The Elissa: The Untold Story

IMG_0198I was recently in Galveston, and I stopped by to see the tall ship Elissa. She wasn’t there, but before too long she pulled into view and I snapped the above picture. For those who aren’t familiar, the Elissa is a barque, a three-masted, iron-hulled merchant ship built in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1877.

How she came to Galveston, though, is a colorful tale that indirectly involves my father, the details of which I pieced together when I was working on my book, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship.  However, it was an aside to the main narrative, so I left it out of the book.

The Elissa was discovered in Piraeus, near Athens, by Peter Throckmorton, a photojournalist an early pioneer of nautical archaeology. Throckmorton was an early supporter of my father’s work on the Kyrenia Ship and recommended my father for the prestigious Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology in 1974, when my father was still a relative unknown in the field.

The official story is that Throckmorton spotted the Elissa near a shipbreaker’s yard awaiting salvage, but the real story, as it was relayed to me by people who knew him, is more involved. He saw what appeared to be a beaten-down old cargo ship in the Piraeus harbor and guessed by the cut of her bow that she had been a sailing ship even though all her masts had been removed.

Throckmorton made some inquiries around the harbor and found that the ship was owned by smugglers who were bringing in coffee from Italy. He talked his way aboard, and eventually made his way below deck, spotting the plaque that indicated the ship had been built in Aberdeeen in 1877. (You can still see the plaque if you tour the Elissa today.)

Peter_Throckmorton_at_typewriter_2Throckmorton knew he had found a classic sailing ship that needed to be preserved. He made an offer to buy her, keeping the ship’s true nature a secret because he didn’t want the smugglers to raise the price. He took out a second mortgage on his apartment in Piraeus, and bought the Elissa. He then set about finding someone who would help him preserve the ship. Among those who were interested were members of the Galveston Historical Foundation, which was looking for a sailing ship to preserve as part of its efforts to restore the city’s historic Strand district.

But who would do the restoration work? Peter paid my father a visit in the castle in Kyrenia. In an April 30, 1974 letter to my mother, my father wrote:

Peter Throckmorton has asked me to build or rebuild a three-masted bark, probably in Galveston, Texas, and probably for the ’76 celebration. We don’t know much about it yet except that he has a $300,000 budget.

He didn’t. The $300,000 was likely the money Throckmorton had gotten from mortgaging his apartment. At any rate, nothing ever became of the discussions. The Elissa didn’t make it to Texas for the U.S. Bicentennial. She was finally towed there in 1979 and underwent an extensive two-year restoration effort.

By then, my father had completed the Kyrenia Ship reconstruction and had become one of the founding faculty for the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University in College Station, about 150 miles from Galveston.


About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
This entry was posted in Nautical archaeology, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Elissa: The Untold Story

  1. Cathy Niemann says:

    My family lived in Athens, Greece when my father worked for the American Embassy. I attended the American Community School of Athens. A very dear classmate of mine was Paula Throckmorton. While visiting Paula one weekend, her father took us to Piraeus to look at a ship he had purchased. It was the Elissa. Years later, living in Houston, I was watching the local news when a special interest story featured the purchase of the Elissa by the Galveston Historical Society.

    Liked by 1 person

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