America’s most endangered historic ships often go unnoticed. They rot at an inaccessible industrial pier, sit idle in a marina’s back lot, or float nobly with a hidden cancer below the waterline. When I use the term “endangered,” I mean the ship is in serious, even imminent danger of destruction. But “endangered” can also mean that a detailed plan to save the ship doesn’t exist, or preservation is impossibly expensive. In an effort to raise public awareness of the fragility of these unique treasures, I’ve compiled a list–with the help of my readers–of the 10 most endangered historic ships in the U.S. in 2011. Some of these vessels could disappear completely in 2012.
Wapama (Richmond, Calif.) – The steam schooner Wapama, the last surviving example of a fleet of ships that carried cargo and passengers along the west coast, suffers the ignominy of a death sentence that will be carried out by the federal government. This year, the National Park Service, which has charge of the 1915 vessel, announced that it will “dismantle” Wapama, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and protected as a National Historic Landmark. No timeline has been announced for her destruction.
Equator (Everett, Wash.) – Long-neglected in a shed, the schooner Equator once carried poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who sailed from Honolulu to the Gilbert Islands aboard the 1888 vessel. His voyage inspired the story, “The Wrecker” in his book, “Tales of the South Seas.” Located on Port of Everett property and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, little or nothing has been done to preserve the ship or its memory by the owners in at least a decade, and it is quickly disintegrating. No one is even sure who owns Equator.
Kalakala (Tacoma, Wash.) – The 1935 ferry, designed in the art deco style, is a one-of-a-kind treasure that carried hundreds of thousands of Seattleites across Puget Sound for more than 30 years. Retired in 1967, it spent time as a land-locked fish processing plant in Alaska before it was rescued and towed back to Seattle in 1998. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the vessel is now a rusting hulk, a victim of poor leadership, bad planning, and financial neglect. This month, an unidentified man purchased the boat for $1, but the Coast Guard has declared her a navigation hazard, demanding a plan to move her.
USS Olympia (Philadelphia) – The oldest steel U.S. warship afloat, the 1895 cruiser USS Olympia played a key role in the Spanish-American War. The ship saw action at Manila Bay, participated in World War I, and brought home the remains of the Unknown Soldier to Arlington National Cemetery. In the hands of Independence Seaport Museum since 1996, recent marine surveys showed that the hull of the National Historic Landmark is paper-thin in places. The museum, unable to raise millions of dollars needed for renovations, is seeking a new owner, which may be announced in 2012.
SS United States (Philadelphia) – Built in 1952 for the luxury transatlantic passenger market, the SS United States is the fastest liner ever built, and retains the speed record for the eastbound Atlantic crossing at three days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes. Since 1996, the ship, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has sat on the Philadelphia waterfront, and this year, it was nearly sold for scrap. However, a group of preservationists purchased the vessel, and the group is aggressively raising money for a refit, saying 2012 is a “make or break” year.
Falls of Clyde (Honolulu) – Launched in Scotland in 1878, the iron-hulled, four-masted Falls of Clyde is the only surviving oil tanker powered by sail in the world. The ship also served as a general cargo vessel under the ownership of the Matson Navigation Company, which today operates container vessels on runs between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Donated to the Bishop Museum in 1968, the vessel was ignored until 2008, when the museum said it would sink the National Historic Landmark as a reef for divers. That same year, a preservation group purchased the ship, and it is attempting to restore Falls of Clyde with limited funds, though the vessel’s hull is in very poor condition.
Kula Kai (Honolulu) – Developed by Hawaiian fisherman for local waters, the “aku” or “sampan” type fishing boat is one of only two boat designs indigenous to Hawaii (the other is a canoe), and the Kula Kai is last remaining boat in this style. In 2010, the Coast Guard pulled its certification for the vessel, and the wooden ship now languishes at a Honolulu wharf. According to local media, the owners are willing to sell the boat to a non-profit for preservation, but they would also like to work her again in the seas around Hawaii. UPDATE: The Kula Kai was demolished in 2012 after no one stepped forward with resources to save the vessel.
USS Yorktown (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.) – Built in 1943 to replace a namesake ship sunk by the Imperial Japanese navy, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown played a significant role in the U.S. space program as a recovery vessel for the Apollo 8 command module, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. Now a museum ship at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, the National Historic Landmark is in a deteriorating condition. The U.S. Navy has told the museum it must scrap or restore the ship, which could cost as much as $100 million. A coffer dam allowing repairs to the hull could cost $21 million alone.
Elissa (Galveston, Texas) – The barque Elissa is one of the oldest operating sailing ships in the world. Owners of the 134-year-old iron-hulled vessel were shocked this year when the U.S. Coast Guard found severe hull deterioration and declared the ship unseaworthy, and thus unable to earn her keep. The vessel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and she is protected as a National Historic Landmark. Elissa is now berthed at the Texas Seaport Museum, and the Galveston Historical Society is hoping to raise $3 million for renovations.
Spirit of South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.) – Built in 2007 as a replica of a 19th century schooner, the schooner Spirit of South Carolina has taken nearly 10,000 young people on educational excursions over its service life. The ship cost $4.5 million to build, but the non-profit that owns the vessel—the official ship of South Carolina—says it cannot pay off its remaining debt and must sell the boat. Designed for education, it’s unclear whether a new owner will maintain the ship’s mission. Spirit of South Carolina could easily become a private yacht, or simply be taken out of service, reducing marine educational opportunities for youth.
I’d also like to make note of these historic vessels that are threatened by a variety of problems.
Betty (Brookings, Ore.): 1909 auxiliary cutter, foundation looking to sell; Peking (New York): 1911 sailing barque, neglect due to owner disarray; St. Christopher (Creola, Ala.): 1932 three-masted schooner, beached; Ernestina (New Bedford, Mass), 1894 schooner, major restoration.
Update: The fireboat John J. Harvey, which was listed in an earlier version of this article as having hull problems, just completed a $320,000 project to renovate the hull. Is the historic ship you care for endangered?