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Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 09:17 AM

Vintage vessels share MOHAI spotlight

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

One starred in a 1933 movie.

Another could spray 380 gallons of water in a single second.

A third rescued more than 150 people after a steamer ran aground off Northern California.

And that's just a tiny glimpse of the résumés of a small fleet of boats moored at the Historic Ships Wharf at Seattle's Lake Union Park.

On Saturday, visitors to the South Lake Union neighborhood will doubtless focus on the 10 a.m. grand opening of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) at its new 50,000-square-foot museum in the former Naval Reserve Armory, a $90 million project years in the making.

But there's plenty of history tied up outside the museum as well.

The seven vessels at the Historic Ships Wharf, paces from the museum, have collectively amassed more than 680 years of nautical experience.

You can call them historic, vintage or veteran. But don't call them relics.

Granted, they don't hold the same jobs they had in their storied youth, but each of them, thanks to its own group of supporters, is still finding or seeking a way to be of service.

Take the Arthur Foss, for example, a muscular tugboat launched in 1889, the year Washington became a state.

She assisted sailing ships crossing the treacherous Columbia River bar, carried gold miners to Alaska, worked for the Navy in World War II and served the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest.

She even found time to taste show biz, being leased to MGM to appear in the 1933 movie "Tugboat Annie."

These days, she resembles a giant white burrito with her winter cover of plastic sheeting. Underneath that cover, craftsmen are using the time-tested skill of caulking a deck, which involves packing cotton and sealing materials between new planks of Douglas fir.

On Saturday, visitors will be invited to try their hands at it.

"We're not just preserving the boat, we're preserving the knowledge and skill sets that go with it," said Nathaniel Howe, vessel manager for the nonprofit Northwest Seaport, which owns the Arthur Foss.

Three other classic wooden vessels will welcome visitors Saturday: the 1922 passenger steamer Virginia V, the 1931 motor yacht Discovery and the 1909 cruising houseboat Lotus.

Owning a classic boat, particularly a wooden one, means conducting a nearly nonstop fundraising effort to finance seemingly never-ending maintenance.

Rainwater, which Seattle provides in abundance, is the enemy of a wooden boat, facilitating dry rot that can spread out of sight, sometimes reaching a serious level before it's discovered.

The Virginia V (pronounced "Virginia 5"), sleek and gleaming white, might not even still exist if it weren't for a $6.5 million restoration completed in 2002. The boat is one of the last veterans of the "Mosquito Fleet" that carried passengers across the Sound before the state ferries.

She'll be open for boarding Saturday after completing her assignment as the "green room" for MOHAI's 10 a.m. ribbon cutting. She'll also make one-hour cruises around Lake Union at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Discovery and Lotus, both of which will be open for visitors Saturday, are symbols of luxury, craftsmanship and durability from their particular eras. Both were built for wealthy private owners — Lotus in 1909; Discovery in 1931.

In addition to the Arthur Foss, Northwest Seaport owns two other vessels at the wharf, the iron-hulled lightship Swiftsure and wooden salmon-troller Twilight. Though neither will be open for boarding Saturday, the Swiftsure, undergoing restoration work, will honor the new museum with strings of light lit at sunset. The Swiftsure worked as a floating lighthouse at West Coast sites including the mouth of the Columbia River and outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. She's credited with rescuing 155 people in lifeboats after a steamship ran aground near Cape Mendocino, Calif., in 1916.

Also at the historic wharf is the steel-hulled 1909 fireboat Duwamish, whose watery plumes made her a symbol of power and grace, not just at waterfront fires, but at civic celebrations.

Pumps added in the mid-1940s more than doubled her original pumping capacity to 22,800 gallons a minute, bolstering backers' claim that she was the world's most powerful fireboat.

Now owned by the nonprofit Puget Sound Fireboat Foundation, the Duwamish needs extensive restoration that could cost $5 million or more, said David Morse, foundation president, adding "and these are hard times to try to raise money."

Will all this history on Lake Union's edge compete for attention with the new museum, crowding its spotlight?

No, says Leonard Garfield, MOHAI executive director, who sees "an incredible synergy" at work between the museum and the groups that own the boats.

Some of the vessels, such as the Virginia V and Arthur Foss, are featured in displays inside the museum. Visitors will be able to learn about a boat's past, then step outside and see it, and perhaps step aboard.

The Historic Ships Wharf and MOHAI are in Lake Union Park, which opened in 2010 on the waterfront site the city acquired from the Navy in 2000.

Five of the seven historic boats there now are in permanent moorage, while Lotus and Discovery are at temporary moorage managed by the adjacent Center for Wooden Boats.

Betsy Davis, executive director of the Center for Wooden Boats, said the MOHAI opening strengthens a working group of organizations involved in promoting the lake's heritage.

"We want people to be able to explore this history and have an authentic connection to it," she said. "It's not just a made-up thing. It's real."

A look at the vessels:

Virginia V, 1922
125-foot passenger steamer

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

This cherished "Mosquito Fleet" veteran gained new life with a $6.5 million restoration completed in 2002.

Open Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one-hour tours at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

www.virginiav.org


Swiftsure, 1904
129-foot lightship

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

At ports up and down the West Coast, she guided vessels through treacherous waters. She'll light up at sundown Saturday to celebrate the new MOHAI.

http://nwseaport.org/historic-fleet/lightship-swiftsure/


Arthur Foss, 1889
112-foot tugboat

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The oldest member of the Historic Ships Wharf fleet, this versatile, hardworking star of a 1933 movie is still teaching new mariners old tricks.

Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

http://nwseaport.org/historic-fleet/tugboat-arthur-foss/


Duwamish, 1909
120-foot fireboat

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Launched as the world's most powerful fireboat, she delivered graceful plumes of water that were impressive not just at fires, but at civic celebrations. Backers say she's in need of major restoration.

www.fireboatduwamish.org


Lotus, 1909
92-foot cruising houseboat

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

See how the other 1 percent lived: When launched, she was billed as the largest power yacht on the West Coast.

Open Saturday 10 a.m. — 8 p.m.

www.mvlotus.org


Twilight, 1933
36-foot salmon troller

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A wooden boat that worked West Coast fisheries until the 1980s, she's now owned by Northwest Seaport and used in educational programs.

http://nwseaport.org/historic-fleet/troller-twilight/


Discovery, 1931
87-foot wooden motor yacht

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Her teak deck and mahogany paneling attest to the craftsmanship of yesteryear.

Open Saturday 10 a.m. — 5 p.m.

www.alaskacharters.com/Discovery.htm

Sources: Northwest Seaport, Center for Wooden Boats, HistoryLink.org, MOHAI, Seattle Parks and Recreation, Seattle Times archives

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com


GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park complements the Museum of History & Industry, opening Saturday in the white former armory building. The boats include the black-hulled Seattle fireboat Duwamish, left, the red-hulled lightship Swiftsure, the plastic-encased (for winter) historic tug Arthur Foss and the steamship Virginia V.




MARINE SALON PHOTO SHOP
The 90-year-old passenger steamer Virginia V was part of the "Mosquito Fleet" that served Puget Sound before the state ferries.




Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
Arthur Foss, 1889: The oldest member of the Historic Ships Wharf fleet, this versatile, hardworking star of a 1933 movie is still teaching new mariners old tricks.




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