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Belaying History

July 2024
3min read

Too many of our wonderful historic ships have been lost, but funds recently appropriated by Congress will help to see a major part of our history belayed—tied down, secure.




The painting at the right, done in 1831, is of the U.S.S. Constitution , a frigate which was launched in 1797, came to glory during the War of 1812, and for fifty years remained the symbolic flagship of American maritime power. The photograph on the opposite page, taken in 1941, shows men aloft to furl sail on the Kaiulani , a steel square-rigger launched in 1899 in Bath, Maine, and seen here on a lumber run from Puget Sound to South Africa. More than time, purpose, and design separates the two ships: the Constitution , lovingly restored, lies permanently berthed in Boston; the Kaiulani survives only in a few pieces stored in a San Francisco warehouse. The reasons are instructive.

In the three years of the War of 1812, the Constitution , under various commanders, roundly defeated four major British vessels—an accomplishment dear to the heart of the upstart American Republic. When the Navy Department decided to scrap the ship in 1828, the public outcry was remarkable, and Congress appropriated enough money to refit “Old Ironsides,” as she was known by then. Four more times—in 1871, 1905,1927, and 1972-the Constitution was rebuilt, and today, nearly as old as the nation itself, she is a living reminder of our maritime past.

The Kaiulani enjoyed no such happy fate. A down-Easter built for the Cape Horn trade, her active career spanned more than sixty years, including a stint in the 1930’s as a movie ship and, during World War II, service as a support barge for the liberation of the Philippines. After the war, she was used as a lumber ship in the islands, but by the early 1960's was too worn out even for that trade, and she languished in mud and rust in Manila Bay. By then she was not only one of the few remaining descendants of the age of the clipper ship, but also the last surviving American-built steel square-rigger. A handful of maritime enthusiasts began efforts to save the ship and bring her back to the United States, forming the National Maritime Historical Society for that purpose. For a while things looked hopeful. In 1964 the government of the Philippines gave the ship to the people of the United States, and she was placed in the custody of the Historical Society. Private funds were raised; a federally backed loan was promised. But the private funds ran out, and the loan never materialized. The Kaiulani continued to rust, until by 1974 only the bow, some ribs, and the stern were salvageable. These were hauled from the Philippines to Seattle and stored; then in June, 1978, they were taken to San Francisco, where they eventually will be installed as an exhibit in a national maritime museum under the aegis of the National Park Service.

Each time the Constitution was saved, it was largely government money which saved her—the most notable exception being the rescue of 1927, when private funding, much of it contributed by schoolchildren, accounted for most of the more than $800,000 it took to rebuild the ship. The Kaiulani received nothing but private money, and not enough of that, and so was lost.

The fate of the Kaiulani is an all too familiar story in the annals of historicship preservation, a movement which for more than thirty years has been spearheaded, supported, and inspired by a relatively few prodigiously dedicated people—among them Carl Cutler, founder of the Marine Historical Society at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut; Peter Stanford, president of the National Maritime Historical Society; and Karl Kortum, founder and director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Such individuals, relying almost exclusively on what money they could raise from private sources, have done an astonishing job: because of their efforts, a person in Mystic Seaport can pace the decks of the 1841 whaler Charles W. Morgan, or in San Francisco can investigate the hold of the 1886 full-rigged ship Balclutha , or in San Diego can test the rigging of the 1863 iron bark Star of India , or in Manhattan can stand at the lee rail of the 1894 fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard . On these and scores of other restored ships across the country, visitors can share a sense of an age when commerce and adventure combined to form romance.

But if the maritime enthusiasts have won in the past, they have also lost, as they lost the Kaiulani. It is a subject which preys upon their minds, for they see a time rapidly approaching when there will be no ships left to save. Recently, the National Maritime Historical Society formed a ship trust uniting all interests and compiled a list of forty ships scattered around the world that still could be restored and preserved. These forty are what is left, but to save them will take more than private money; it will take government funding on a significant scale.

This, it appears, is what is going to happen—for the first time. In 1976 Congress created a historic-preservation fund to be administered by the Department of the Interior. Now, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the National Maritime Historical Society and the legislative clout of Senator Edward Kennedy and others, the fund’s 1979 appropriation of $100,000,000 includes $5,000,000 earmarked specifically for twenty top-priority ship-restoration projects.

Properly applied, this money will help to see a major part of our history belayed—tied down, secure. We can hope so, at any rate, for as Peter Stanford has written, “A sailing ship built for ocean voyaging is an artifact of compelling power. …” Such ships, he says, speak “for our American experience at sea under sail, our capacity to conceive great voyages, and to make them.”


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