As the caretaker of a 101-year-old ship, Catherine Collins is used to occasionally uncovering new bits of information about the vessel’s history.
But a call she got a few weeks ago stunned her. At the other end of the line was an 87-year-old California man, Alfred R. “Nick” Lemos, who said he had the original bell from the 1913 schooner Adventuress.
Lemos said he’d been given the bell when he was 10 years old by the captain of a police boat that patrolled the San Francisco waterfront during Prohibition. At the time, the man was dating the boy’s grandmother. Listening to the tale, Collins felt the hair on the back of her neck rise.
“This was absolutely out of the blue,” said Collins, executive director of Sound Experience, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Adventuress. “In our wildest imaginations, we didn’t think that the original bell existed.”
Collins and a documentary filmmaker are scheduled to meet with Lemos today at his home in Belmont, in the San Francisco Bay area, to see the bell for the first time. Lemos hung on to the artifact for 77 years and recently asked his adult children to help him track down the fate of the ship named on the bell.
An Internet search quickly revealed that Adventuress, commissioned by wealthy entrepreneur John Borden and launched for an Arctic mission for the American Museum of Natural History in 1913, had served as a pilot ship for the San Francisco Bar Pilots for decades and is now used for youth environmental programs on Puget Sound. Lemos picked up the phone and called Collins.
Collins had assumed that the schooner’s current bell, which reads “Bar Pilots 1915,” was the original. But after Lemos called her, one of his children snapped a photo of the bell and texted it to Collins, who got in touch with the Museum of Natural History in New York and asked them to send her a photo of Adventuress shortly after its launch. Looking at the grainy photo, there was no mistaking it — the bell, shaped distinctly different from the Adventuress’s current one, was the same as the bell in the texted photo.
Thinking how unlikely it was that the bell would be kept by a little boy, then finally be reunited with the vessel on which it was created for, brought Collins near tears.
“[The bell] became so much more valuable over time, especially as all these other schooners fell by the wayside or were lost or scrapped,” she said. “This man’s lifetime has seen a great change in what this bell means to us. It’s extraordinary that it could show up again.”
The San Francisco Bar Pilots purchased Adventuress in March 1914 following the Arctic expedition, and the 133-foot schooner was used from the Gold Rush until the early 1970s to lead ships safely into San Francisco Bay. But in June 1915, Adventuress caught fire at the dock. She underwent extensive repairs and was put back in service a few months later, equipped with her current bell.
How the original bell came into the hands of the police captain is a mystery. Did he find it while combing the waterfront for contraband, Collins wonders? Did he give it to his girlfriend’s grandson to keep him quiet about the relationship, as Lemos suggested to Collins?
“There’s a bit of intrigue there,” Collins said. “It’s really opened up a neat mystery about where the bell has been.”
The recovery of the bell was exciting news to Stephen Canright, curator of maritime history at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park’s curator of maritime history.
“Bells were an important part of traditional sailing vessels outfit,” he said in a release. “They would be rung in fog or reduced visibility situations, and were used to keep time, marking the passage of the four-hour watches, or duty periods.”
The recovery of the bell follows a $1.2 million, multiyear restoration of Adventuress coinciding with her 2013 centennial. The Port Townsend-based schooner is one of only two National Historic Landmark sailing ships, along with the 1891 scow schooner Alma, still actively sailing the West Coast (the the 1924 schooner Zodiac, which also worked for the San Francisco Bar Pilots, is on the National Register of Historic Places).
After Collins meets with Lemos today, the bell will be taken to the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, where curators will inspect it to verify its authenticity before it travels back to Washington state to be reunited with Adventuress. The ship’s original wheel was stolen two years ago while Adventuress was docked in Olympia, and Collins said there will be a security plan in place to safeguard the bell while still allowing the public to see it up close.
“It’s one more thing to create excitement about what maritime history means to the Northwest, to the West Coast,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
Editor’s note: this story has been updated from its original version to reflect the status of the historic schooner Zodiac.