A ship rescued from a Greek salvage yard becomes the pearl of the port
Some think it’s a miracle the tall ship Elissa, commissioned at a time when steamships outperformed sailing vessels for transporting cargo, was ever built. Steamships needed less crew than sailing ships, making vessels like the Elissa less efficient for carrying trade in the late 1800s.
If not for the dream of eccentric ship builder Henry Fowler Watt, the Elissa would never have come to rest as the “pearl” of the Port of Galveston on Pier 21.
The Elissa, built in 1877, has sailed under British, Norwegian, Swedish and Greek flags. And the vessel has one of the longest wakes, or more days at sea, than any other tall ship, Jamie White, director of the Texas Seaport Museum, said.
The Elissa was built as a high-class vessel, earning the highest possible classification of her time and by the end of a century was reduced to smuggling illegal goods.
“She went from a high-class matron to a bit of a sea tramp,” White said.
The Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship built by Alexander Hall and Company of Aberdeen, Scotland. The ship has 19 sails, more than one-quarter of an acre in sail area. It measures 205 feet from its stern to the tip of its jib boom. The Elissa is 99 feet 9 inches tall at the main mast and displaces about 620 tons at its current ballast.
The Elissa, after languishing in a Greek salvage yard, was rescued from destruction in 1975 by the Galveston Historical Foundation, which paid $39,000 for the ship.
The vessel was restored and opened to the public on July 4, 1982. Gov. Rick Perry signed a resolution naming the Elissa the “Official Tall Ship of Texas” on June 8, 2005. The ship sailed in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston every year after the restoration in 1982 and made its first voyage to other ports as a restored sailing ship in 1985, traveling first to Corpus Christi and then in 1986 to New York City to take part in the rededication ceremonies of the Statue of Liberty. The Elissa has earned National Historic Landmark status.
Ships of all kinds left the busy island port filled with cargo during a time when waterfront commerce generated enough wealth to build the impressive mansions on Broadway, the iron front buildings on The Strand and all the modern conveniences enjoyed by the city of Galveston.
The Elissa entered Galveston on Dec. 26, 1883, with a load of bananas from Tampico, Mexico. After selling its shipment — aided by an advertisement in The Galveston Daily News — the ship was loaded with cotton and left for Liverpool on Jan. 25. It returned on Sept. 8, 1886, having sailed from Paysandú, Argentina. The Elissa remained in Galveston until Sept. 20 and then headed for Pensacola, Fla.
White is a master rigger with more than 30 years of experience in the historic sailing ship community. He has led the restoration, rigging and maintenance of dozens of restored vessels and replicas around the United States. White has a U.S. Coast Guard approved Master 100 Gross Ton License and has logged more than 30,000 miles at sea.
No stranger to the Elissa, White spent six months in 1988 at the Texas Seaport Museum, overhauling the ship’s rigging and prepping it for sea. He returned two decades later to survey the rig after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008.
White, who met and married his wife on the ship, credits the enthusiasm and dedication of Elissa’s volunteers for the museum’s successful operation. Bobbi Sheffield is one of the ship’s engineers and chairwoman of its operations committee.
It takes about 27,000 volunteer hours a year to keep the ship running properly, Sheffield said.
A tourist one day, and a volunteer the next, Sheffield has worked on the Elissa for 16 years.
“The volunteers share a special bond and camaraderie,” she said.
The Elissa is more than a historic artifact representing the prosperous era when Galveston was deemed the “Wall Street of the Southwest.”
“She’s a fully functional, seaworthy vessel that brings history to life,” White said.