STAR ready to shine again

North Shore native Paul von Goertz has taken on many challenges over years of rebuilding classic and antique boats. His latest: restoring the last surviving Isle Royale double-ended gas boat, the STAR, from its rotting remains.

Paul von Goertz works on restoring the STAR last November. (Photo courtesy of Paul von Goertz)

North Shore native Paul von Goertz has taken on many challenges over years of rebuilding classic and antique boats. His latest: restoring the last surviving Isle Royale double-ended gas boat, the STAR, from its rotting remains.

Von Goertz grew up on the shore of Lake Superior about two miles from Park Point. By watching all of the boat traffic in the area, Von Goertz became a boat expert at a very young age. By the time he was 14 years old, he had built a 12-foot catboat with only hand tools. Over the years, he started to rebuild classic and antique boats. Von Goertz said each boat that he rebuilds is carefully selected to teach him something about the different techniques and theories used in wooden boatbuilding.

For his latest project, Von Goertz said the choice was quite clear: The vessel should be a North Shore gas boat. He said he hoped that one of those vessels would help him learn more about boats built for North Shore and Isle Royale commercial fishing.

Old wooden commercial fishing boats are extremely hard to find, he said. The production and use of wooden fishing boats largely stopped by the 1950s. After 60 years, most of the boats have rotted away or have been used as firewood. Boats of that era were not built to last 100 years; they were meant to be replaced every six to eight years.

During an interview last week, Von Goertz recalled his first choice for the boat he wanted to rebuild.


"I wanted to rebuild a Hill family boat, since they are boat builders who live in town," he said.

There were three boats in Knife River that were close to what he was looking to rebuild. Each boat was owned by the sons or relatives of commercial fishermen. Von Goertz said he approached each one and attempted to interest them in selling their boat to him, but none of them were willing to sell because the boats have become a part of their "family."

A break came with the help of the owner of the Knife River Campground, Randy Ellestad. Ellestad was aware of the STAR, a 20-foot wooden gas boat that was built in 1934 and had fished Isle Royale for many years. The STAR is an open boat with a one-cylinder gas engine; it went through a couple owners who lived on the North Shore and eventually ended up in Knife River, where in 1970 it was sold to a person who intended to restore it.

In 2002, Ellestad discovered that the STAR still had the same owner from 1970, but it had not been restored and was now in Grand Marais. Ellestad said what he saw when he found the STAR was sad: It was uncovered on its starboard side, slowly rotting into the ground.

Von Goertz said he immediately was interested in the STAR after looking at photos Ellestad had acquired. After seeing that the vessel was designed for the large seas one could expect fishing the waters off the shore of Isle Royale, Von Goertz was determined to find it.

The first verdict on the STAR, Von Goertz said, was that it was "too far gone." But after sitting down with his friends and coming up with an approach to rebuild the boat, Von Goertz accepted the challenge with a goal of keeping as much original material as possible.

Because there was heavy damage and rotting on the starboard side of the boat, Von Goertz had to restore the boat's shape. He first started by removing everything that had been tacked on to the boat, and then started working on the hull. While fixing the hull, Von Goertz discovered that the boat had a wider beam toward the front to help the bow climb up and over waves, rather than plowing through them.

Next, he started removing the frames or ribs of the boat; that's as far as he had gotten through last November, when worked stopped for the winter. This month, Von Goertz said, he can finally start working on the boat again now that the weather is warmer.


Once finished with the STAR, Von Goertz plans on using her out on Lake Superior for a while. Then, he said, he'll probably get another itch to restore or build a different boat - and because he will be turning 70 years old this year he doesn't know how many boats are left in him.

When he is ready to give up the STAR, he plans on either selling it, or giving it to the Lake County Historical Society or to the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte.

"It is a piece of local history and it is not going to leave the area," Von Goertz said.

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