A rare save in maritime preservation
Congenial as the Gulf Coast environment is in many ways, it’s a harsh one for wooden boats. Not many have survived here long enough to embody a history. An exception is the 38-foot wooden shrimp fishing vessel Santa Maria, built in 1937. And even she had help late in her active life with a protective coating of fiberglass around her bottom.
The Santa Maria’s life continues today through the stewardship of the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Texas Seaport Museum and with the care of some dedicated volunteers.
“Working on Santa Maria is working with a real living history,” volunteer Rob Glover said.
“She is the real thing. When you sand and paint her rails, you can’t help but feel the past. And when you’re crawling around cleaning her engine room and bilge, you smell the past. I love getting my hands on history.”
Santa Maria embodies a history nearly as long as Galveston itself.
The rich marine resources of Galveston Bay and offshore waters were as important in the development of Galveston as its role as the best seaport between New Orleans and Tampico.
Shrimp in these waters came to be harvested by a fleet of small sailboats clustered at Pier 19. Their small size and spindly masts and booms — aside from a certain omnipresent factor in their environment — gave them together the name “Mosquito Fleet.” There were more than 100 of them by the turn of the 20th century.
The 1910 establishment of the Galveston Ice and Cold Storage plant, across the street from Pier 19, gave the shrimping industry a huge boost, as fresh shrimp, packed in ice, could be shipped by rail all over the nation. The introduction of small gas engines to the boats after 1917 increased the dependability of the catch, and extended the range of operations. Boats could go out for days at a time, whatever the wind, loaded with ice to preserve the harvest.
Santa Maria was launched as “Miss Galveston” in 1937 from the Covacevich Shipyard in Biloxi, Miss. She was built for the Grasso family, who had been shrimping in Galveston since the city’s founding. She had in her lines a long heritage of Biloxi-built wooden fishing schooners, but she took her place at Pier 19 as part of a new generation of robust diesel-driven shrimp boats.
She fished these waters for the next 75 years.
The Grassos operated Miss Galveston until the son of another Italian-American family, Joseph Grillo, bought her in 1952. Renaming her “Santa Maria,” Joe and his wife Edna operated her until they sold her at their retirement in 2002 to the Galveston Historical Foundation.
It was an unusual save in the maritime preservation movement, taking a vessel directly from her operational life into stewardship as a historic artifact. The more usual situation, like that of the iconic 1877 sailing ship Elissa on display next door at Pier 22, is the acquisition of a derelict, much-altered vessel destined for the scrapyards that’s restored to something like its original appearance.
Once saved, though, a wooden boat requires the care and attention of its owners over the long haul, and the help of volunteers. The Santa Maria is hauled out for routine maintenance of her bottom and engine every two years.
“I worked eight hours a day for six weeks on her last haul out,” said volunteer Georgia Battista, who has helped care for the Santa Maria for more than eight years. “Especially when she’s out of the water, you realize that she’s an unusually beautiful boat. I love her lines. You won’t see another like her.”
The Santa Maria may be seen, though not boarded, by the general public, afloat in her home among the members of Galveston’s contemporary Mosquito Fleet at Pier 19. She is taken out into the harbor every few weeks to exercise her engines. After so many years, she still lives, and she connects us with our coastal heritage.