I 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.)
Throckmorton 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.