November 04, 1999
Old vessels find new homes in the water and on the land
By EILEEN SMITH
An old ship looking for a new home needs a big place to stay but it need not be in water.
While most sea-going vessels retire to coastal states, like the USS New Jersey, others find a final berth on dry land.
No matter where they dock, maritime experts say the big ships can't rest on their laurels. They need to find creative ways to lure visitors aboard.
“You cannot have a static display,” says Tom Richardson, assistant manager for education for the USS Pampanito. “If you can't offer new things, people stop coming.”
The Pampanito, the centerpiece of the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco, has been host to more than 200,000 visitors so far in 1999. But last year, when San Francisco's brisk influx of Japanese tourists shriveled in the midst of Asia's financial crisis, attendance began to wane.
That is when the maritime museum began to recruit new shipmates with such attractions as overnight bunking trips for Scout troops. The Pampanito staff also began marketing to younger people, most of whom never served in the military.
“A lot of day-to-day life on a ship is unknown and people enjoy seeing how they lived during difficult times in history,” Richardson says. “They come away with a greater appreciation of how people sacrificed so we can live the way we do today.”
The last seagoing vessel to come home to New Jersey was the Intelligent Whale, a hand-propelled submarine built during the Civil War. Wooden doors in the bottom allowed a diver to swim out and plant an explosive mine on the hull of an enemy ship.
Although the developer, President Lincoln confidant Nathaniel Norris Halstead, took his family for rides on the Passaic River in the submarine, the vessel didn't have its Navy test until years after the Civil War ended.
Like the Titanic, it sank on its maiden outing.
“Intelligent Whale had the ultimate bad-hair day,” says Chief Warrant Officer Judith McCabe, curator of the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt.
From the beginning, Intelligent Whale and calamity shared a bunk. Commissioned for $15,000, it ultimately cost $60,000 to build the craft, welded from boiler iron half an inch thick.
“Like all government projects, there were cost overruns,” McCabe says.
In 1871, the project stalled again when its champion died suddenly shot dead in Newark by a jealous rival for the affection of Halstead's mistress.
Then, in September 1872, a crew from the Brooklyn Navy Yard took Intelligent Whale for its ill-fated test run. The submarine immediately filled with water; the crew managed to escape.
All interest in the submarine was doused, too. Intelligent Whale was beached in Brooklyn for almost a century, until the Navy trucked the craft to Washington, D.C., in 1968. Last year, the government bestowed it on the muse with the proviso the vessel would be displayed indoors.
But when workers from Sea Girt went to Washington to pick up the submarine, they couldn't lift it. Initial estimates, which determined Intelligent Whale's weight at 6,000 pounds, were astoundingly low.
“It weighed 46,000 pounds,” McCabe recalls. “We had to cut a hole in the roof and lift it in with a crane and the Navy had to foot the bill.”
McCabe says the New Jersey's passage through the Panama Canal was considerably smoother when she went to witness the feat last month. After all the problems in transporting Intelligent Whale, a mere 28 feet long, McCabe was awed by the powerful tug pulling the battleship with apparent effortlessness.
McCabe will observe the New Jersey again when it arrives in Philadelphia this month.
“There's great excitement among the people who are fascinated by ships and history,” she says.
The New Jersey will be the 100th historic naval ship to find a retirement home in a national network of maritime museums. There are ships in 28 states including such unlikely locales as Nebraska, which boasts three ships, and Iowa, where the William M. Black rests in a grassy field.
Massachusetts has the most resettled ships at 10. The USS Arizona, sunk during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is viewed through a glass sea window; it remains underwater, some of its sailors still entombed below deck.
The USS Batfish, the famed “sub killer” which earned nine battle stars in the Pacific during World War II, is now hundreds of miles from an ocean. It was towed up the Arkansas River in 1972 to its new home a field in Muskogee, Okla.