Historic Schooner Wawona--photo Courtesy of US Library of Congress
The once proud three-masted schooner Wawona quietly lies de-masted and severely weathered as she awaits her final fate at South Lake Union in Seattle. For the small percentage of people who are third generation or more in the Northwest, a significant part of your past is about to disappear. This wooden relic stands in stark contrast to Seattle's technology-age monoliths and sterile downtown park plans. So oddly out of place today at her lakeside moorage where she has been for the last 25 years, the tide of newly graduated x-box champions turned designers shrug at the sight of the huge dilapidating hulk--thinking it must have been left over from a Hollywood pirate movie set or something. Others just see it as an unsightly reminder of what work and toil used to be long before computers--protesting that it doesn't conform to today's quest for Techno-ultramodernism and thirst for instant gratification.
Like it or not, the Wawona is a testament of the past and could likely be a catalyst for future ideas. For this ship once achieved what society desperately seeks today in the face of global warming--industrial efficiency and ecological conservation. On the surface, the Wawona is obsolete in every sense of the word. She's made of wood and nobody would ever dream of building a ship from wood anymore. It doesn't even have an engine because it once utilized the cheapest and greenest energy of all--the wind. However, she reminds us that ships of her kind were able to efficiently move billions of tons of freight around the world for centuries. The ships themselves were built of renewable materials that could stand the test of time. For eons, the world was connected through trade routes plied by these ships--without paying the toll of the greenhouse gas penalty. (Todays ships create as much as 10% of the worlds air pollution.) There were more than 300 of these majestic sailing ships working the waters off the West Coast by the late 1800's--lumber, coal and fish going south, supplies and people going north.
In the months and years ahead, most may never even notice she's gone. The condo developers will rejoice as they lay plans to create multi-million-dollar dwellings with unobstructed views of the blue Lake Union waters. The City of Seattle Parks department has approved a $400,000 budget to cut up and store parts of the Wawona with the idea that some sort of memorial will be eventually be placed on land. The plan is contingent on enough money being raised to build a proposed interpretive sculpture at the new South Lake Union Park. The catch is, the small scantly-funded non-profit group (Northwest Seaport) must raise $2M by 2010 to build the memorial or the materials will be discarded.
The chances of the money being raised are "slim to none" according to a NW Seaport member who didn't want to be named. "It's just another way the Seattle City Council bends to the influence of Paul Allen's money and his desires to makeover Seattle into his personal profit machine". She believes like others that the plan is just a red herring to lead Wawona proponents into thinking Seattle's maritime history will be preserved. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the sediment of some she said who are giving up the battle to save the Wawona--pointing out that the land display plans are flawed because they don't adequately protect the wooden structure from further decay. Northwest Seaport's president, Joe Shickich, believes that the deal worked out with the city is the best option for the Wawona at this point since the ship is believed to be too far gone for practical restoration efforts. Northwest Seaport has offered the Wawona to other cities around the Puget Sound region with no one stepping forward.
The Wawona is one of two remaining sailing ships once used to transport lumber along the West Coast. The other, the CA Thayer, underwent a three-year $15 Million dollar renovation completed in 2007 and as part of the San Francisco Maritime Museum collection of ships. Local maritime history buffs have time and time again complained that the City of Seattle has negligently buried its gruff maritime past in leu of new development interests. The city perhaps grew too fast and there just is not enough people around who care about preserving local history against the influence of new private money. We had seen how Seattle's historic Kalakala was so quickly ushered away several years ago when it appeared from a fifty year sabbatical. It's was a ghost from the past that popped out of a retro postcard to haunt Seattle nouveau riche developers.
Perhaps the best place for the Wawona to go is the old mill site at Port Gamble says Betsy Davis, head of the Center For Wooden Boats. It could be much more appreciated their in the town's historic surroundings. After all, this is the trade she was originally built for--in the days when lumber was hand loaded through the stern doors of these big ships, Port Gamble produced millions of board feet of lumber from gigantic virgin logs. Ships like the Wawona were critical for transporting product to California to rebuild after the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Port Gamble is a privately owned mill town that has carefully preserved its past. However the mill site and harbor has been cleared for future development. With Port Gamble's interest in attracting tourists, maybe it would be a fitting resting place for the Wowona?
Built in 1897 for less than $30,000 at the Hans Ditlev Bendixsen yard in Fairhaven, California, the 498 gross ton Wawona is 165 ft in length with a 36' beam and 12' draft. She was the largest three-masted sailing schooner ever built in North America. Gaff-rigged for easy handling with a small crew, The Wawona was built to economically carry lumber down the West Coast. In 1914, she was sold and converted to a cod fishing schooner to work the Bering Sea off Alaska--carrying salt North and returning with some of the largest cod catches on record for those years. It was probably the salt that help preserve the hull all these years.
Why is it important to keep record of the past? In her crude basic presence, the Wawona represents ideas that are as important today as they were a century ago. The age of sail has long past--given way to the "smoke boats". Steam, then internal combustion engines and jet turbines. To build and operate a freight ship today means hundreds of millions in investment. Then tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate it. The Wawona is the last of the truly green fleet. With less then a dozen men and not a drop of fuel, hundreds of tons of cargo could be transported down the coast. The reason why it's important to keep these remembrances of the past in the present and future is that they represent a completely different mindset than we have today. Future innovation relies on the building of what was learned in the past. Maybe some child will be inspired by the graceful lines of an old sailing ship and become a marine architect who someday designs crew-less computer-controlled wind-powered ships that transport freight around the globe? or perhaps someone will glean a hint of how long range thinking, trust, and ingenuity could have collaborated to make commerce happen without the use of instant digital communication.
There are many who would agree that Seattle earns an "F" for its efforts in retaining and recognizing its roots in comparison to other US cities. In a few decades, most will only know Seattle as the place where Microsoft and Starbucks started--or perhaps future monolith builders will rewrite history again and the records of todays entrepreneurial stars will be erased into oblivion by the young bloated egos of tomorrow. While It may not be fair to put the burden on Seattle to preserve the regions maritime history (since it was just another stop on the trade routes for these ships), the State of Washington Parks Department has not done a stellar job of fostering support for preservation the past either.