Once upon a time, the harbor on New York’s East River bustled with the masted sailing ships that helped make Manhattan a commercial powerhouse. This Saturday, a blast from that historic past sailed into South Street Seaport—the Wavertree, a 131-foot-long wrought-iron ship that, as James Barron reports for The New York Times, represents 16 months of restoration and centuries of maritime history along the East River.
The ship cost $13 million to restore, writes Barron, and was received with a barrage of festivities that made Wavertree seem more like a celebrity than a sailing ship, including bell ringing, flag raising, fireboats spraying water and a gaggle of celebrity guests. The Wavertree was built in Liverpool in 1885 and, according to the South Street Seaport Museum, was one of the last wrought-iron sailing ships ever built.
At one time, the ship transported jute—a fiber commonly used to make rope—from India to Scotland. After some years, the vessel began transporting random cargos but eventually fell into disrepair. In 1968, she was acquired by the museum and has long docked in Pier 16 of the South Street Seaport "Street of Ships," a fleet of historic ships that tells the story of New York’s harbor and its connection to the city’s history.
Ever since the Dutch created the New Amsterdam settlement at what is now the tip of Manhattan in 1624, the natural harbor that surrounds the city has been its heartbeat. As Jarrett A. Lobell writes for Archaeology, the harbor quickly became too crowded to sustain the commercial trade it attracted, so efforts to expand Manhattan’s shoreline began. To this day, remnants of the city’s commercial might lie hidden beneath its waters—silent sentinels of the harbor’s importance to the city’s fortunes.
Wavertree was in bad shape when the restoration, which was funded by New York’s municipal government, began. The ship needed everything from a refurbished deck to renovation of its hull and rigging. In a release, the museum explains that it was taken to a dock in Staten Island for repairs. Wavertree has since been returned to its circa-1910 glory and to it's home at Pier 16.
The ship isn’t just another pretty boat: As the museum’s executive director told Barron when the restoration began last year, it’s the only surviving wrought-iron sailing ship in the world. Though the development of iron-hulled ships in the early 19th century represented a revolution in shipbuilding, the brittle material did not age well and the use of wrought iron ended with the introduction of steel.
Want to check out the newly-restored ship for yourself? It will be open to the public starting September 29.