Sailing into oblivion

Seattle's last old Pacific schooner is about to be dismantled. The Wawona's impending "death" this summer offers a lesson in the challenges of maritime preservation. It's a tough end for a landmark ship that people have worked so hard for so long to save.
Crosscut archive image.
Seattle's last old Pacific schooner is about to be dismantled. The Wawona's impending "death" this summer offers a lesson in the challenges of maritime preservation. It's a tough end for a landmark ship that people have worked so hard for so long to save.

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.

Those plans depend on a couple of things. One is how much of the ship can be saved. Once she is in drydock, the vessel might simply be too far gone to save much of her. The other is the MOHAI move. The head of the Montlake museum, Leonard Garfield, says that he feels "very confident our future will be at the Armory building." It's almost a done deal, but not quite. We should know more this summer. Garfield says that while exhibits have not been finalized, the museum would likely have a robust maritime display.

In the meantime, before it heads for the nautical hospice, Palsson says the Wawona is being extensively recorded and studied. The National Park Service, which oversees the National Landmark program, has been out to take detailed laser measurements of the ship. And this month a professor and students from East Carolina University's Maritime Studies program will be coming out to document the Wawona's construction. The university is known for its work in marine archaeology and conservation. One recent project of theirs: excavating and conserving what is believed to be Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge.

The plans seem like a letdown given all the passion and hard work that has gone into the Wawona over the years. The best face Palsson puts on it is to call the outcome "a highly mixed success." Maritime heritage preservation is problematic for many reasons, the cost of restoration and maintenance being just one. While there are many successes, there are also embarrassing failures. The Kalakala, the world's first streamlined, Art Deco ferryboat and once the futuristic symbol of Seattle, languishes in Tacoma. No one quite knows what to do with it — Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Cathy Sorbo joked recently that it might make a suitable floating jail. And the ferry system recently announced that their four recently retired, 80-plus-year-old steel electric ferries, including the Nisqually and the Klickitat, will possibly be sold for scrap or auctioned on eBay. Some have suggested these wonderful old boats be sunk for the entertainment of local Scuba divers.

Art Skolnik, who once led the effort to save the Kalakala, says that two things are needed to help maritime heritage efforts. One is a tourist-friendly location in the thick of the tourist action, like Seattle's waterfront, that provides free moorage. South Lake Union is the closest to this we have, but it's not as well located as, say, the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and Museum which is right next to Fisherman's Wharf. Skolnik likes the idea of an historic waterfront pier near Pioneer Square. Another idea: Create a fund or endowment to provide the insurance coverage needed to protect old ships. Sklonik says this could be done through private fundraising or by "placing a small tax on luxury water craft sale and resale." Unless such things are done, "expect to see more gloom and doom" on the maritime front, he predicts.

The reference to San Francisco offers both an example and a consolation for Wawona buffs. The only other surviving sailing ship of the Pacific Coast fleet is there: the C.A. Thayer. The two "sister" ships are from the same era (the Thayer built in 1895) and were used similarly to haul lumber, cod, and war material from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. The Thayer's multimillion dollar restoration was accomplished with heavy funding (some $10 million) from the federal government, an advantage the Wawona hasn't had. With that kind of muscle, our ship might have been saved. We can ponder that while the old Wawona faces destruction here this summer and, perhaps, an afterlife for its parts in a memorial or exhibit dedicated to her memory, we can also find a dram of solace knowing that she is not the last of her species.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.