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Image: Katy Lemay

Long before the 110-year-old schooner rotting in South Lake Union was at the center of a battle over the city’s future, it received a beating more severe than the forces of gentrification could ever wage. In 1935 the Wawona was pummeled by a storm off the Aleutian Islands. First mate Tom Haugen was at the wheel, and the ship’s captain, Charles Foss, screamed in his ear. “Stop using so much force,” Foss snarled, “I’ll take her through.” The captain grabbed the wheel—and dropped dead of a heart attack. The crew lashed his body to the deck and fought through the storm. “These guys were tough,” says Wayne Palsson of Northwest Seaport (NWS), the nonprofit that owns the Wawona.

When the schooner wasn’t fishing for cod in the Bering Sea, it wintered in Lake Union. “The Wawona has a direct connection to Seattle’s history,” says Palsson. “It docked in the lake, its crew boarded here, and it had a profound impact on the region’s economy.” Today the City of Seattle and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate have ambitions for the neighborhood that don’t exactly include decaying old boats. Vulcan’s 2200 development, a mix of high-end retail chains and upscale housing, opened last fall, with more projects on the way. And the city’s poised to begin construction on a highly anticipated lakeside park. To those looking to beautify the area—not to mention Seahawks fans catching a game at the nearby Hooters—the Wawona is an eyesore. No matter that "Wawona" is the Yosemite Indian word for “owl hoot.”

The ship’s pocked with holes and decomposing planks, with a gash in the portside bow you could drive a Mini Cooper through. In December 2005 Northwest Seaport convened a summit of local and national maritime heritage experts to decide what to do with the ship. Their advice: Haul it out of the water and cover it. It estimated that $1.5 million would go far toward preserving the vessel, and up to $15 million would fully restore it.

But to Mayor Greg Nickels, a sworn enemy of “big ugly things” like the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the study read less like a call to action and more like a coroner’s report. In June, when NWS president Joe Shickich wrote asking for help, the mayor’s office responded with what it considered a reality check. If NWS doesn’t come up with a comprehensive Wawona plan soon, wrote Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, the city “will contract for its demolition and disposal of portions of the vessel we decide not to keep for display purposes.” Translation: Get that fugly pile of planks out of the lake, or we’ll do it for you.

Rather than spur supporters to action the ultimatum only agitated Wawona-ites like Shipbuilders, Sea Captains and Fishermen author Joe Follansbee, whose Maritime Heritage Network blog tracks the schooner’s recent brushes with extinction. “It’s pretty clear [Ceis] has no idea what he’s talking about,” Follansbee posted last June. “He’s willing to spend maybe a half-million dollars on destroying the vessel, when the same amount of money would do a lot to stabilize it and perhaps allow visitors aboard.”