Repurposing Wawona: Pieces at new exhibit made from ship’s salvaged wood

Jewelry sculpture

Jewelry artists made this piece, titled Travel the Ocean, for an exhibit using wood salvaged from the schooner Wawona.

Earlier this year, I was contacted by Kari Berger of the Seattle Metals Guild, a non-profit arts group with a focus on metalworking. The group was working on an exhibit of jewelry and sculpture made from wood salvaged from the historic schooner Wawona. I published a history of the ship in 2006, three years before she was broken up on Seattle’s Lake Union, 112 years after she was launched in Eureka, Calif.

The Guild will exhibit the pieces at the Northwind Arts Center May 4-29 in Port Townsend, Wash.

I spent several years working on maritime history projects, but none captured my heart quite so much as Wawona. She was launched in 1897 and carried lumber from Puget Sound and Washington coast ports to San Francisco and other California ports until World War I. After the war, fishermen based in Seattle took her to the Bering Sea to fish for cod. Northwest Seaport, the non-profit that once owned Wawona, worked for nearly a half-century to preserve her, but the elements finally won the battle and she was deconstructed in 2009.

Port Townsend’s Northwind Arts Center hosts the exhibit May 4-29, 2017.

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Restoration Work on Lightship Swiftsure

Lightship Swiftsure

The lightship Swiftsure is undergoing restoration and hazardous materials abatement in Seattle.

Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center in Seattle is in the midst of building a new and historically accurate upper deck on the lightship Swiftsure, which is a National Historic Landmark. Nautical archaeologists have generate blueprints by documenting existing structures on the lightship’s upper deck. They have spent hours removing artifacts, such as the ship’s wheel, deckhouse windows, and the ship’s bell.

The vessel, designated Lightship No. 83 or “LV-83” when it was in service, is currently at the Lake Union Shipyard in Seattle, where it will undergo a survey. Rotted deck wood and the deckhouses will also be removed. “The shipyard will conduct hazardous materials abatement and cleaning of the steel deck framing,” says Shannon Fitzgerald, Northwest Seaport board president.

Launched in 1904, the lightship is is need of significant restoration, says Nathaniel Howe, Northwest Seaport vessel manager. “When the ship returns to the Historic Ships Wharf [at Seattle’s Lake Union Park], the deck rebuild project will be on display for the public to observe as shipwrights and their apprentices lay, fasten, and caulk the new wooden deck.”

The Swiftsure shipyard project is one of Northwest Seaport’s top priorities. The organization also owns the 1889 tug Arthur Foss.

Maritime Heritage Council Asks Support

Arthur Foss

The tug Arthur Foss in Seattle would be included in a proposed National Maritime Heritage Area.

An association of maritime history enthusiasts and heritage organizations has called on historical societies and museums in Washington State to endorse the creation of a new national maritime heritage area. The executive committee of the Pacific Northwest Maritime Heritage Council emailed members and supporters last month asking them to submit a draft letter to non-profit boards endorsing the council’s call on Congress to create the area. The council also asked organizations to endorse a proposal in Congress to formalize the process for creating heritage areas.

The email, signed by the PNMHC executive committee, said endorsements “will show observers both in Washington State and in Washington DC the high the level of support that exists here for the proposal for a National Heritage Area focused on Washington State’s maritime history,” the email said.

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress to highlight the historical importance of specific geographic locations in the U.S. The areas are administered by the National Park Service; most are located east of the Mississippi River. Creation of new areas has stalled in Congress due to budget constraints and confusion over the legal scope of the areas. A similar proposal to create a heritage area near the mouth of the Columbia River died after local property owners argued the law might infringe on their property rights.

A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 445, National Heritage Area Act of 2013, would formally define heritage areas and set out a formal process for creating one. The PNMHC said it will base its decision whether to move forward with its lobbying efforts according to feedback from heritage groups.

New Place Names Book

Maritime Place Names cover imageWhat’s in a name? A ton of historical information, especially if all you have is a place name. That’s what Bellevue, Wash., researcher and author Richard W. Blumenthal discovered and documented in his new reference book, Maritime Place Names: Inland Washington Waters, which covers the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Coast of Washington. Blumenthal’s company, Inland Waters Publishing, has just announced the book’s availability.

The book “includes every named island, bay, point, inlet, pass, harbor, channel, strait, canal, passage, peninsula, rock, head, bank, bight, cove, lagoon, spit, sound, canal and shoal identified on current nautical charts,” Blumenthal says. “The book generally identifies the individual who named the place, when, why and for whom. In many cases, it also identifies the chart where the name first appeared.”

The book is heavily illustrated with 100 aerial photographs, 40 panaromic sketches by artist George Davidson, and 30 historical charts beginning with the early voyages of the Spanish and continuing with those of George Vancouver, Charles Wilkes, and later explorers. The charts go back to the 1780s. “Their precision is amazing when you realize the only instruments used, at least early on, were a compass, a sextant and a lead line,” Blumenthal says.

The 348-page, large format book is available directly through the author for $29.95 plus tax and shipping. For ordering details, email or visit

Gather the Shadowmen

Gather the Shadowmen: The Lords of the Ocean, Mark M. McMillin. Hephaestus Publishing, 298 pages softcover: $14.95, ebook: $4.99.

Gather the Shadowmen cover imageBenjamin Franklin may have single-handedly saved the U.S. from destruction in the Revolutionary War by persuading France to join America in an alliance against the British. But in the years leading up to his triumph, he had an arsenal of diplomatic tools in his kit, including letters of marque. Few Americans today know that the great American statesman commissioned a number of Irishmen as privateers, essentially self-employed mercenaries, to harass British shipping near their island home.

Luke Ryan was one of these legal pirates, and the historical figure is the main protagonist in a series of three novels by Mark M. McMillin. The first book, Gather the Shadowmen: The Lords of the Ocean, tells the story of a young British naval lieutenant, Irish by birth, who is despised by his English captain, but loved by his shipmates, many of whom have known him since childhood. After Ryan captures a French warship while his captain cowers in his cabin, Ryan is sent home in command of the Frenchman with a prize crew. He learns that his superior plans to take credit for the capture, along with the prize money, which would’ve made Ryan rich. Instead, Ryan returns the ship to the captured French sailors and becomes a smuggler. He and his Irish compatriots, sick of English arrogance and duplicity, become the Shadowmen, and they begin a life that will eventually bring them into Franklin’s sphere.

Ryan was born in Rush, northeast of Dublin, in 1750, the son of an Irish soldier in a French regiment. Growing up among local landowners, Ryan developed connections that eventually led him into the maritime trades. Much of Ryan’s early personal history is murky, and author McMillin uses the uncertainty to create a character who is intelligent, dashing, and a born leader, as well as opportunistic and shrewd. As the son of a soldier who grew up among Englishmen, McMillin’s Ryan finds it easy to move between the worlds of dominator and dominated, upper class and poorer class.

McMillin, who has a background in law and military history, weaves a believeable, often exciting narrative with a large cast of secondary characters, a few of whom are based on real people. Some of the scenes, particularly with Ryan’s lover, Shannon O’Keefe, the ambitious daughter of a merchant who stakes Ryan’s smuggling ventures, seem lifted from a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama. But Gather the Shadowmen succeeds in setting up the second and third novels in the series, Prince of the Atlantic and Napoleon’s Gold. The core of the American connection is Franklin’s plan to exchange U.S. prisoners of war for British seamen captured by Ryan and other privateers. McMillin illuminates a shady chapter in America’s war for independence while offering a character who could easily star in a dozen high-seas tales.

13th Book in Kydd Series

Betrayal, by Julian Stockwin. U.S. release date: October 2012. Published in the U.S. by McBooks Press, 320 pages, hardcover, $24.00.

Betrayal coverMost authors of nautical fiction from the Napoleonic Era place their characters somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, usually the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. That’s where most of the historical action was, of course. By contrast, the Southern Hemisphere, apart from the Cape of Good Hope, seems devoid of action. Julian Stockwin has found an exception to this rule, and he’s successfully exploited it in Betrayal, the 13th book of his series on the fictional exploits of Captain Thomas Kydd.

As commander of the frigate L’Aurore on station at Cape Colony, Kydd finds himself under Commodore Sir Home Popham, an able naval administrator and barely competent combat officer with a tendency to bend the rules a little too far, especially if there’s something to go in his pocket. Popham sees a chance east across the South Atlantic at the Spanish colony of Buenos Aires, located on the Rio de la Plata, a broad estuary known as the River Plate to the British. After hearing rumors of a discontented populace ready to throw off Spanish rule, the commodore hatches a scheme to invade the region with 1,400 soldiers and a few ships. Kydd, though skeptical, signs on, partly out of deference to his boss and partly for the chance to expand his country’s growing empire. Kydd’s best friend and sometime spy, Nicholas Renzi, familiar with Popham’s reputation as an opportunist, sees the plan as nothing more than a dangerous adventure.

The historical episode is real: In 1806, Popham invaded the colony, and the results were nothing less than a fiasco. I can’t help but think of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Americans were promised that the Iraqi people would welcome soldiers and marines as liberators. Exactly the opposite happened, and Popham experienced the same turn of events in Buenos Aires, as Stockwin tells the tale.

Stockwin is at his best when he places Kydd and the other British officers and soldiers in the thick of the action. But he stumbles with his local characters; a woman especially comes off too much like the “hot-blooded Latina” stereotype. And the ending of Betrayal is unsatisfying. The true ending of the story is in the Author’s Note, in which Stockwin details how a fiasco turned into an unmitigated disaster. One wonders what the fictional Kydd really thought of the unprincipled Popham, something Stockwin promises we’ll learn in a future Kydd tale.

Columbia River Danger Detailed

World's Most Dangerous coverSeafarers have called the Columbia River Bar, located at the mouth of Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, “the world’s most dangerous passage” for more than 200 years. Today, the city of Astoria, Ore., is the home of an elite group of bar pilots. Author Michael E. Haglund and illustrator Eric Baker have combined stories of the bar with tales of dedication and courage from its pilots in a new book, World’s Most Dangerous, published by the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

The book starts with the natural history of the Columbia River Bar and its formation during the cataclysmic Missoula floods 15,000 years ago. The book discusses the building of jetties to stabilize the shipping channel, the adventures and tragedies of the bar pilots and their operators, and finally the equipment used by the pilots to transfer to and from great ocean-going ships.

But it’s the human story that forms the core of the book. Nowhere in America are the standards higher for a maritime pilot’s license than the Columbia River Bar. The long history of dedication of the Columbia River Bar Pilots providing service in extraordinarily dangerous conditions is exemplified in Capt. George Flavel’s efforts to save the steamer “General Warren” in 1852. As he left the stricken ship stuck in the sands of Clatsop Spit to summon help, the ship captain called out “Pilot, you will come back?” Flavel shouted, “If I live, I will return.” He did, only to find that all hands had perished.

The soft-cover, full-color, 114-page book is now available through the Columbia River Maritime Museum online store for $36.

Great Lakes Ore Freighters

Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes, by Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, with Alan D. Millar. University of Michigan Press, 118 pages, color and black and white photos, softcover, $22.95.

Deck Hand coverSo much of maritime history is the stories of great captains, visionary leaders, or risk-taking entrepreneurs. Of course, most of the actual work was done by people below them on the hierarchy from officers down to deck hands. As it turns out, even the lowliest mariners have great yarns to tell, and that’s the case with Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, who began his working life as a deck “ape” on Great Lakes bulk carriers in the early 1960s. With writer Alan D. Millar, Haydamacker has shared his early adventures in a new memoir, Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes. It’s an immensely likeable story told as if Mickey were sharing a beer with you in one of the dives he visited in many lake ports.

In 1962, Haydamacker was an 18-year-old kid anxious to make his way in the world. Following the lead of relatives, Haydamacker applied for a job with the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, one of the largest operators of taconite ore and coal carriers on the Great Lakes. Haydamacker vividly describes his trepidation and excitement as he boards the Elton Hoyt 2nd in Ashtabula. The young man had barely traveled outside his home town of Algonac, Mich., on the St. Clair River. He’s soon put to work fitting out the Hoyt for the upcoming season.

As the new man, he gets the worst jobs, starting with painting the exterior of the Hoyt the classic fire engine red of the ore freighter. He also explains “soogeying,” a term so obscure that it’s hard to find in dictionaries. It means scrubbing and cleaning the ship so that it’s spotless, and the work is never-ending. Haydamacker accepts the job good-naturedly–he doesn’t admit to much grumbling–and eventually he’s rewarded with a promotion to “deckwatch” by his second season. The new job has new responsibilities aboard a new ship, but the reader gets the sense that this intelligent fellow is getting a bit bored.

After two years, five ships, one serious mishap, and numerous visits to ports from Taconite Harbor, Minn., to Tonawonda, N.Y., Haydamacker decides that another career path, law enforcement, is more to his taste. He soon joins the Michigan State Police. But the two years aboard the ore boats adds critical lessons to his early years, and his memories are a fine addition to the big picture of life as a Great Lakes mariner.

Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil

Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Ross Coen, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 215 pages with color and black and white photos, soft cover, $24.95.

Breaking Ice for Arctic OilChristopher Columbus sailed west in 1492 hoping to find a new way to the riches of the Orient, but an undiscovered land mass stretching 10,000 miles north to south blocked his way. Ferdinand Magellan found a way around South America by way of Cape Horn, but until recently, the Northwest Passage around North America was more of a Northwest Blockage, at least to commercial vessels.

While Columbus and other explorers sought gold, it was another precious commodity, oil, that finally drew a merchantman through the Arctic ice. Historian Ross Coen of the University of Alaska chronicles the story of the first commercial ship to pass through the fabled northern sea route in Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first conquered the Passage by ship in 1906, but the ice kept commercial vessels at bay until Humble Oil, now part of Exxon, saw an opportunity to profit.

Coen shows how the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay changed the commercial shipping dynamics of the Arctic. Oil companies quickly latched onto a pipeline as the best way to get the oil out of the frozen north, but Humble Oil thought that a fleet of tankers could get the oil to east coast markets more cheaply, and thus more profitably. It refitted one of the world’s first super-tankers, the SS Manhattan, as an icebreaker, and sent it north in 1969. At first glance, the venture seems audacious, even foolhardy, but Coen successfully shows that the voyage was strictly business.

The political context of the voyage was labyrinthine: Environmentalists worried about the effects of an enormous oil spill on land or at sea, while most Alaskans saw Prudhoe Bay as delivering their state from its status as an economic backwater. Meantime, Canada resisted what some saw as an American incursion, thought it ultimately became a partner of sorts in the voyage. Though he does an excellent job of laying out these intrigues, Coen’s story shines as he describes the incredible natural barriers that literally held the huge ship back and the determination of her crew to get her to Prudhoe Bay.

Though finally an economic failure, the voyage of the SS Manhattan should be remembered as a pioneering trip through a remote wilderness that may be tamed by humans in an unexpected way. If the predictions of climate change come to pass, the Arctic will no longer be choked with ice in the next few decades, and ships may follow the trail blazed by the tanker through the Northwest Passage as easily as they pass through the Panama Canal. The Passage may finally become the economic boon the Manhattan sought.

Hidden History of Sealab

Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor, by Ben Hellwarth. Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, hardcover, $28.00.

SealabThe names of astronaut Neil Armstrong and rocket engineer Werner von Braun are etched forever on the popular mind as pioneers of outer space exploration. But they have eclipsed equally daring and dangerous exploits under the sea that happened at almost exactly the same time Americans were reaching for the moon. Author Ben Hellwarth in Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor attempts to correct this imbalance by examining the history of a particular type of underwater exploration called “saturation diving,” which put free swimming human beings at depths approaching a half-mile. And like the country’s space program, the quest to live in the deep ocean has come to a virtual halt.

Much of Hellwarth’s story focuses on George Bond, a country doctor who joined the Navy just after World War II and quickly developed an interest in diving. The technology for diving had barely budged since the invention of the classic hard-hat and rubberized canvas suits in the late 19th century. Men could go down to a depth of 100 feet or so, and the bends—painful bubbles of nitrogen that formed as divers rose to the surface—could be deadly. Bond determined to push the boundaries of diving, and with a team of Navy divers and technicians, research ways to go deeper and return without death or serious injury. Bond started on a shoestring, but after painstaking trial-and-error, found ways to put divers down as far as a thousand feet in relative safety. He “saturated” the divers’ tissues with breathing gases, notably helium, which made decompression easier and safer, and allowed them to live in undersea habitats for as long as a month.

Navy diversIt’s likely Bond’s story would’ve been completely forgotten if it weren’t for what Hellwarth calls a “celebrity diver” by the name of Jacques Yves Cousteau. Anyone who grew up in the sixties and seventies remembers watching the amazing adventures of the exploration ship Calypso and hearing Cousteau narrate in his unmistakable French accent. But for true followers of the dream of living for long periods on the continental shelf, Cousteau was mostly a showman who rarely went down more than a few fathoms. Real pioneers, including Bond, Navy diver Bob Barth, inventor Ed Link, Frenchman Henri Delauze, and a host of commercial divers, pushed the boundaries of deep water work, sometimes sacrificing their lives in the process.

Although overshadowed by the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in space, Sealab and the quest to live below the sea in habitats wasn’t quite as invisible as Hellwarth suggests. I remember as a nerdy child reading about Sealab and the divers who made it their home in the late 1960s. TV shows such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Sea Hunt, and Primus brought these ideas to the general public. But it’s true that the lack of an international competitor on the sea bottom probably contributed to the occasional “mail-order catalog” feel of the projects, as one of Hellwarth’s sources puts it; saturation diving never got the kinds of budget support enjoyed by the space program.

The sad codicil to the story of saturation diving is its similarity to the apparent abandonment of manned space exploration by the United States. Most of the research and experimentation by the Navy ended in the 1990s; both government and business turned to remotely operated vehicles, which can go far deeper than any free-swimming human, and special hard suits, which look very much like space suits, only made of steel. Like the nation’s space program, which is stuck in the doldrums today with no way to put people in orbit, the diving program has reached a stopping point. Although the technical barriers are daunting, we should hope that we’re only in a pause until our quest to go into inner space, as well as outer space, can begin another chapter.