Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Shaver Transportation: From Sternwheels to Stern Drives on the Columbia River


Many Shaver tugs, including the Portland and Sommer S, seen here assisting a bulk carrier on the lower Willamette River, are equipped with line-handling cranes. Photo courtesy of Shaver.

Shaver Transportation of Portland, Oregon has been a fixture on the Columbia River since 1880 when George Washington Shaver progressed from supplying wood to fuel steamboats to operating his first sternwheeler. On the Manzanillo, he began hauling freight to the downriver communities as far as Clatskanie, Oregon. By 1893, Shaver and his two sons James W. and George M. Shaver were ready to incorporate and open their own boatyard.

They launched two luxurious passenger carriers named the George W. Shaver and the Sarah Dixon after himself and his wife. There was fierce competition among the numerous passenger carriers on the run to Astoria, especially from the famous sidewheeler T. J. Potter, owned by the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company (ORNC). This rivalry was only resolved in 1896, when Shaver was persuaded to take its boats off the Portland/Astoria run in return for a monthly subsidy.

The wooden sternwheelers of that era were all driven hard and not built to last long. After 15 years, Shaver's top two boats were scrapped and the steam engines were removed and re-used in new boats carrying the same name. However, 1901 saw the launch of a sternwheel tug that proved to be the exception: the Henderson lived a charmed life, despite numerous mishaps. It was sunk and rebuilt in 1912, rebuilt and re-engined in 1929, and sunk and raised again in 1950.

It survived into the 1950's and became famous for its appearance in the movie "Bend of the River" starring James Stewart. This film included an old-time steamboat race down the Columbia River, with the Henderson going up against the heavily disguised steel-hulled sternwheeler Portland, built in 1946. The Henderson was still going strong when it was struck by its tow in 1956 near Astoria, which ended its 55-year career.

Move to Towing

With the arrival of the railway in Astoria in the 1890's, the riverboat industry was forced to change course. Shaver navigated around this issue by shifting to barge towing and ship handling. By 1914, the fleet consisted of seven steam tugs. Shaver was also ahead of its rivals in adopting diesel engines. They built The James W, in 1923 with 300 HP and a "screw propeller" and converted several of their steamers to diesel with propeller drive.

In 1938, when the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed the first dam on the Columbia River, Bonneville, Shaver responded by providing upriver barge service to the head of navigation at The Dalles, 48 miles above the dam. During the post-war boom years, Shaver operated two-dozen steel-hulled diesel tugs towing logs and barges on the river and along the west coast, and docking ships. The company extended service further up the Columbia When the new Dalles dam and lock came on stream in 1957.

When the Corps system of eight dams and locks was completed in 1975, it became possible to barge wheat from the farms of SE Washington's Palouse country down the Snake River to deepwater grain docks in the Portland area. Shaver began a barge-building program to meet the demand, for service all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, 365 miles from Portland. The company currently owns 18 (covered) barges with capacities of 2,500 to 4,000 tons. The barge fleet has a combined capacity of almost 62,000 tons.

Surprisingly, the scrapping of the Henderson did not mark the end of the steam era for Shaver. From 1947 to 1980, the Port of Portland's own steam-driven Portland was operated by local tug companies. Although outdated, this 219-foot sternwheel tug was the most powerful ship-handling tug and the workhorse on the Willamette River. The 1980 announcement that the Portland was being retired led the three tug companies then active on the river – Shaver, Brix and Willamette – to design a tug that could replace it.

Modern Technology

Shaver got a running start by having two naval architects on its staff, Donald Hudson and James Tower, design a set of features that are now standard in the industry, including a broad bow and stern and angled bulwarks set inboard. Their design would be equipped with the new azimuthing drive propulsion units manufactured by Maritime Industries in Vancouver BC.

Shaver won the contract and chose Nichols Bros. Boatbuilders, in Freeland, Washington to build the powerful azimuthing stern drive (ASD) or z-drive design in 1981. The arrival of the 107-foot, 3,000-HP (recently upgraded to 4,000 hp) tractor tug Portland made Shaver the first operator on the US west coast with this revolutionary technology. "It was definitely the first one on the west coast. There was only one other z-drive around at the time, and that one was on the East Coast," Shaver Transportation president Steve Shaver confirmed. The Portland exceeded all expectations, and has served in the port faithfully for more than 30 years, while the Canadian stern drives are still in great shape.

(z-drives are no longer produced in the Northwest – Maritime Industries ultimately became part of the Ulstein group, and is now owned by Rolls Royce Marine.)

By the early 1990s, Shaver was ready for a new tug that would contain all the latest ideas. So Steve Shaver went to Vancouver to ride on the new ASD tugs Robert Allan had designed for C.H. Cates & Sons. He came away convinced that this was the future of the industry. So Allan drew up the lines for the 79-foot Vancouver, which was launched by Martinac in Tacoma, Washington in 1993.

This was a sophisticated boat with features like electric winches, a crane to pass heavy hawsers, and power supplied by DDEC Detroit Diesel 16V 149s – the final version of this popular two-stroke with turbo-charging and electronic control, each producing 1,500 HP at 1,800 rpm and turning Niigata z-drives. It registered 85,100 lbs. of bollard pull, out-pushed the Portland, and became the company's flagship for the next 18 years. It was also the premier Robert Allan tug on the US mainland.

This success encouraged Shaver to fit ASDs to two new push tugs also built at J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding in Tacoma in 1997 and 1999. The Deschutes and Willamette are 91-foot by 36-foot, 3,540-HP towboats with push knees, and these boats pioneered the use of ASDs on inland waters – a concept now being seen on the Mississippi River. They are also used for ship handling when not upriver pushing Shaver's biggest barge tows through the locks.

Another Tug

By 2010, with the increase in bulk exports and more terminals planned for the lower Columbia, Shaver decided a third ship-handling tug would be needed, and began reviewing the design options. The desire to incorporate several unique features to suit the boat for its work on the river led Shaver to Capilano Maritime, the design office headed by Mark Mulligan, which opened its doors in North Vancouver in 2008. Mulligan had been an engineer at Maritime Industries, moving up to Seaspan, where he was responsible for the 72-foot Seaspan Hawk and Seaspan Falcon built in 1993.

Those two tugs were the basis of Shaver's new 78-foot Columbia Class tug, the Sommer S, constructed in North Portland at Diversified Marine. Sommer S is powered by twin MTU V16 4000 M61s developing 2,680 bhp at 1,800 rpm and turning Schottel SRP 1215 z-drives. It has Markey's new compact 50-HP DEPC 48 electric winch on the foredeck and a set of four Beebe electric winches for barge hauling on the aft deck. Bollard pull is an impressive 65 tons, making it by far the most powerful tug in the company's fleet.

"We designed this boat to be Columbia River specific," says Steve Shaver, President of Shaver Transportation. A lot of attention was given to the bridge to ensure the most ergonomic layout. "This boat has some of the best visibility of a ship-docking tug that I've ever seen," Steve added. The Sommer S can accommodate six crew in two double berths and two single berths, although she will normally sail with two or four. The new boat is named after Harry Shaver's daughter Sommer Sondra Shaver, who dedicated much of her life to Shaver Transportation.

In 2012, the company also acquired a 1990-built tractor with z-drives set forward under the wheelhouse and powered by twin 750-rpm B&W Holeby 1,600 hp diesels. This vessel, re-named Washington (ex Falcon, ex Delta Billie, ex Kinsman Falcon) has undergone extensive modernization, and brought Shaver's fleet to 12 tugs, with four ABS certified or approved as Columbia River Bar escort vessels. Including the two push tugs, half of Shaver's fleet are now ASDs. The company's fleet is RCP and ISO 9001/2008 certified.

Shaver's port engineer Dennis Malloy has overseen the re-power of six of the bigger boats with more powerful MTU 4000 Tier II engines, with help from various state and federal grants. All work except for drydocking is performed at the company's base on the Willamette River in Portland's northwest industrial district, centered on the 220-foot WWII landing craft purchased in 1960 and converted into a floating maintenance shop.

The office and administration onshore is housed in a vintage wooden airplane hangar converted to the company HQ, and is decidedly modest by today's corporate standards. The atmosphere is informal and the walls are decorated with wheels and name boards of historic Shaver craft, while models of newer boats are found in the offices.

Harry Shaver, 82, is chairman of the board and shares ownership of the company with his two children, Steve and Samantha Shaver. "My father, Harry Shaver, still goes to work 6 days a week," Samantha pointed out. "Through his leadership, we have successfully grown Shaver into the best company on the river. Without his vision and his guidance Shaver would not be where we are today."

Shaver's latest tug, the 78-foot Sommer S, built specifically for service on the Columbia River, is fitted with a Markey electric hawser winch forward and four Beebe electric winches for barge work aft. Photo by Peter Marsh.

Steve Shaver, who worked on the tugs for seventeen years, thirteen of those as a captain, is company president. "In honor of Shaver's 135th anniversary, I want to thank my brother Steve, who has put his knowledge, passion and heart into this company," declared Samantha. "Growing up on the river, he has constantly worked to make Shaver the best, from improving our equipment and staffing needs to providing innovative solutions for our customers. He is a tremendous asset to Shaver and he is the future of this company."

"We don't know what the future will bring but we do know that Shaver Transportation will be an integral part of the growth of the Columbia River System," said Steve. "We look forward to collaborating with our customers, vendors and partners to make a difference in shipping and barging for generations to come."

Samantha Shaver summed up the company's remarkable 135-year history this way: "At Shaver Transportation we have nearly 100 dedicated employees, including reliable dispatchers, knowledgeable vice-presidents and office managers, talented engineers, and experienced captains and deckhands. As a fifth generation Shaver, I take great pride when I say our employees are an extension of our family. "


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