In a sense, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s journey goes back at least 127 years — when its oldest resource, the square-rigger Balclutha, was launched into Scotland’s Clyde River. The park also owes a debt to early-1900s open space activists who protected a slice of San Francisco’s northern shoreline, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which built today’s Maritime Museum in the 1930s.
But it was decades before the park left the dock. A private Maritime Museum opened in the 1950s, and the State of California created a maritime park in the 1960s. The National Park Service gathered together the maritime cultural resources along the western waterfront as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the 1970s, and on June 27, 1988, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park was established to preserve, interpret and protect them.
From the beginning, preservation planning was a priority, and staff identified resource needs and developed implementation strategies. Best-sellers from the early years included Historic Structure Reports, a Statement for Management, and a Resource Management Plan. All these studies, and more, eventually folded up into the park’s guiding planning document, the 1997 General Management Plan.
At the same time, the resources themselves needed preservation, and the new park needed to establish interpretation and education strategies to serve its visitors.
Staff crafted a Long Range Interpretative Plan to recommend media and programs to articulate park themes and enhance visitor experience, and worked with the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association (the park’s Cooperating Association and founder of the original San Francisco Maritime Museum) to create an array of youth education programs.
Even as the park’s collections, library and archives professionals were converting paper records to computer databases, and treating and restoring delicate objects, park shipwrights, riggers and project managers were tackling some preservation heavyweights. The Balclutha, Eureka, Eppleton Hall, Hercules, Thayer and Alma were all drydocked at least once. Of the two large vessels most at risk, Thayer was able to be rehabilitated, but Wapama was not.
The park made headway on land, too. An historic lease enabled rehabilitation of the Haslett Warehouse, created the park’s first visitor center on the ground floor, and provided a revenue stream to help fund historic preservation projects. The Museum building, and surrounding bleachers, were also repaired.
Along the way, the park produced hundreds of events and programs, from daily tours and talks, to weekend festivals and concerts. Major in-house exhibits included “Cargo is King” and “The Waterfront,” and the park worked with outside curators to produce shows like “Deepwater Steel” and “W.A. Coulter: A Master’s Brush With The Sea.”
Hyde Street Pier hosted visiting vessels like the Princess Taiping (a replica Ming Dynasty Junk), and welcomed long distance solo sailors, like Japanese adventurer Kenichi Horie aboard his Mermaid III, and France’s Isabelle Autissier in the Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2.
Some of the accolades the park has taken onboard include: accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, the California State Governor’s Historic Preservation Award, the CA Heritage Council award, and a National Association for Interpretation Media award.
But for all that, the first 25 years have only been a shakedown cruise. The real trip will begin with C.A. Thayer’s sails catching the wind, next-generation exhibits filling the Maritime Museum, and visitors accessing park stories and resources at the touch of a screen. We’re casting off for the future and you’re just in time–welcome aboard!