Worn out and weary-looking, a sailing ship squeezes through a drawbridge in 1941 on the Mystic River in Mystic, Conn. It's hard to imagine that it would one day be an American icon, one of the nation's most famous ships.
It's the Charles W. Morgan, the lone sailing vestige of 19th century whaling.
For the 20 years previous, she'd been tied up at a wharf in South Dartmouth, Mass., near New Bedford, where she was built in 1841. Now she was coming to Mystic Seaport, a little southeastern Connecticut maritime museum, to serve as an exhibit.
Though World War II would interrupt, there was a trend developing with these rapidly disappearing ships from our nation's Age of Sail. Quietly, people were gathering up old vessels here and there. In 1927, the 278-foot
barque Star of India, built in 1863, came to rest in San Diego as a museum ship after 21 circumnavigations. In 1934, the 118-foot training ship Joseph Conrad, built in 1882, found a new home in Mystic at the seaport museum we know today, which had been founded just a few years earlier.
Sailor/historians such as Karl Kortum and Alan Villiers, who were among the last to serve on such ships, spurred the trend, calling attention to those that remained as they wound down their commercial careers. The nation responded. The Balclutha, a 300-foot three-masted full-rigged ship built in 1886, came to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in 1954. In 1963, the 282-foot USS Constellation, a sloop-of-war docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, was named a National Historic Landmark. In 1975, the Galveston Historical Foundation purchased the 205-foot iron-hulled
barque Elissa, built in 1877, and her home has been the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston since 1979.
Today, thanks in no small part to the foresight and dedication of Kortum, Villiers and others, there's a global fleet of tall ships hosting rendezvous and races and offering sail training experiences, while preserving an important part of our maritime heritage for future generations.
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.