Archives For Museum Ships


Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.


CC Image Courtesy of goodhugh on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of goodhugh on Flickr

As her sister ship USS Saratoga slowly makes her way to the scrap heap, USS Ranger (CV-61) sadly awaits the same fate. Launched in 1957, the Ranger was one of four new Forrestal-class super-carriers and the seventh US Navy warship to bear the name Ranger. Like an earlier USS Ranger (CV-4) which had been the first American aircraft carrier designed from the keel-up as an aircraft carrier, the Ranger was the first American carrier to be designed from the keel-up as an angled deck carrier.

During her nearly forty years in active service, the Ranger supported bombing sorties in North Vietnam, responded to unrest in Kenya/Uganda, deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield/Storm. On her final deployments, the Ranger assisted humanitarian efforts in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope, enforced the No-Fly Zone in Southern Iraq and launched a B-25 bomber in commemoration of Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Japan. While never being actively attacked, the Ranger’s crew suffered at least 7 deaths during her service to accidents onboard.

In addition to serving on the frontlines, Ranger also served as a floating movie set for such notable movies and television shows as Baa Baa Black Sheep, Flight of the Intruder and Top Gun. While decommissioned in 1993, the ship remained part of the US Navy’s inactive reserve fleet. Despite a proposal in 2010 to convert the vessel into a museum ship, today the Ranger is slated for the scrap heap. A dedicated group of veterans and fans have recently stepped up in an effort to save the ship and breathe life back in to the museum ship proposal. Their petition can be found here on

Egyptian boat

Khufu’s Solar Barge
CC Image Courtesy of Hannah Pethen on Flickr

Egyptian news site Bikya News is reporting that the museum which houses Khufu’s (King Cheop’s) solar barge has suffered a sewage leak that potentially threatens the preservation of the thousands year old barge.

Buried in 2500 BC, the solar barge was one of two barges buried in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Rediscovered in 1954, the barge was reconstructed and an entire museum built to house the magnificent 143 foot long vessel. The barge was most likely built to serve a ritual purpose in the after-life as its design does not lend itself to practical use on the water.

The Egyptians were not the only ones to provide their dead with boats or ships for the after-life. The Vikings often buried dead chieftains in enormous burial mounds complete with full-sized ships. Today, three of those ships are preserved in Scandinavia and are open to the public.

spy ship

USS Pueblo
Photo: US Navy

On January 23, 1968, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo was gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) in international waters off the North Korean coast. Within a matter of hours, the Pueblo and her crew would have their lives turned upside down and become players in an international drama.

The Pueblo began life as a cargo and passenger ship in 1944 and spent 20+ years as a logistics ship for the US Army before being transferred to the US Navy in 1966. Pueblo was then converted into an intelligence ship and deployed to the Pacific Ocean to monitor Soviet and North Korean activity in the region.

For reasons that still remain unclear, the North Koreans decided that the capture of the Pueblo would be either a propaganda or intelligence coup (or perhaps both) and thus deployed multiple subchasers, torpedo boats and even air assets to capture the Pueblo on the pretext of violating North Korea’s territorial waters. Faced with destruction or capture and no prospect of armed relief, Commander Lloyd Bucher ordered the destruction of all sensitive materials and submitted to the North Korean demand for surrender.

The crew and ship were then paraded before cameras multiple times as a propaganda tool. They were also subjected to physical and psychological torture, but, much like Admiral James Stockdale, refused to allow the North Koreans to defeat their spirit. In fact, the crew became even more famous for displaying the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” in photos taken of them by the North Koreans. Demonstrating the ineptness of the North Korean intelligence system, the photos were published because the North Koreans didn’t understand the meaning behind the gesture.

uss pueblo middle finger

Hawaiian Good Luck Sign

Eleven months after their capture, the officers and crew were released and returned to the United States. Today the Pueblo is the only active US naval warship in captivity. The North Koreans use the ship as a “museum ship” to further the propaganda campaign necessary to keep their own people in chains and transnational elites duped into thinking the North Korean regime is merely a victim of capitalistic bloodlust and excess. While tenuous diplomatic talks have occurred about the return of the vessel to US hands, none have been successful and the ship remains a pawn in North Korean diplomatic efforts.

North Korea spy ship

USS Pueblo in North Korea

Nuclear Ship Savannah

January 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

nuclear powered merchant ship

The early 1950s were the glory days of the Atomic Age as scientists and the public eagerly sought to apply atomic technology to as many uses as possible. Unlike today when there are enough anti-nuclear groups to populate a mid-size state, atomic energy was embraced as the wave of the future. Among the applications atomic power was devoted to was that of merchant shipping. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the construction of what was to become the NS Savannah as part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative.

The Savannah was conceived as a proof of concept ship that could transport both cargo and passengers and sailed on her maiden voyage on August 20, 1962. It’s Babcock & Wilcox nuclear reactor was more than 50% of the cost of the $49.6 million ship and she could cruise at full power for 2 years before needing to re-fuel. Unfortunately, high operating costs made her unable to compete against oil-burning ships with oil at only a few dollars a barrel. Additionally, the cost of infrastructure required to support the ship couldn’t be spread across multiple vessels and her cargo holds weren’t designed for load efficiency. Thus, on January 10, 1972 the ship was taken out of active service.

Today the ship is moored in Baltimore, Maryland where it is hoped she can become a museum ship after her nuclear reactor is decommissoined. Savannah stands as a memorial to a time when Americans dreamed big and stood as a beacon of freedom in a squall of socialism and devastation wrought by world war.

Canada WWII Navy

HMCS Sackville
CC Image Courtesy of Paul B on Flickr

The HMCS Sackville was laid down in early 1940 and was 1 of 267 Flower-class Corvettes built for the Allied navies during World War II. The U-boat threat to the Atlantic shipping lanes required hundreds of small, nimble ocean going warships to fend off U-boat and Luftwaffe bomber attacks on Allied convoys. The Flower-class were intended to fulfill this role and helped get American and Canadian men and war material across the Atlantic safely.

The Sackville first saw service in early 1942 when she was deployed to the Northern Atlantic to protect convoys off the coast of Newfoundland. The ship damaged several U-boats during her wartime patrols and even forced two U-boats to completely break off their attacks and return to occupied Europe for extensive repairs. Unfortunately, the Sackville was herself damaged in August 1944 when a massive explosion damaged one of her boilers. The cause of the explosion is still unknown, but was most likely the result of one of her depth charges exploding a Nazi torpedo close to the Sackville’s hull.

Relegated to harbor duty the ship was later converted into a research vessel for use by the Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries. Finally retired in 1982, the Sackville avoided the scrap heap and is now the last remaining Flower-class corvette in the world. She now continues in service as a museum ship and Canada’s Naval Memorial in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship can be visited during the summer months and more information can be found here.


USS North Carolina
CC Image Courtesy of Jay Turner on Flickr

Although today the USS North Carolina floats peacefully in Wilmington, NC, the ship was once at the tip of the US Navy’s spear in the Pacific during World War II. The North Carolina had originally been planned for construction in the 1920’s and her keel was even laid down, however, the approval of the Washington Naval Treaty caused the ship to be scrapped to honor the United States’ treaty commitments. Not until the gradual re-armament of the 1930s was the ship brought back off the drawing board. The ship was finally commissioned on April 9, 1941 and bristled from end to end with nine 16-inch guns, twenty 5-inch dual purpose guns and dozens of 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns.

The North Carolina first tasted blood in the Guadalcanal campaign of August 1942 and participated in every major naval offensive of the war. Nicknamed the Showboat, the North Carolina earned 15 battle stars during World War II, survived being torpedoed, sank a Japanese troopship, participated in 9 shore bombardments and downed 24 enemy aircraft. Additionally, the pilots of her Kingfisher aircraft assisted in the rescue of numerous Allied pilots and aircrew and on one occasion Lt. John Burns used his Kingfisher to rescue 10 airmen.

Following the war, the North Carolina was placed in the Inactive Reserve Fleet and, after a fundraising effort by North Carolina schoolchildren, was dedicated as a museum ship in 1962. As the most decorated battleship of World War II, the USS North Carolina now serves as a memorial to North Carolina’s World War II service men and women. The ship is open for tours and even hosts an annual 5-K and 1/2 Marathon.

coastal steamer

SS Robin
CC Image Courtesy of Paul Hudson on Flickr

Entering service in December 1890, the SS Robin is the world’s oldest coastal cargo steamer still in existence. Robin spent the first 10 years of her life shuttling between British, Irish and continental ports. In 1900, Robin was sold to Spanish owners, renamed the Maria and spent the next 72 years plying Spanish and French coastal waters. The ship survived the ravages of both World Wars as well as the Spanish Civil War and was destined for the breakers yard in the early 1970s when the Maritime Trust purchased the ship intending to restore her for use as a museum ship.

After extensive restoration from 1974-1975 the Robin was placed on display until 1991 when the ship was mothballed. The ship was purchased by the SS Robin Trust in 2002. Beginning in 2008 the Robin was subjected to a multi-million dollar exterior and interior restoration which is now nearing completion. The Robin now resides atop a custom built floating dock reminiscent of a heavy lift ship like the M/V Blue MarlinThe interior of the floating dock will house exhibits detailing Robin’s history as a coastal steamer. SS Robin’s website describes the ship as possessing True Grit for surviving as long as she has. On a slightly related note, Charles Portis, the author of the American novel True Gritresides in Little Rock, Arkansas – the location of last week’s featured museum ship. Even though the Robin won’t be open to visitors until next year, its website extensively documents the ship’s history and provides a 360 degree virtual tour of the area surrounding the vessel.

Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum

USS Razorback
CC Image Courtesy of thomas23 on Flickr

Much like in Muskogee, Oklahoma, one would not expect to find a submarine museum ship in Little Rock, Arkansas. Beginning in 1963, though, the US Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a project that opened the Arkansas River in 1971 to commercial traffic from Tulsa, Oklahoma to its confluence with the Mississippi. Thus arose the opportunity for museum ships such as the USS Batfish in Muskogee and the USS Razorback in Little Rock to be created.

The Razorback has the unique distinction of being one of the longest serving submarines in the world. The boat served from 1944 to 1970 with the US Navy and from 1971 to 2001 with the Turkish Navy. Commissioned in April 1944, the Razorback was not named after the University of Arkansas’ mascot, but rather a species of whale. During her 5 war patrols, the sub sank over half a dozen Japanese merchant and warships, rescued multiple Allied airmen, participated in the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay and earned 5 battle stars.

Following the war, the Razorback continued her service and received upgrades from 1952 to 1954 based on knowledge derived from captured Nazi U-boats. The boat patrolled the waters of the South China Sea during the Vietnam War and earned an additional 4 battle stars before being decommissioned in 1970. Following decommissioning, the Razorback was transferred to the Turkish Navy where she was renamed TCG Muratreis.

In 2001, the boat was sold to the city of North Little Rock and opened as a museum ship at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. If visiting, also be sure to take a stroll across the Big Dam Bridge, the longest pedestrian bridge in the US never having been open to vehicle traffic. Today the USS Razorback stands as a silent sentinel guarding Little Rock and the Arkansas River.

tall ship hawaii

Falls of Clyde
CC Image Courtesy of Wally Gobetz on Flickr

Falls of Clyde is today the only surviving four masted iron-hulled sailing ship. Built in Scotland in 1878 when the clipper ship reigned supreme, the Falls of Clyde operated as a tramp merchantman between the US and locations in the British Empire. Falls of Clyde later was converted to use as an oil tanker and even served as a floating fuel depot in Alaska.

Perhaps the most intriguing fact about the Falls of Clyde is her backdoor entry into US passenger and cargo service at the turn of the 20th century. The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 prohibited foreign flagged/built ships from ferrying passengers between US ports. Today, the Jones Act (passed in 1920) maintains a similar prohibition. A US company purchased the Falls of Clyde in 1899 and registered the ship under the Republic of Hawaii’s flag. Thus, in 1900 when the US annexed Hawaii the Falls of Clyde, despite her foreign origins, was allowed to fly the US flag and operate between US ports.

Falls of Clyde was restored in the late 1960s and served as a museum ship in Honolulu, Hawaii however the ship fell into disrepair after neglect by her parent museum. In 2008, the Friends of the Falls of Clyde purchased the ship and are working to restore her.