Seattle Now & Then: The St. Paul Maritime Museum, ca. 1934

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Signs reading “MARINE MUSEUM” and “OPEN” beckon visitors to the St. Paul, berthed just east of the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks in the mid-1930s. This image appears on an exceedingly rare postcard recently acquired by photo historian Ron Edge. When under sail, the vessel’s fully rigged acre of canvas was supported by nearly 15 miles of cordage. (Ron Edge collection)
NOW: Pictured in early March from the same rooftop vantage, atop a building now housing the Chittenden Locks’ administrative offices, the docks below are now home to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers debris recovery vessel, the MV Puget. Local institutions that showcase the subjects of the former St. Paul include the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, pugetmaritime.org, and HistoryLink.org. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on April 7, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on April 10, 2022)

A 1930s Seattle maritime museum was both fleeting and floating
By Jean Sherrard

For local maritime historians, there once was a Camelot. During a brief stretch in the mid-1930s, the sailing ship St. Paul served as Seattle’s first and only floating nautical museum, ideally situated on the freshwater side of the Ballard Locks.

Built in Bath, Maine, in 1874, the 228foot-long vessel with a soaring 150-foot main mast was reasonably swift for its size. The St. Paul crossed the Atlantic in just 16 days and sailed between San Francisco and New York, rounding Chile’s Cape Horn, in a brisk 103 days.

After hauling cargo between Britain, America and the Far East for nearly three decades, the elegant square-rigged craft (identified by Bremerton maritime historian Michael Mjelde as a “down easter”) was consigned to service between Alaskan canneries and Seattle until its banishment to Lake Union in 1924 with other relics and obsolete tall ships destined for the scrap heap.

Only the timely intervention of a local band of fervent maritime and marine enthusiasts saved the St. Paul from demolition.

Founded in 1928, the Puget Sound Academy of Science dedicated itself to “the diffusion of scientific knowledge by means of … publications, expeditions and exhibits.” The brainchild of Henry Landes, dean of the University of Washington College of Science and husband of Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha K. Landes, the academy also was the beneficiary of Arthur Foss, co-owner of Foss Launch and Tugboat Company.

A collector and history buff, Foss had purchased the St. Paul and offered it to the academy for use as a floating exhibit. Enlisting naturalist (and future peace activist) Floyd Schmoe as president, the group proposed a “marine museum,” merging maritime history and marine biology.

Schmoe’s promotional booklet asserted that the restored St. Paul would serve as the museum’s “chief exhibit. … Nothing will be placed on her deck or in her cabins which was not there when she was still in service.” Below the main deck would be “ample room for … exhibits of primitive and historical boats … and the story of man’s development of the ship.” Another lower deck would include a “salt-water aquarium (with) marine life from the waters and shores of Puget Sound.”

The Marine Museum and Aquarium opened June 16, 1934, welcoming thousands of visitors to its Ballard berth (admission: one dime) for the next two years. But the museum’s shining moment faded all too soon.

The wooden-hulled St. Paul fell victim to Northwest rain and a dearth of regular maintenance. In 1942, at age 68, the deteriorating vessel was towed to Vancouver Island’s Oyster Bay to be scuttled as a breakwater.

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3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The St. Paul Maritime Museum, ca. 1934”

  1. Are you sure the St. Paul was destroyed in 1942? There was a three masted Bark moored at the location you state well into the 1960’s…until the time Seattle cleaned up Lake Union and built Gas Works Park. That’s when all the delalict ships and Navy vessels were hauled out.

    1. Hi Allan, it’s pretty certain. Michael Mjelde of Puget Sound Maritime has written extensively on the St. Paul over many years. Records show that the ship was towed and scuttled in Oyster Bay. Also, many ships were stored in Lake Union in the 20s, including, you may recall, the tall-masted Monongahela, which famously was towed out of Lake Union just before the Aurora (George Wa. Memorial) Bridge was completed, allowing her sails to pass through unimpeded.

  2. Mr. Sherrard: While I am sure Mr. D has been mentoring you, lo, these many years, I want to express my gratitude for the care and your better angel doting on him, quite aside from the care you have shown the collection. My award goes to you !!
    For a longer, healthier life, please look up the definition of
    blephoroplasty.

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