Schooner Wawona

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Last voyage for lumber schooner Wawona
by Tim Flanagan on February 25, 2009

[Here's the official press release from Northwest Seaport. —Tim]

SEATTLE — The historic schooner Wawona will make a final voyage under tow on Monday morning, from her South Lake Union berth to a nearby drydock where she will be methodically dismantled and many of her historic features preserved.

The 165-foot vessel, owned by NW Seaport, will be towed at 10:00 a.m., Monday morning from Waterway 4 on Seattle’s Lake Union, next to the old Naval Reserve Armory, to the Lake Union Drydock Company on the east side of the lake. The Wawona made frequent visits to Lake Union Drydock for servicing throughout her long seafaring career, carrying lumber, cod, and wartime supplies.

An agreement between NW Seaport and the city of Seattle in September 2007 helped chart the course for the Wawona’s final move and the preservation of her most historically significant features.

“The Wawona’s voyage to Lake Union Drydock for disassembly is the next step in the methodical process of understanding and documenting this historic vessel,” said Joe Shickich, president of Northwest Seaport, which owns the vessel. “In addition, the preservation of some of her most compelling features will contribute to exhibits that will show the important role she played in the Pacific Northwest.”

At drydock, with the advice of David J. Stewart, PhD a maritime archaeologist from East Carolina University, and local maritime experts in wooden boats and maritime heritage, Wawona will be dismantled. The shipyard work, which is expected to take five weeks, will enable many of her historic features to be documented, photographed and preserved for exhibit at Lake Union Park and the Museum of History and Industry’s (MOHAI) future Lake Union Park location.

Planking from the Wawona, her large wooden “knees” and the captain’s cabin, which have already been carefully taken apart and cataloged by shipwrights and maritime historians, will likely be featured in the new MOHAI museum at Lake Union Park. An on-land interpretation of the Wawona at the park is also planned by Northwest Seaport.

Moored on South Lake Union since 1980, NW Seaport and hundreds of volunteers have contributed thousands of hours to preserve Wawona and keep her afloat.

While preservation and restoration work slowed the decay of the vessel, a professional survey in 2005 found many structural and other parts in poor condition. Northwest Seaport and its partners convened the Wawona Summit ( in December 2005, bringing in national and local experts in wooden boats and maritime heritage to help chart the future of the schooner. The experts’ recommendations included taking the Wawona out of the water and displaying significant parts on land.

“Finding a solution to preserve the most historical features of Wawona was important before her condition deteriorated further,” said Shickich. “We have been mindful of documenting and archiving her most significant features in a way that teaches and inspires as well as helps us to understand naval architecture of the period.”

“Maritime archaeology is complex. In the early days of the field, the tendency was to attempt to completely restore these ships. The problem is you open up a Pandora’s box. It’s not a cheap thing,” said David Stewart, PhD, who specializes in 19th and 20th century British and American maritime archaeology at East Carolina University, one of only four U.S. graduate programs in the field. In July, Stewart brought a team of six graduate students to Seattle to begin the process of digitally archiving the ship. The archival process will produce a detailed 3-D model of the ship for future study, potentially outlasting even a complete restoration. “When you go on board you can see the powder beetle infestation has rotted away most of the timbers. Making the decision to archive and dismantle the Wawona was difficult, but a very forward thinking step,” said Stewart. “Today in maritime archaeology, we are tending to leave wrecks in place. With a ship that is above the water like Wawona, instead of perpetually funding the maintenance of a decaying ship, in many cases it is better to get a good recording of it and put those resources into further study.”

The 111-year-old Wawona was built in California specifically to haul lumber from Washington ports to California. She became a fishing schooner in 1914 and supported a fleet of 18 dories in the dangerous waters of the Bering Sea.

The Wawona excelled in this task, engaging in the fishery for 29 seasons until 1947. During WWII, she was Army barge and hauled lumber to the Boeing Airplane factory for building military aircraft. In 1964, the Wawona was purchased by civic leaders including Wing Luke, Ivar Haglund, and Kay Bullitt for use as a museum ship.

Tens of thousands have walked her decks, marveled at her dimensions, and learned of her contribution to the economic and cultural development of Seattle and the Northwest. In 1970, the Wawona was the first vessel to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a City Landmark in 1977, and named as a Historic Naval Ship in 1999.