Nation’s oldest coal-fired steamboat returns to Mystic River

A 109-year-old coal-fired steamboat returned to cruising the Mystic River after a more than two-year restoration project.

The Sabino, billed by the Mystic Seaport maritime museum as the nation’s oldest coal-fired steamboat in regular operation, resumed public cruises Wednesday from the maritime museum.

The 57-foot (17-meter) steamboat, which was designated a national historic landmark in 1992, was built in 1908 in East Boothbay, Maine, and spent most of its career ferrying passengers and cargo between the mainland and islands off Maine’s coast.

The maritime museum bought and restored the wooden-hulled vessel in 1973, and has used it as a working exhibit since then, providing daily tourist cruises up and down the river during the summer and early fall.

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“To feel the moist heat on your face as you are approaching the engine, to smell the coal fire and feel the relatively quiet smooth operation of the original steam engine is exciting,” said Quentin Snediker, the director of the museum’s preservation shipyard. “You’re moving a vessel that weighs 50 tons, just with heat and water. It’s quite a sensory experience.”

The shipyard, which has also been responsible for projects including the building of the Amistad slave schooner replica, the restoration of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan and the current restoration of the Mayflower II, began the extensive restoration of the Sabino in 2014.

The project involved major woodwork, including replacing the shaft log, which was “about as deep a surgery as you can do on a wooden hull,” Snediker said. Shipwrights also reframed much of the stern, replaced the keel bolts, installed new planking and decking and restored portions of the superstructure, including the pilot house.

Engineers determined the old coal-fueled boiler could not be brought up to modern safety and regulatory requirements, so a new one had to be designed, fabricated and installed.

The more than $1.1 million restoration was paid for with public and private grant money, including $172,125 from the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office, $149,318 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a National Maritime Heritage Grant of $199,806 administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Snediker said the restoration should keep the Sabino in operation for at least the next…

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