Why is it so hard to save our maritime heritage?


1935 ferry Kalakala in Tacoma. Photo by Joe Follansbee.

The news I dreaded for years arrived this week. The 1935 Kalakala, the only art-deco ferry ever built, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is headed for the breakers. Its death was slow, painful, and probably inevitable. It’s passing should not be a surprise. I listed it as endangered in 2011 and 2012 on my old Fyddeye website. The ferry is one of a handful of decaying large historic vessels, which include USS Olympia and SS United States, both in Philadelphia. Our national patrimony is rusting away.

For a generation in Seattle, Kalakala’s sleek design and quirky behavior stood for a city of chance-takers and idea-evangelists long before the Space Needle was built in 1963. I got to know her after the sculptor Peter Bevis rescued her from oblivion on tide flats in Kodiak, Alaska in 1998. That was the beginning of her end. I was at the auction when the 276-foot “silver slug” was taken away from Bevis in 2003. The new owner, Steve Rodrigues, had big dreams, but no money and even less political savvy. He blames her final disposal on a “conspiracy” among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the State of Washington, and the cities of Tacoma, Seattle and Kodiak. The facts are simpler: He neglected to pay her bills, and ownership fell to Karl Anderson, a Tacoma businessman. He’s had enough of her; she’ll be shards of metal by the end of this month. Continue reading

Seattle Lightship Back Home

Lightship No. 83 - Swiftsure

Lightship No. 83, also known by its last station at Swiftsure Bank, is back at its berth in Seattle.

The 1904 Lightship No. 83, also known as “Swiftsure,” has returned to her berth at Lake Union Park in Seattle, and I finally had a chance to visit and take a few pictures. I love her bright red paint and the “new” feel to her. I bet she has that “new car smell” on the inside. The shroud in the photo is actually her winter cover, meant to keep as much of Seattle’s damp off her as possible. Access to the ship is limited, and she needs another $1 million to complete the restoration project. See my previous blog post for more details.

Seattle Lightship Nearly Ready for Re-Launch

Lightship No. 83 Swiftsure

Lightship No. 83 – Swiftsure before her restoration work. Photo by Joe Follansbee.

A Seattle preservation group plans to re-launch a historic lightship after three months of restoration work. Lightship No. 83, also known as Lightship Swiftsure, is nearing completion of the second phase of Northwest Seaport’s $1 million project to replace the deck, rigging, remove hazardous materials, and restore the Swiftsure’s primary electrical systems. When finished, the ship will be re-opened to the public at Lake Union Park in Seattle.

Crews at Lake Union Drydock Company in Seattle have removed the deteriorated wheelhouse, radio house, and the wooden weather deck.  Deck beams were cleaned, primed and painted to prepare for installation of a new wooden deck. Sections of original 1904 planking were discovered still in place.  Saxon Bisbee, Northwest Seaport’s archaeologist, said, “We discovered 100-year old pitch and oakum still in just a few seams. This is a direct link back to Camden shipwrights.“ The lightship was built in Camden, New Jersey in 1904.

Below the waterline, the hull was cleaned, inspected, patched and reinforced.  The entire hull was also painted with the Coast Guard Red paint.  Most of the 109-year old hull was declared sound, but corrosion had made several small holes in hull plating. Emptying the tanks and patching the steel hull plating sent the project $80,000 over budget.

The final days in drydock will include replacing the lightship’s beacon light, painting on the white station lettering “SWIFTSURE,” and re-launching the vessel into Lake Union. Tugs will return her to the Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park. “Relighting the lightship will be an inspiring symbol for our community, and we’re blessed have this life-saving National Historic Landmark in Seattle,” said Otto Loggers, Northwest Seaport executive director.

Source: Northwest Seaport

Should the Moon Be a National Historic Park?

Moon landing sites

Apollo, Luna, and Surveyor landing sites on the moon. Should these sites be preserved as national historic sites or world heritage sites? Image courtesy NASA.

On a Saturday morning in the year 2313, the Follansbee kids are bored. Mom and Dad, always on the lookout for cheap but educational activities, decide to take the five-year-old twins and their older sibling, age seven, to a favorite park. They pile the short ones in the car, depressurize the airlock, and tell the computer to de-orbit from Lagrange Colony Armstrong to the Apollo 11 International Historic Park on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. They watch the video in the visitors center’s auditorium for the 13th time, let the kids run loose in the battered low-gravity climber, and spend beyond their means in the Eagle Has Landed gift shop. But the kids are happy, and that’s all that Mom and Dad care about.

As a parent who once had small children, it’s easy to imagine this scenario. It came to mind after reading about a pending bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, HR 2617, which would create the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park. According to Space Industry News, artifacts left on the surface of the moon from the Apollo 11 through 17 missions would be preserved under the bill, proposed by Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD. The proposal says nothing about footprints, tire tracks, and other evidence of human exploration, and the bill’s scope does not cover unmanned exploration, such as the Surveyor missions of the early 1960s. And, of course, the bill doesn’t mention non-U.S. exploration; the Soviet Union sent a number of probes to the moon during the Space Race. Edwards and her colleagues should address these omissions as the bill moves through committee.

Creating a historic park on the moon (apart from the obvious logistical problems) is harder than you might think. No one “owns” the moon, meaning Congress can’t set boundaries of a park in the same way it can designate boundaries or buy land for an earthly park. In fact, the U.S. may have undermined any property rights it or its citizens could claim by signing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declares Luna “the province of all mankind.” Plus a 1979 treaty, though not signed by the U.S., prohibits the exploitation of any moon resource by a single nation. Does this include cultural resources? Congress and the United Nations should clarify this.

Perhaps the best section of HR 2617 requires the Secretary of the Interior to submit the Apollo landing sites as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the premier list of places that played a key role in the development of human civilization. A listing encourages a host nation to preserve the site for future generations. Currently, no off-Earth sites are listed. Any place in the solar system outside Earth that shows evidence of human exploration older than a certain period of time (50 years is the standard for national historic sites in the U.S.) should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Furthermore, responsible governments should protect historic spacecraft–including those still in flight–in the same way they protect historic ships, as movable reminders of our space-faring past. Someday, I’d like my descendants to visit these places as the people of the 20th and 21st century found them.

What do you think? Should the Apollo landing sites be a national historic park?