Tall Ship Balclutha Still Afloat After 119 Years

By James Donahue

Thanks to the care and talents of restoration professionals, the tall ship Balchutha now floats moored at the San Francisco Maritime National Park for public view.

A 301-foot steel-hulled square rigged ship, the Balchutha was set to sea in 1887 under British registry on her maiden voyage from Cardiff, Wales, to San Francisco, the place that would be her final home. She carried a cargo of 2,650 tons of coal to California, and picked up a cargo of California wheat.

The ship’s captain for that original trip was named Constable. She had a 26-man crew and spent 140 days at sea before arriving in San Francisco. She remained on the Europe to San Francisco grain trade at first, making about one trip each year.

The Balchutha arrived in San Francisco with cargo three times, sometimes bringing pottery, cutlery, Scotch whiskey and general heavy cargo like pig iron.

During the years that followed this ship sailed to ports all over the world. She rounded Cape Horn 17 times in 13 years carrying cargoes to San Francisco. She also sailed to Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Burma and the Pacific Northwest.

In 1899 the ship was told to Hawaiian registry and served the Pacific Coast lumber trade. For three years the Balchutha sailed north to Puget Sound, Washington, and then across the Pacific to Australia. She was estimated to have carried 1.5 million board feet of timber, much of it used as mining timbers in the Broken Hill Mine at Port Pine, Australia.

It is said Balclutha was the last vessel to fly the flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1901 the ship was admitted to American registry by special act of the U.S. Congress so she could engage in trade between American ports. At about that time, the Alaska Packers Association, a San Francisco firm that harvested and canned salmon, chartered the ship to carry men and supplies north to Alaska.

The Balchutha went aground in 1904 and apparently was written off by the underwriters as a total wreck. The Alaska Packers Association purchased her where she lay for $500, made extensive repairs and put her back to sea under the name Star of Alaska.

Under this name, the vessel sailed up and down the West Coast of the United States carrying supplies and cannery workers. The company maintained a fleet of about 30 vessels, and by 1930, the Star of Alaska was the only windjammer still in the fleet. She was retired the next year.

Retired, but not finished. The vessel was purchased in 1933 by Frank Kissinger and renamed Pacific Queen. Kissinger then took the vessel to Catalina Island where she appeared in the original film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. After that Kissinger towed her up and down the West Coast, usually exhibiting her as a pirate ship.

The vessel slowly deteriorated during those years and barely escaped the scrap metal drive during World War II. In 1954 the San Francisco Maritime Museum purchased Pacific Queen. Assisted by donations of cash, materials and labor, the Museum restored the ship and gave it back its original name.

The ship was formally transferred to the National Park Service in 1978 and Balclutha was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

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