The Rainier Oregon Historical Museum is only three years old. But its exhibits just gained new steam with the arrival of a model of The Elsinore, a ferry that shuttled over 100 workers across the Columbia River daily between 1943 and 1957.
The museum will unveil a 40-inch model at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, and visitors can meet the artists and families involved in the project.
When gas rationing during World War II made driving across the Lewis and Clark Bridge too expensive, the Elsinore was a vital mode of transportation for workers bound for the Long-Bell Lumber Co. and Longview Fibre Co. mills in Longview and the Wasser Brothers Shingle Mill in Rainier.
According to museum president Kay Heflin, crossing the bridge cost $1.10; the Elsinore cost 25 cents. Even when the boat's owner Wellington McCollam had trouble affording gas, the Wollenberg family kept the ferry running by allowing McCollam to take gas from the Longview Fibre mill.
Phil Fake, an avid model maker, built the model. Heflin said Wednesday that Fake first offered to build a boat model when he visited the museum's open house in September.
"And the Elsinore stood out because it served for so many years," Heflin said.
The Elsinore carried between 100 and 175 passengers each day during the 1940s, and it is still a part of local memory. Heflin said Friday that when she posted a photo of the ferry on Facebook, she received plenty of comments from native Rainier citizens who remember riding the boat.
"The Elsinore touched so many different lives in Rainier," she said.
It also saved lives. During the ferry's career, McCollam rescued 10 men whose boats capsized in the Cowlitz River during fishing season. On another occasion, the Elsinore picked up three Rainier brothers involved in a river accident.
The Elsinore also experienced at least one near miss. An article from the Rainier Review said that the Elisore's operator was crossing the river on an "unusually dark night" when he sensed something.
"Finally, he dared to break (World War II) blackout regulations and flashed a spotlight on the 'illusion' ahead of him. It was just in time to prevent hitting a Russian tanker broadside."
Business eventually slowed, especially when the bridge toll was lowered, and the Elsinore was damaged in 1957. The boat's last owner, Omar Rea, intended to restore the Elsinore, but he left it in a vacant lot. It was burned in a bonfire as part of the 1961 Rainier Daze Beach Party.
Though the Elsinore has been gone for almost 60 years, photographs and Rainier residents have kept its memory alive. Fake said Friday that he relied heavily on Willard McCollam's memories to do his model of the ferry.
McCollam's father was the Elsinore's owner in its heyday. McCollam left the ferry business mostly to his father and brother, but he did ferry passengers to Fibre one time in 1948 and had to dodge ice in the river.
Nonetheless, Fake said McCollam was an integral part of the process.
"We got together every two or three weeks throughout the winter," Fake said.
They conferred on the ferry's details, especially because there are no photos of the boat's interior or stern. Fake also relied on his own experience living on boats to inform his model-building. Until 2016, Fake, his wife, Dorothy, and his son Sailor lived on a 1940s vintage wooden boat similar to the Elsinore.
Fake started working on the model in October and finished the final touches just last week. It's made almost entirely out of wood and has working lights.
The Elsinore is not the only model in the museum, though it is the largest. Recently, Heflin said, Jan Everman donated a small model of the tug boat Climax, which was part of the Wilbur Smith Tug and Barge fleet.
The museum itself started as a collaboration between Heflin and Mike Clark, an art historian. Heflin's father, King Foshaug, was a photographer and had a large collection of photos from Rainier's early history.
When he passed away, Heflin started posting the photos on Facebook. Clark likewise had a collection of Rainier photos and postcards, so he reached out to Heflin with the idea of starting a museum to preserve Rainier's memories.
The museum is inside Rainier City Hall at 106 West B St. It is open noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Both Fake and McCollam will attend the Elsinore's unveiling, and the model will be displayed beside McCollam's oral history of the ferry.