Northwest Seaport turns 50

Northwest Seaport, the non-profit organization behind the historic tug Arthur Foss, the lightship Swiftsure, and the fishing troller Twilight, is turning 50 this year.

It’s impossible to talk about the history of Northwest Seaport without talking about the history of the Wawona, the schooner the organization was founded to save.

In the early 1960’s, according to local philanthropist Kay Bullitt, an article about Wawona in the Seattle Times caught her eye. She thought the schooner worth saving, and spoke to city councilman and civil-rights activist Wing Luke, who was also interested in preserving the vessel. The two of them marshaled additional support and this collection of people formed Save Our Ships (SOS) in 1963 to begin fundraising to purchase the Wawona.

Wawona carried cod and was a lumber schooner during World War II before becoming a floating museum in the 1960s.

Wawona carried cod and was a lumber schooner during World War II before becoming a floating museum in the 1960s.

They swiftly raised the $28,000 to purchase the schooner and did so the next year.

In 1966, when it became clear that Wawona wasn’t the only vessel worth saving, and that ships were not the only historic maritime artifacts worth preserving (and, just possibly, because it was starting to sound a little corny) Save Our Ships was renamed to Northwest Seaport.

Branching out from Wawona, the organization acquired the old lightship No 83 Relief (so named because her role was to relieve other lightships along the West Coast when they came off station for problems or maintenance work; Northwest Seaport later renamed 83 to Swiftsure, after the more familiar, more local station which was her last before retirement) in the late 1960s for $1400, and the tugboat Arthur Foss in 1970 for a dollar. In 1975, the historic steam ferry San Mateo — familiar to many Seattleites from her years on the Seattle-Winslow run, and notable for being the last steam-powered ferry in the Puget Sound fleet — was added to the collection. In 2000, the 36-foot Seattle-built troller Twilight was procured.

But the cost of acquiring the old boats was the least of the expenses involved. Moorage had to be found, and the flotilla was bounced around for a while until it ended up in Kirkland, and then, in the mid-seventies, to the current location on South Lake Union, which at the time was still run by the Navy Reserve (an organization which perhaps has not received sufficient recognition of its role in preserving historic vessels and nautical arts in the Pacific Northwest; organizations from Center for Wooden Boats to Northwest Seaport owe much of their success to the Navy’s largesse in allowing use of the South Lake Union facilities prior to their takeover by the city).

The organization learned that focus was essential, and that not every vessel worthy of preservation could be saved, at least not under their own auspices.

San Mateo was first to go. In 1990, the organization applied for permission to scrap the ferry after being unable to locate permanent moorage for her. Before arrangements could be made to demolish her, a Canadian savior stepped forward with plan to turn her into a museum or dance hall, and she was sold and taken north of the border to a berth on the Fraser River. And there, as of 2012, she remained, slowly rotting in the muck, half-destroyed,

But Wawona remained the organization’s first love, its raison d’être, and great efforts were made to restore her; countless volunteer hours went into the schooner and pioneering work was done toward fundraising — thanks to Northwest Seaport lobbying, the vessel was the first ever to be placed on the National Register of Historic places.

But rot had had its way with her hull, and it was finally beginning to collapse under its own weight.

Finally, in 2009, the board bowed to the inevitable. The cost of a full restoration was estimated at $15 million, a number far outside the realm of even the most optimistic fundraising projections. The boat could continue to be patched up, nursed along, but likely only toward the same inevitable end. On a calm March morning in 2009, Wawona was towed up Lake Union to Lake Union Drydock to be cut up and carted off to a landfill. Apart from a few significant historic artifacts, and a few salvaged planks from her hull which were destined to become the centerpiece Wawona sculpture in the new Museum of History and Industry (fittingly installed only yards from her long-time moorage in South Lake Union), Wawona was gone.

Swiftsure languished in Wawona’s shadow, to the point where the Seattle Times described her, in 1988, as “ … dying, choking slowly from years of neglect.”

Lightship No. 83 "Swiftsure" in drydock last summer

Lightship No. 83 “Swiftsure” in drydock last summer (Photo courtesy Northwest Seaport)

But the people behind Northwest Seaport never gave up on Swiftsure. In 2013, only five years after Wawona had made the same ignominious trip, No 83 was towed up the lake to Lake Union Drydock as well. But Swiftsure was not going into the dock to be broken up. Instead, a $1 million round of repairs, cleaning, hazardous material removal and systematic prep-work was undertaken to preserve Swiftsure and prepare her for a new deck and her eventual destiny as a museum ship.

Despite having had to “put down” a number of vessels, or perhaps for that very reason, Northwest Seaport has become adept at surveying and preserving information from historic ships. “During her final months, Wawona became one of most thoroughly studied historic ships in the United States and a model for salvaging troubled historic vessel preservation projects nationwide,” according to Nathaniel Howe, nautical museologist and Northwest Seaport’s Vessel Manager. The organization learned from that process ” … where the first chinks will appear,” said Howe. “Wood ships will die from the top down in the Pacific Northwest.”

And though Swiftsure is with us still, during the 2013 overhaul, Howe and others went through the old lightship compartment by compartment, tracing wiring, making measurements, and recording information about structural components being removed.

The fruits of these labors can result in unexpected dividends for historians even years later, as recent developments at the nearby Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) has shown. Working with CWB and computer modeling experts, a team from Northwest Seaport has been able to take some of the documentation done on the Wawona and turn it into a detailed 3D model of the cabin, five years after the boat itself was scrapped.

It is hard to think of any more significant mark of success than that from an organization dedicated to maritime preservation. Resurrected in ghostly phosphors on digital screens, perhaps Wawona lives on still, as the founders of the organization envisioned fifty years ago.

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