The steamship Katahdin gets a new engine

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GREENVILLE — The steamship Katahdin is as much a part of Greenville as Moosehead Lake itself. The ship has been a fixture on the lake for more than 100 years. Recently, however, she has experienced some major challenges.

Berthed in the East Cove of Moosehead Lake, the 115-foot-long steamship was built by Bath Iron Works and launched on Moosehead in 1914. She is, for the first time since the 1950s, being fitted with a new engine. According to Liz McKeil, executive director of the Katahdin and the Moosehead Marine Museum, the two old Detroit Diesel 6-110s have been replaced by a single Caterpillar C-18, with 470 horsepower.

McKeil said over the past year it became apparent the old diesels just couldn’t keep up with the demand. Despite years of patching them up over time, engine parts have been increasingly difficult to find and unfortunately one of the engines caught fire during a cruise on July 20, 2018.

“One of the engines threw a rod,” McKeil explained. “It was spewing oil while the other engine was sucking the fumes from the oil. The engine began over-revving — It’s called ‘running away’ in marine-speak — and one of our guys was able to quickly shut off the fuel pumps. That shut the engine down. Thank goodness the crew was able to put the fire out quickly.”

McKeil noted that the employees drill on preparedness for such emergencies often. “We also do two shakedown cruises every year — one for the public and one for us. People who join us for these cruises find it’s an interesting and fun little trip where they can see behind the scenes.”

The Katahdin Moosehead Lake

Observer photo/Shelagh Talbot
NEW ENGINE — Workers from the Shipyard at Boothbay Harbor and Jack Whittier & Sons of Greenville slide the new engine on board the Katahdin on Nov. 11.

McKeil said when they do these drills it’s excellent preparation for a real emergency. “You hope, you pray that you’ll never have to find out how good your training is,” she said. “But as
it happened, we did find out and our training was very good. We can thank (former Captain) Maynard Russell for that. He taught me well and everyone involved takes safety really seriously.”

The Katahdin was originally used to move freight, mail, people and animals to the many outposts and resorts scattered along the shores of the lake during a time when water or rail were the chief modes of travel in the region. Later, the Kate, as she is affectionately known, was turned into a tugboat to round up acres of logs into booms which were then hauled across the lake to the Kennebec river outlets. She was the only ship involved in the last log drive on Moosehead in 1976.

Shortly thereafter, thanks to the tireless efforts of local businessmen Louis Hilton, Duke McKeil and Tony Bartley, the Katahdin was rescued from being scuttled and put back to work as a pleasure-touring craft. These businessmen along with Elliott Levy, the museum’s first executive director, helped oversee the first major round of fundraising for the vessel’s restoration and also formed the Moosehead Marine Museum to showcase the rich boating history of the lake. Since that time, taking a cruise on the Kate has become one of the most popular things to do in the Greenville area during the warmer weather, from late June to October.

Observer photo/Shelagh Talbot
KATAHDIN CRUISE — The Katahdin on a summer cruise on Moosehead Lake.

When it came time to change the engines in early November, it was quite a process to get the old engines out and put the new one in. “I was feeling kind of emotional about the whole process,” McKeil confessed. “When you stop to think about what those old engines have been through and what they’ve done for this boat – honestly, I never expected to feel this way about something inanimate like that, but what they’ve done for the Kate is really something. They’ve been true workhorses for so many, many years.”

They also replaced one of the generators that had been running the lights and providing power to the Galley. “We had an old Cat (Caterpillar) generator and that stopped working about halfway through the summer this year,” McKeil said. “We had to use our backup for the remainder of the season. So, we have been able to install a new C4.4 Caterpillar generator.”

The difficult part for McKeil was having to destroy one of the old engines and the two old generators as well — it was part of an agreement with the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) grant that partially paid for the items. “The idea of destroying these great pieces of old machinery was awful — all this machinery that has powered this boat for so long – it seemed like such a waste,” she said. Fortunately, one of the old engines was saved as a display item for the Marine Museum.

The board of directors has been very careful with how they managed the funds for the Katahdin and the Marine Museum so there has not been a significant amount of debt according to McKeil. In addition, they received bequests from the estates of Greenville resident Louis Hilton and longtime summer resident Joseph Kovacs.

“What that’s done for us is it put us in a position where when we needed to replace the engines, we were able to do so without going out to the community again,” said McKeil.

Contributed photo
THE ORIGINAL — Original Engine Room on SS Katahdin circa 1914. Note the coffee pot heating on one of the engine plates.

In addition to the new engine and generator, it was discovered there was a problem with the wiring, which will be costly to replace. “We found while planning for this project that we are going to have to replace all the electrical systems in the Kate and we have to do it now,” she said. “Going forward, we’re going to mount a significant capital campaign — we really need to create this as a kind of a legacy act. If we can raise ‘x’ amount of dollars to replace decks and then establish a fund so that every time the boat comes out of the water — about every 12 years to be repainted and repaired if necessary — we’ll have the finances all in place.”

All this work isn’t cheap. The new engine along with all the labor and other costs associated with installation came to $450,000. Installation of the new electrical system is estimated to cost around $200,000. It costs $250,000 to pull the boat out of the water to work on it, McKeil said.

The capital campaign fund will be instigated in phases. They are looking for $2 million for the first phase, with the total over time around $5 million. They expect these funds to be used to pull the Kate out of the water every 12 years for overhauls.

McKeil looks forward to the Katahdin being an integral part of the Bicentennial Celebration taking place next year throughout Maine. “We’re starting to branch out by doing different things with the Kate,” she said. “We had three cruises in September for example, with students from Piscataquis County; they did science stuff on the boat — water testing and learning about invasive species and watersheds.” Students of different ages from Milo, Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford, and Greenville participated in the study program which was made possible by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation.

The Katahdin and Moosehead Marine Museum staff are also planning to air a special program about the sunken steamboats on Moosehead — most of them sister ships to the Katahdin. In those days, it was a busy time for water transport, and they all plied the lake waters during the early decades of the last century. When these boats were no longer profitable, they were, in a number of cases, intentionally sunk. The Kate is the only one to have survived.

“I finally feel like we’ve made it over the hump,” McKeil said of their organization. “We have a great crew — there’s just no other group of people I’d rather be with and we have had the best year last year. We’ve had the highest ticket revenues ever — the second highest number of passengers ever and just extraordinary support from the community.”

For more information about the Katahdin and the Moosehead Marine Museum, visit or call 207-695-2706. Email

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