Balclutha's Bay Area Ties Run Deep

Earlier this summer, the Balclutha made a familiar journey from her home at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park to Alameda's Bay Ship & Yacht, right next to the Alameda Main Street Terminal, for regular servicing and a few repairs.

BY JOEL WILLIAMS

 

Earlier this summer, the Balclutha made a familiar journey from her home at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park to Alameda’s Bay Ship & Yacht, right next to the Alameda Main Street Terminal, for regular servicing and a few repairs. The historic ship, built in 1886, is a 301-foot, triple-masted, steel-hulled, square-rigged ship built to carry cargo all over the world.

 

Most of the work consists of general maintenance items—sandblasting and painting of the hull, inspection and testing of the rigging aloft and ultrasound examinations of the hull thickness. There is also some repair work being done, such as replacing many of the wood planks on the poop deck and installing a wheelchair lift to increase accessibility to the lower deck.

 

This is not Balclutha’s first visit to Bay Ship & Yacht, however. Bay Ship has been performing restoration and maintenance service on Balclutha for over 30 years, dating back to the early 1980s. “It is one of the most historically significant vessels in the area and an extraordinarily beautiful piece of work that represents shipbuilding at its finest,” said Bay Ship & Yacht General Manager Alan Cameron. He added, “It has always been a great honor to work on her.”

 

The relationship between Balclutha and the San Francisco Bay—and Alameda in particular—runs deep. Her maiden voyage in 1887 was from Cardiff, Wales to San Francisco. After completing the 140-day journey, her cargo of coal was exchanged for California wheat. Balclutha would make the lengthy voyage three more times in as many years before calling on other ports around the world.

 

In the 1890s Balclutha carried wine, oil and coal from Europe and the east coast of the United States to Pacific ports like Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Burma, rounding Cape Horn 17 times. In 1902, she was chartered by the Alaska Packers’ Association and, after running aground near Kodiak Island in 1904, she was sold to the association for a mere $500 and renamed Star of Alaska.

 

For the next 26 years, she carried workers and supplies from her base in Alameda to Chignik Bay in Alaska in the spring and returned with a cargo of canned salmon in the fall. She would spend her winters in Alameda, where she received regular maintenance. She made her last voyage to Alaska in 1930.

 

In 1933, Star of Alaska was purchased by Frank Kissinger for $5,000 and once again renamed. As Pacific Queen she became a celebrity of sorts, appearing in the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty, which starred Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. She spent the next 20 years touring the West Coast, usually being exhibited as a “pirate ship.” Over this period, her condition deteriorated significantly and she was almost scrapped during World War II for the war effort.

 

She was purchased for $25,000 by the San Francisco Maritime Museum in 1954, given her original name back, and the Balclutha returned to the familiar surroundings of San Francisco Bay for good. The museum restored her with much assistance from the local community, and, in 1978, Balclutha was transferred to the National Park Service, in whose care she became the showpiece that she is today. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

 

 

All Photos by Joel Williams

LEFT: Repairs being made include the replacement of many of the wood planks on the poop deck. RIGHT:Balclutha served as a cargo ship for the Alaska salmon industry in the early 20th century, carrying workers from her base in Alameda to Alaska, and bringing loads of salmon back to the Bay Area on her return trips.

LEFT: Balclutha is one of the most historically significant vessels in the Bay Area, representing shipbuilding at its finest. RIGHT: Balclutha also serves as a floating museum, with items from her past lives interspersed throughout the ship. Star of Alaska was one of her prior names.