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More than nine lives

Rescuing and restoring old wooden ships keeps history alive and inspires us all. This is the story of a hard-working schooner that operated on the West Coast.

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Wapama was a 216-foot steam schooner that made runs between San Francisco and the northwest United States during the heyday of the rough-and-tumble Pacific lumber trade.

Built in Oregon in 1915, she entered service for the McCormick Lumber Co. that year. She could carry — and load/off-load on her own, using booms supported by her two masts — more than 1 million board feet of lumber while accommodating 45 cabin passengers and 15 more in steerage. During her 32-year career she also ranged south to Los Angeles and north to Alaska.

It was a rough life, and Wapama (later renamed Tongass) suffered her share of accidents. She endured two groundings, without damage, in her first year afloat. In 1917 she had a collision with the steamer Doris and grounded again a month later, both times without damage. Her first serious accident was in 1932, when her masts snapped during loading. In 1947 the ship struck a Long Beach, California, breakwater and her hull began to leak. In 1947 a collision with the steamer Reef Knot worsened the damage. In 1948 she was sold for scrap, although the Coast Guard had deemed her hull to be in fair condition.

A decade later, somehow still in one piece, she became the centerpiece of the newly established San Francisco Maritime Museum. A 4-year restoration followed, and she opened as a museum ship in 1963. But Wapama was big and expensive to keep up, and the bothersome leak got worse. In 1979 she was placed on a barge for repairs that never quite materialized because of financial and other concerns. Resting under a partial cover, she sat out the years. No one could rescue her.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, Wapama — the last of more than 200 wooden steam schooners in the Pacific lumber trade — was dismantled. The task was completed in 2013. Her triple expansion engine was preserved, along with other significant artifacts and pieces of machinery, for display at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.

October 2014 issue