park, Nelson knew what he wanted to learn. Would it sink?
“It’s leaking around the shaft, and that’s the only thing I was worried about,” he said. “I’ll fix it, one way or another.”
Nelson isn’t sure what he’ll do with the boat, but mentioned maybe it could go to a museum.
“It’s nothing that fancy, but it’s history, man.”