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.”
Follansbee is one of a dwindling number of local maritime buffs who can name the ship that first brought white settlers to Alki Beach (the Exact) and the naval cruiser that shelled native warriors in the 1856 Battle of Seattle (USS Decatur). He’ll also tell you most Seattleites don’t know their gangplanks from their Hooters hot wings. “The city, on the whole, has done a terrible job of celebrating its maritime heritage, compared to other large port cities.”
Wawona supporters thought the mayor might be yielding when $400,000 for the schooner appeared in his 2007–08 budget. Then someone read the fine print: “The project may include removing and preserving key features, and demolishing the remainder.” But for all Ceis’s threats, the Wawona still has friends in high places. After deciphering the mayor’s budget language, City Council member Peter Steinbrueck submitted a proviso to the council that, if approved, would forbid using the funds to dismantle or destroy the ship. The Wawona also has an ally of sorts in the Museum of History and Industry. Before the council voted to approve MOHAI’s projected move to the Naval Reserve Armory Building at South Lake Union, a last-minute amendment appeared that stuck MOHAI with the responsibility of finding a solution for the Wawona.
Did the museum expect to take on a project as conspicuous, contentious, and costly as the dilapidated vessel? Press MOHAI director Leonard Garfield hard enough, and he’ll admit: “I think we were thinking NWS would take the lead.” MOHAI is administering a $10,000 study to explore how the ship should be displayed. Options range from on-land interpretation to, Garfield confesses, “interpretation of elements of the vessel.” “Interpretation of elements” is the euphemism for dismantle that Wawona’s supporters cannot stomach, and one that sounds a lot like Deputy Mayor Ceis’s original missive to Northwest Seaport.
“That letter was appalling,” snaps Steinbrueck, who has long chafed at the inattention to maritime history in the city’s South Lake Union plan. He and other preservationists point out that few extant artifacts represent the region’s maritime heritage as clearly as the largest three-masted schooner ever built in North America. Launched at Fairhaven, California, in 1897, the Wawona transported lumber down the Pacific Coast for 17 years, then spent three decades catching Alaskan cod. In World War II it served as a military supply barge. “The Wawona was instrumental in two of the industries that made this region,” says Palsson, “logging and fishing.”
Now the tech sector, the industry that’s remaking Seattle, may do her in. “We need the vessel moved so we can start work on South Lake Union,” says Ceis—meaning the park that will anchor Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s growing biotech hub. But last November the council unanimously passed Steinbrueck’s proviso, specifying that the $400,000 only be used to preserve, restore, or relocate, not dismantle, the Wawona.
Fine, says Ceis. “But we believe it’s beyond the point of no return. I don’t think NWS has accepted that the Wawona cannot be restored. At some point you have to say this dream won’t come true.”