Thursday, May 17, 2007


Revealing wreckage of Maine-built ship re-emerges


By David Hench
May 17, 2007

Weathered timbers have been rising gradually from a San Francisco beach in recent days, promising a rare glimpse of a 150-year-old Maine shipbuilding tradition well-preserved by its sandy burial.

The King Philip, a prestigious medium clipper launched in 1856 in Alna, ran aground in this West Coast harbor 22 years later, a tired, outmoded vessel that had endured two mutinies, been set on fire and been relegated to hauling bird manure and lumber.

"She could have sunk deep or she could have been burned, but because she sank where she did and buried herself, we have an exciting and tangible reminder of ships long past and the days of wooden sail," said maritime archaeologist James Delgado, executive director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

"We also have a well-preserved example of naval architecture at a time when Maine led the nation in shipbuilding and ships like this waved the American flag all over the seven seas."

Delgado did the initial mapping of the wreck when it first emerged from the sand in the 1980s, documenting the ship and getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

His research took him to Alna, where the homestead of the shipbuilder, Dennett Wemouth, still stands, and where he was able to find the ship's sail plan in the attic.

The structures emerging from the sand right now are the bow and stern, which rise three feet higher than the rest of the ship, he said.

"The entire bottom of the ship is there beneath the sand," he said. "Everything from just below 'tween' deck to the keel has survived."

Had the ship's end been more spectacular, such as being dashed onto the rocks, it would not have been as intact, he said.

"This is about the best-preserved prototypical downeaster that we know of," he said. "Maine built the bulk of America's wooden ships after the Civil War. The majority of those were either downeasters or the large schooners. King Philip is at the beginning of that tradition."

The King Philip is a medium clipper. It was not technically a clipper ship, being built bigger to haul more cargo, but was still built for some speed, he said. It was 182 feet long, 36 feet wide and 24 feet deep, weighing 1,189 tons, according to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.

The King Philip was launched from Alna for its Boston-based owners and traveled all over the world, including Australia and the South Pacific.

There was a mutiny in Honolulu, Hawaii, and another off Annapolis, Md., where the crew set fire to the ship.

The mutinies were a sign of the economic decline of that class of wooden sailing ships, as companies sought to remain competitive with other boats, including steamships.

Owners sought to save money by cutting back on maintenance and on the size of the crew, which was responsible for sailing the vessel and handling its cargo, Delgado said.

By 1878, the ship was hauling lumber from Puget Sound to San Francisco, "a workaday trade where she had been built for loftier dreams, of hauling riches from the South Pacific," Delgado said.

When the King Philip pulled its anchor and ran aground on the western shore of San Francisco, the hull was sold for $1,000 to a local storeowner, who recovered what items he could and then used dynamite on the upper decks so he could more easily salvage the copper and bronze used in its construction.

Like the feet of a beachcomber standing in the surf, the hull gradually sank into the sand and disappeared for more than 100 years.

A confluence of currents exposed it in the 1980s, when Delgado surveyed it, but sand from road construction buried it again. Now it is back and is causing a flurry of excitement among tourists, locals and historians.

"People love it," said Stephen Haller, historian for the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Artea. "It's been a magnet for locals and out-of-town visitors alike that really reminds them of the romance of the sea or the mystery of shipwrecks, that sort of thing."


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