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History of the Historic Ship, Alma

by Gloria Lenhart

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NPS’s historic ship, the Alma

Built in a Hunters Point shipyard in 1891, the Alma was named for the granddaughter of shipbuilder Fred Siemer, a German immigrant. She’s had several renovations over her long life. In 1918, Siemer’s son-in-law and the real Alma’s father, James Peterson, removed her masts and used her as a barge to tow sacks of salt up from South Bay ponds. In 1926, a new owner Frank Resech installed a gasoline engine. Resech and his wife lived and worked aboard Alma, using her to dredge for oysters and haul containers of the shells up to Petaluma to be ground up for chicken feed. She was sold again in the 1940s to Peter John Gambetta who used her as a dredger until he retired in 1957. Then Alma lay in the mudflats of the South Bay until the State of California bought her in 1959 and later restored her using pieces salvaged from the many scows that were scrapped. She was transferred to the National Park Service in 1978. The Alma was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988.

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Scow schooners were used to haul hay in the late 1800s.

Scows on the Bay - By the early 1900s, there were over 400 scows like the Alma working on the Bay. Scows provided a stable platform that made it easy to load and unload cargo. Their flat-bottoms were ideal for navigating the shallow waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta. In a time when transportation depended on horses, these boats were often called “hay scows.” They could be seen crowding the Hay Wharf south of Berry Street, each loaded with 600-700 bales, piled six high on deck. Scows also carried coal, lumber, gravel, sand and fertilizer. After the 1906 fire, scows were used to bring tons of still-warm brick from kilns in the East and South Bay to help rebuild the city.

Tule Sailors - Scows were seen as an easy way for a sailor to make a good living. Scows were cheap to build and maintain and only required a crew of one or two men. "Tule sailors" (as scow schooner men were called) could earn twice the wages of their sea-going brothers while dining on farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and meat. And they could make a little extra by bringing family to Paradise Cove in Marin County for picnics in the spring or renting out their boats for an evening of drinking and dancing on the bay – often called "drownding parties."

The End of the Scows - Progress, in the form of gasoline engines, doomed the scows. The last one was built in 1906. After the 1930s, a few scows were stlll in use as barges or dredging and hauling oyster shell. As improved highways and motorized trucks became widespread, many scows were retired and deteriorated. Because Alma was one of the last working scows on the Bay, she remained seaworthy and intact enough to be restored.

Sailing on the Alma - The Alma is maintained and operated by the National Park Service, mostly by volunteers. They offer sailing trips to the public on select dates from June to November, and private sails by appointment. She sails from Hyde Street Pier. The scow is a Coast Guard-certified vessel, and is handicapped accessible with assistance. Although flat-bottomed boats are relatively stable, rough conditions are possible. Be prepared for cold, wind, sea spray, and very bright sun. Wear flat, closed-toe shoes and bring gloves for warmth and in case you want to help raise the sails. No alcohol, gum, sticky candy, or chips (which can blow away and harm marine life) are allowed on board.

Sailing Terms

Scow - A flat-bottomed boat with a blunt bow used to haul freight on inland waterways.

Fore-and-aft rig - Sails that are set along the length of the boat. Sails set perpendicular to the ship are called square-rigged.

Schooner – A ship with fore-and-aft rigging on one or more masts, where the back mast is the tallest. If the front mast is taller, than it is a Ketch. If there’s only one mast, it’s called a Sloop.

Athwartships – Side to side. The deck of the Alma is laid athwartships rather than fore-and-aft (front to back), which is unusual.

For more information on the Alma, go to: Photos and information courtesy National Park Service

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