National Museum of Australia's paddle steamer Enterprise undergoes restoration
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National Museum of Australia's paddle steamer Enterprise undergoes restoration

The paddle steamer Enterprise has undergone its most extensive restoration since it was controversially acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 1984.

The boat is on the slip at Black Mountain until Wednesday when it will steam back across Lake Burley Griffin to its home at the jetty near the museum.

National Museum of Australia large technology conservator Nathan Pharaoh  and shipwright Mark Lionet have teamed up to restore the paddle steamer, Enterprise.

National Museum of Australia large technology conservator Nathan Pharaoh and shipwright Mark Lionet have teamed up to restore the paddle steamer, Enterprise.Credit:Karleen Minney

PS Enterprise is one of the world's oldest paddle steamers, and the largest functional object in the museum's collection. It was launched in 1878 on the Murray River at Echuca. It was one of the first things acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 1984, but underwent restoration before coming to Canberra.

National Museum large technology conservator Nathan Pharaoh said it was officially recommissioned on Lake Burley Griffin for Australia's bicentenary in 1988.

The Enterprise as pictured on Lake Burley Griffin in September, 1988.

The Enterprise as pictured on Lake Burley Griffin in September, 1988.Credit:David James Bartho/Fairfax Media

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"It was a little bit controversial at the time because the Echuca and the Murray River paddle boat scene really felt that this was part of their [history] and they didn't want to see it removed from the river," Mr Pharaoh said.

At the time of its acquisition, before the museum was built, the Enterprise was the flagship object, he said.

"This was a sign of what could be with the National Museum. It used to chuff around the lake with museum signs on it."

More than 30 years on from the museum's first work on the boat, it was due to be slipped at Black Mountain for about a week to be restored.

"It hasn't been slipped for a few years so we have pulled it out of the water and we're going over the vessel, doing a lot of remedial timber work and addressing the issues that are common for a vessel of this age," Mr Pharaoh said.

Every two days, the boat is being flooded to ensure the timber retains water to enable it to keep afloat when back on the water.

The boat is traditionally made of river red gum and functions on burning wood. Parts of the boat being restored included the back deck and metal railing, the boxes that house the paddles and the paddle wheels.

"We're actually doing the paddle wheels themselves because of the age of the vessel," Mr Pharaoh said.

"They're quite interesting in the fact that they're wooden spars, which is quite unusual for Murray River boats. It is showing the sign of its age, being one of the earliest vessels in existence."

But the challenge proved to be getting timber in the sizes used on the vessel, which isn't readily available.

Mr Pharaoh said the timber used in the last restoration wasn't ideal, so he and Braidwood shipwright Mark Lionet researched the best options.

"We've done our best to get quality wood that is Australian, so most of the stuff we're putting in is red river gum or spotted gum.

"We had to do a lot of research and source wood from all over," Mr Pharaoh said.

Mr Lionet is one of three contractors working on the boat, alongside museum staff and volunteers.

His "dying trade" skills working with maritime wood and timber had been of great benefit to the project, Mr Pharaoh said.

Mr Lionet said the project was a rare opportunity.

"It's fantastic, it's rewarding. It's just great to see it brought back to life and to preserve the old vessel and a big part of Australian history," he said.

"The boat is beautiful, it's a fantastic old lady. It is a beautiful-looking old vessel and when you read up on the history of the boat, the previous owners and what it was designed for and its life as a working boat, it's amazing that it is still going to float."

The boat is moored at the National Museum of Australia on Lake Burley Griffin. Volunteers operate it regularly to help keep it in working order.

Kimberley Le Lievre is the Editor of The Sunday Canberra Times