Steamboat playground designer hopes Yampa River Queen doesn’t sink under wrecking ball
Steamboat Springs — In the back of a frigid lift shack at Howelsen Hill in the late 1980s, Kerry Kaster spent many of his nights creating the quarter-scale model of what would become Steamboat Springs’ most iconic playground.
The city parks foreman was having so much fun dreaming up the blueprints of the Yampa River Queen, he stopped keeping track of his work hours.
Children could scale bars on the paddle wheels.
A slide would take them through the engine room.
And phones made of sprinkler heads would let children talk to each other as they pretended to operate the boat.
“I felt like I was a 10-year-old when I was in that shack working on the model,” Kaster said Friday as he stood on the bow of the playground he spent hundreds of hours dreaming up nearly 30 years ago.
To give the playground the realism he was seeking, Kaster spent time researching various types of steamboats at the libraries in Steamboat and at Colorado State University.
The city also sent him to a playground design seminar.
He had to figure out how to make the elaborate steamboat designs he saw in the books into a wood-and-metal structure that would be safe for children.
Kaster’s playground design was so creative, it won a state award.
A $25,000 check from Colorado lottery funds would make Kaster’s steamboat a reality.
“It was a big deal,” Kaster said.
The city held a name the boat contest, and Kaster was delighted a boy came up with Yampa River Queen.
The boy earned a season pass to Howelsen Hill for his contribution.
When Kaster learned earlier this week the city has plans to raze the structure in West Lincoln Park and replace it with a modern playground, he was disappointed.
The Yampa River Queen needs some work, Kaster said, but he doesn’t think it should be torn down.
“These days, it’s too easy just to tear things down,” he said. “What would you come up with for this place, other than a steamboat?”
Sitting on the banks of a large pond, the playground creates a perfect illusion.
Old wooden wiring spools donated by Yampa Valley Electric Association make up the paddlewheels of the River Queen.
The bars on the paddlewheels were designed to accommodate the hands of a 10-year-old.
Kaster also used a large wooden wagon wheel he got from Si Lockhart, father of local icon Cookie Lockhart, as the steering wheel for the boat.
To this day, Kaster regrets having not more securely attached the wheel to the boat.
It was stolen within two weeks of the playground being opened in 1987.
“It’s probably in someone’s living room,” Kaster lamented.
Kaster’s plans for the playground were even more grand than the city could afford.
He had plans for a dock structure with more playground equipment.
But phase two never happened.
News of the playground’s planned demolition have been met with disappointment and opposition by some members of the community.
City officials said earlier this week the playground does not meet current safety guidelines or provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday voted to pursue a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to construct a new playground at the site.
Kaster suggested that instead of getting rid of the River Queen, perhaps new, ADA-accessible playground equipment could be built around the iconic structure he dreamed up.
Kaster also feels the River Queen could shine with fresh coats of paint and new LED lights that could make the boat look like it’s docked at night.
“I’d hate to see it torn down,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unattractive.”
Dave Herz built the playground and made Kaster’s concept a reality.
“I really liked the design, and I liked the concept” Herz said. “It was a real pleasure to do. I think it’s going to be a challenge for them to replicate kind of the whole presence that was achieved by that whole project.”
After Kaster’s playground design won the Park Design Excellence Award, the City Council at the time honored him with a special proclamation thanking him for his exceptional work.
On Friday, Kaster smiled as he watched a mother and her child climb the bars on the paddle wheels.
“I think it’s worth people talking about before they bring in the wrecking ball,” Kaster said of the playground.
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