Elissa is a pricey lady, but Galvestonians claim her as their own and nothing stands in the way when it comes to preserving this beauty. Built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the beginning of the age of steam, she is one of the last of her kind—a three-masted, square-rigged barque—measuring 205 feet from her stern to the tip of her jibboom.
After years of traveling the world, by 1961 she had been reduced to smuggling cigarettes between Italy and Yugoslavia. Peter Throckmorton, a marine archeologist, was aware that the Galveston Historical Foundation wanted a sailing vessel to display as a visual link between the city’s thriving 19th-century port and its major businesses lining The Strand. Throckmorton spotted the much-altered old barque in a Greek scrapyard. Once aboard, Throckmorton discovered a plaque identifying the Elissa. More investigation revealed the dilapidated hulk as the oldest ship registered with Lloyds of London and its log showed two visits to Galveston.
She first arrived in Galveston on December 26, 1883, with one passenger and a cargo of bananas. The following January 25 she left port loaded with cotton, bound for Liverpool, England.
Her next visit occurred on September 8, 1886, when she arrived from Paysandú, Uruguay, probably carrying a cargo of hardwood or sugar. She sailed for Pensacola, Florida, on September 26 carrying only her ballast.
Over the years, the Elissa knew at least seven owners and carried names such as Fjeld, while berthed in Norway; Gustaf, while sailing out of Norway; and even Christophoros when purchased by Greeks. Each new name reflected the identity of her owners and brought physical changes such as losing some of her grand sails, acquiring her first engine in 1918, and having her bow snubbed in 1936.
Even after Throckmorton discovered the Elissa, the Galveston Historical Foundation did not purchase her until 1975 for $40,000. Despite the GHF sending a restoration team to Greece to make her seaworthy, and replacing twenty-five percent of the hull and removing tons of rust and rotten wood, the Elissa had to be towed across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston.
As she made the journey across the Atlantic, the Elissa became the first object to be granted placement on the National Register of Historic Places while still outside the bounds of the United States.
No blueprints existed to guide the restoration, but the new owners realized she must be made seaworthy to attract the support needed to complete the enormous task. Experts arrived from Europe, Africa, and all over the United States to direct a corps of volunteers who descended on the fine old ship, varnishing the woodwork and going aloft to “tar” the rigging to keep it from rotting.
On July 4, 1982, with the restoration completed at a cost of $3.6 million, Texas had its “Tall Ship.” The Elissa sailed the Gulf of Mexico and began receiving a long list of awards for its restoration and for its volunteer program. The most prestigious accolade came in 1984 from the National Trust—the Preservation Honor Award.
In 1985 Elissa made her first voyage as a restored sailing ship to Corpus Christi. The following year she sailed to New York harbor for the Statue of Liberty celebration and tall ship parade where she held the honor of being the oldest of the event’s Class A vessels.
Over the years, the Elissa represented Texas from Brownsville to Pensacola and received designation as a National Historic Landmark.
Anchored at Pier 21, her home is the Texas Seaport Museum where the story of her restoration is displayed alongside accounts of Galveston’s seaborne commerce and immigration. Elissa reigned as one of Galveston’s premier tourist attractions until January 2011, when a trip to dry dock for regular maintenance revealed corrosion penetrating spots in her hull. Apparently, Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused far worse damage than inspectors recognized. After repairs to her hull and replacement of the wood deck, repairs estimated at $3.1 million, Elissa returned to her place in Texas history.
Today, Elissa is being readied for the Tall Ship Challenge, a series of races and festivals hosted by three Gulf ports––Galveston, New Orleans, and Pensacola. The events begin in Galveston on April 5 with a Parade of Sail, which is already sold out. Over the next three days, Galveston Bay Sails and Harbor Twilight Sails will be open to the public. Finally, on Monday, April 9, Elissa will lift her sails to begin the race across the Gulf to New Orleans. The grand lady is a survivor, and she will represent Texas pride.
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