June 10, 2021
Without cargo, a sailing ship becomes a white elephant, beautiful, inspiring, but ultimately a hole in the water into which one throws money. The idea that a ship could carry, in essence, a cargo of memory and become a reservoir of skill, was a new one. It was not expressed in those terms, but these remaining vessels, representatives of the past were the means by which the knowledge and culture of the sea that remained were preserved. Ships are the reason skills and knowledge continue to exist, passed from hand to hand, links in the chain that stretches from the past and into the future. A ship, you see, is always being saved, with every coat of paint and rotten ratline replaced, and it takes a living sailor to pass the work along if the vessels we all love are to be kept brave with paint, bright with varnish, and black with tar.
I see the middle of the last century as a crossroads. It was the end of commercial sail, but the dream would not die. While museums devoted to maritime history had existed since the end of the nineteenth century, this time was the real beginning of the preservation of whole vessels, prosaic representatives of their breed with no special claim to fame beyond their existence. In this short post my focus is narrow, on San Francisco Maritime, but this phenomenon is worldwide, and a quick internet search will turn up many others for you to enjoy wherever you find yourself.
Karl Kortum was a central figure in this effort. The preservation of ships was and is a huge undertaking and truly a labor of love. Our Park began in the former bathhouse and casino that is now the Maritime Museum. He could have stopped with a museum, but he dreamed of ships, had spent his boyhood visiting the shipkeepers aboard the decaying vessels laid up on the Oakland shore and in Richardson’s Bay. In 1952 there was one remaining on those mud flats, the dilapidated Pacific Queen, once part of the Alaska Packers fleet and operated by a husband and wife team who had managed to scrape a living out of exhibiting the vessel as, among other things, a pirate ship. Frank Kissinger died one stormy night and his wife, Rose, was left to close the deal with the new National Maritime Museum Kortum had founded.
1954 saw Balclutha’s original name restored to her and the beginning of a massive restoration effort, largely funded by donations from shipyards, maritime companies, and skilled professionals who shared their spaces, time, and skills to make the old vessel new again. In January of 1955 a volunteer rigging crew began to work. They met every Saturday in Moore’s Alameda shipyard and by July, saw the vessel moved to Pier 41 on Fisherman’s Wharf for display. Each week a mimeographed letter was sent out to the crew to keep the effort going. From the first letter, dated January 4, 1955:
“Late in November I found out that the Maritime Museum Association of San Francisco can use some frustrated “stick ‘n string” men in the restoration of the Ship Balclutha…The majority of the restoration work is being done by volunteer workers. (This is mainly due to lack of money! Something I am sure you will understand.) There is little or no problem to get lots of willing hands to do the sandblasting, carpentry, shipfitting, etc. There has been a problem in obtaining men who could go aloft and work on the standing and running rigging.”
My copy of these letters was passed to me by my volunteer supervisor, as he passed me much of the small store of knowledge I have in preservation work. I have in my turn passed copies of it to others and have tried in vain to find the original document. It is an example of this living chain of experience that keep these representatives of the past alive and available for you to tour at San Francisco Maritime, and museums around the world.
At our Maritime Research Center, the portion of Kortum’s correspondence files that we have hold letters from all over the world. They show how his organization gathered information to restore the interior spaces in the forward deckhouse and fo’cs’le to the period he had chosen, the first career of the vessel, as a Cape Horner. Other museums and vessels participated in these efforts and you can find many familiar names of people and vessels scattered through them, as the pieces of knowledge that were left were recorded and used to make the past live again.
Today, some of these ships sail occasionally, like the Star of India in San Diego, and Elissa in Galveston, Texas. The world-girdling Picton Castle in Nova Scotia carries cargo and is a true training vessel. Far more are permanently moored, like our own Balclutha. While money is indeed a factor in whether or not a historic ship is sailed, it is by no means the only reason to keep a ship moored. These vessels are precious remnants of history, and to repair them completely erases information about their history and their construction. It also exposes crew and vessel to the possibility of loss or damage as they are not built to modern safety standards. The previous post in this series dealt with the breaking of the “red line of tradition,” the skills of handling large sailing engineless vessels that no longer exist. We have kept alive the potential for regaining them, and so Elissa and Star of India are able to make short sails, but ocean passages are now the province of vessels like Picton Castle, with auxiliary engines. Balclutha came to us as a fairly intact example of a pure sailing ship, and so she remains.
In the next segment of this series, we will meet the replica vessels of the modern sail training fleet. From a few ships built to recreate a specific voyage or to make a movie, the once empty ocean is seeing a new resurgence of sailing vessels. Purpose built, incorporating all the lessons we have learned about safety in the last century, and equipped with engines to allow them to keep schedules and get out of trouble when luck or nascent skills fail, we are able once again to venture out of sight of land and learn by doing. We now are building vessels where little or no actual historic fabric remains and seeing what it was like to sail in them, and what we can learn from doing so. We have opportunities that no other age has ever had, using experimental archaeology to step into the past by recreating what we know of it.
Want to Know More? Here Are More Paper Ships:
Karl Kortum. To Acquire The Pacific Queen. 1995, copyright 1996 by Jean E. Kortum. Available in the Maritime Research Center, San Francisco Maritime NHP.
Kate Lance. Alan Villiers: Voyager of the Winds. Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, 2009
Last updated: June 10, 2021