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Park Service Struggling to Keep Historic Ships Afloat

Times Staff Writer

The National Park Service is sending out SOS signals, warning that the historic ships in its National Maritime Museum are rotting away at their moorings along Fisherman’s Wharf and will sink if no action is taken.

The Wapama--last of the 19th-Century steam-powered, wood-hulled lumber schooners that once carried freight and passengers along the Pacific Coast--is in such bad shape that it had to be hauled out of the water and stored on a barge in an oily backwater of the Oakland Estuary.

Other endangered vessels include the 100-year-old, square-rigged, three-masted sailing ship Balclutha, dry-docked in Oakland, and the gaff-rigged schooner C. A. Thayer, built in 1895. The Thayer, the last commercial sailing ship operating out of West Coast ports, is berthed at the museum’s Hyde Street Pier.

Touted as Largest Fleet

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Even the pier, which attracts 2 million visitors a year to view what is touted as the largest fleet of historic ships in the world, has fallen dangerously into decay, according to Brian O’Neill, superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the custodian of the eight ships given to the Park Service by the state in 1977.

O’Neill estimates that it would take $33 million to restore the pier and the ships to keep them in the water without deterioration, an unlikely prospect because of all the budgetary demands on the Park Service.

Also on display are the two-masted scow schooner Alma, the only flat-bottom cargo sailer left on San Francisco Bay; the oceangoing tug Hercules; the badly rusted paddle-wheel tug Eppleton Hall; the giant side-wheel ferry Eureka, and the 10,000-ton Jeremiah O’Brian, last of the original World War II Liberty ships.

The museum--founded in the early 1950s to save the Scottish-built Balclutha, which had sailed Cape Horn--has become the model for other historic ship preservation efforts around the world, and the museum curator, Karl Kortum, 68, is considered “a giant among ship preservationists,” according to Peter Neill, president of the South Street Seaport Museum in New York.

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“The Balclutha was a rusty old wreck thrust up on a Sausalito mud bank when I persuaded the (then private) museum board to buy her for $25,000 in 1954,” Kortum said. Never shy, he added: “Her conversion into the world’s most successful floating museum was entirely my work.”

Kortum persuaded the state to take over the museum and the cost of acquiring more ships, but during the quarter-century that the museum was operated by the California parks department, money was always a problem. After the National Park Service acquired the ships, five were designated National Historical Landmarks, and funds still remained in short supply.

“These ships represent the maritime history of the Pacific Coast,” said National Park Service Director William Penn Mott in a telephone interview. “They are as important as the missions and other historical sites.” He warned that preserving the fleet “will be very expensive, but if the ships don’t get proper maintenance, they are going to sink.”

Most tourists walking the decks and gazing up at the tall masts do not see the problems that lie hidden below decks and in the bilges where worms and dry rot weaken wooden beams and turn planking punky soft. Rusting steel hulls are being eroded by corrosive forces that have gone almost unchecked for 30 years, say the Park Service experts now going over each vessel, plank by plank, tallying up what must be done to save them.

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“The Wapama is beyond preservation (as a seaworthy ship),” O’Neill said. “We’ve lost that chance, and soon we will lose our chance to save the Thayer and the Eureka. The Balclutha’s (steel hull) plates are so thin you can put a fist through them in places.”

The 301-foot Balclutha was hauled out of the water last month to have steel patches welded on its bottom and to undergo other basic repairs that will cost $500,000, a fraction of what is needed to put the century-old ship back into top-notch condition.

“Saving our ships” has an emotional priority nearly as high as saving Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and Florida’s Everglades, O’Neill said, but he is doubtful that the government will provide the necessary funds.

Maintenance Budget Halved

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To make matters worse, the Park Service recently lost half of its annual $1.5-million historic ship maintenance budget when building inspectors closed the condemned Hazlett Warehouse, a federally owned national historic landmark near Fisherman’s Wharf. The Park Ser1986618213$780,000 of the yearly rent money for work on the fleet.

Park Service officials vow to make up this shortfall by dipping into the budgets of Yosemite, Grand Canyon and other national parks. “We’ll not turn our backs on the ships,” said Western Regional Director Howard Chapman. But, he admitted, “I’m not sure what we can expect.”

One way to raise money, he said, would be for the Park Service to lease the warehouse to a developer with $21 million to satisfy safety codes and attract commercial tourist operations. But some businesses in the Cannery and Ghirardelli Square object to possible competition, and some historians want to turn the warehouse into a museum and cultural center.

There are other problems, too. Kortum was recently suspended for five days without pay for insubordination after he publicly disagreed with park managers over how best to preserve and display the ships.

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Kortum contends that the fleet is endangered because his supervisors “don’t understand ships. They are managers, non-ship people” whose land-based park experience fails to qualify them to run the fleet.

“Karl’s fight with the Park Service is getting in the way (of preservation) terribly,” said South Street Seaport Museum’s Neill, one of the nation’s top experts on saving old ships. But Neill agrees that the Park Service is “a land-based bureaucracy that does not understand ships and has been reluctant to spend money on them.”

Even Golden Gate’s top managers seem to agree. “When the Park Service acquired the ships, it didn’t know what it was getting,” said maritime unit manager Glennie Wall.

O’Neill added: “There has been a reluctance to say what the full price tag will be for fear people will back off . . . and decisions have been made intuitively, not on hard data.”

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Problem With Workers

One of the primary problems has been to find and keep skilled riggers, shipwrights and deckhands capable of restoring and repairing the ships. Another has been acquiring accurate data on what repairs and restoration each ship needs, said O’Neill, who ordered expert surveys of each ship in the fleet.

“We know we must improve the moorings at Aquatic Park,” O’Neill said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a breakwater to protect the fleet from stormy seas. But, repair of the Hyde Street Pier--owned by the San Francisco Port Authority--will cost millions, and it would take a special act of Congress to authorize spending federal money on port-owned property.

By September the detailed ship surveys will be complete, and the Park Service will know how much it will cost to save the ships and repair the docks, O’Neill said. Then, if Congress and private donors do not come up with the needed money, he said, “we will just have to accept fate and do what we can, knowing that the ships will not be saved.”

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