The Wawona is the last of the Pacific sailing fleet in Seattle. The 19th century vessel is a centerpiece of the region's maritime heritage and a testament to the tireless efforts of local preservationists. She was saved from the scrap heap, gave birth to Northwest Seaport, and was the first ship named to the National Register back in 1970. Community leaders have gone to bat for her since the mid-1960s, including people who are themselves local legends, like Kay Bullitt, Ivar Haglund, and Wing Luke. But for all those decades of work and love, the national and city landmark ship is about to meet her end. Next month, she will be hauled to the Lake Union Drydock Company and dismantled. Says Joe Follansbee, author of Shipbuilders, Sea Captains, and Fishermen: The Story of the Schooner Wawona, "In my very personal opinion, her death is near."
The dream has long been to see the ship fully restored and once again sailing local waters. The Wawona is a three-masted schooner built in 1897 as lumber ship. Over the years, she also did duty as a codfishing vessel, and during World War II she was converted to a military barge bringing wood to Boeing to fuel the war machine that built bombers. After the war, various entrepreneurs tried to use her for other ventures. One of its co-owners in the 1950s was actor Gary Cooper. As the old Pacific sailing ships disappeared, the importance of saving the Wawona grew. For years she was berthed in Kirkland, then moved to Lake Union in the early 1980s where she has been an attraction — and a decaying white elephant — for years.
Those years have not been kind. It's tough enough preserving old wooden structures on land, even more difficult for those that live on the water, as any wooden boat owner knows. The ship is suffering from extensive dry rot. Northwest Seaport's Wayne Palsson describes it as being in "an advanced state of degradation." Northwest Seaport has explored various scenarios for its fate: full or partial restoration, displaying it on land, building a working replica, beaching or sinking it and allowing it to die gracefully at sea, or recovering parts for public display.
Pressure for a final decision has in part been driven by plans for south Lake Union development and the city's Lake Union Park. With the Center for Wooden Boats and the berth of other historic vessels, including the mosquito fleet survivor Virginia V, lightship Swiftsure, the tugboat Arthur Foss, and the fireboat Duwamish, all of them National Landmarks, the area is a focal point for local maritime heritage. But the challenges of the Wawona have made her the odd landmark out: big, expensive, unsafe, unseaworthy.
Various options were rejected: letting her die at sea was environmentally problematic. But a full restoration, the preferred outcome, was financially beyond reach. A 2005 summit (pdf) on the fate of the Wawona concluded that a full restoration of the sailing ship would cost $15 million and require an endowment of $15 million to keep her going. That's cheap by mega-yacht standards. Paul Allen's Octopus cost $200 million and has an annual operating budget estimated at $20 million. But for this historic, blue collar coastal working gal, no angel with deep pockets like that has emerged to fund an active retirement.
The result was an agreement with the city to salvage what was salvageable for exhibit. The estimated cost of that was less than $1 million. There are two parts to that plan. One is a "memorial" at Lake Union Park (or on an adjacent bit of Department of Natural Resources land) that would be a ship-sized display incorporating parts of the original schooner (you can see a rendering on the Northwest Seaport Web site). The second is the idea that a large section of the ship — perhaps the entire aft section — could be incorporated into an impressive exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) if it moves into the old South Lake Union Armory.
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