If you are planning to visit Lake Union Park soon, you will discover an empty slip where Northwest Seaport’s lightship is moored. Lightship No. 83 “Swiftsure” (LV 83) is undergoing important work at Lake Union Drydock Company, just across the lake. The rotten upper deck, wheelhouse, and radio house are being removed. The steel beams underneath are being cleaned for a new deck.
This work is part of the multi-year “Lightship Rehabilitation Project” to restore LV 83 to its 1947 configuration and reopen it to the public. When the ship returns, a new deck will be installed as part of a public program.
During May 2013, two maritime archaeologists and a professional shipwright carefully studied the construction details and created blueprints of the ship’s deteriorated wheelhouse. These plans will guide the reconstruction of a new wheelhouse. All of the original fixtures such as the ship’s wheel and engine telegraph were removed and will be put back in the new structures.
Over the past month, documentation work has focused on the 1937 wheelhouse. “It is a lot more work than it looks,” said Nathaniel Howe, Northwest Seaport Vessel Manager and Nautical Archaeologist. “There are a lot of complex structural details in that wheelhouse and it takes a saw to get at them.” To get all the work done, Howe was joined by Saxon Bisbee through the seaport’s Nautical Archaeologist in Residence Program.
Bisbee is a recent graduate of East Carolina University’s nautical archaeology masters program and is spending several weeks assisting with documentation of Lightship No. 83’s wheelhouse while staying aboard Northwest Seaport’s other vessel, the 1889 tugboat Arthur Foss. Bisbee is also assisting with documentation and restoration work on that vessel. Aboard Lightship No. 83, Howe and Bisbee worked alongside shipwright Brian Johnson to carefully measure and record the entire wheelhouse, its joinery, to produce drawings, and remove all salvageable artifacts for preservation and later installation in the new wheelhouse.
LV 83 was built in 1904, at Camden, New Jersey (eight years before RMS Titanic). It was one of 179 lightships built in the U.S. to serve as floating lighthouses. They were stationed in places where it was too difficult to build a permanent lighthouse. LV 83 successfully made the journey around South America in 1905 (before the Panama Canal was finished). During the next 55 years, it served on all six West Coast lightship stations—Blunts Reef; San Francisco (above); Columbia River; Umatilla Reef; and Swiftsure Bank.
During its years of active service, LV 83 rescued shipwreck victims, narrowly survived collisions, and made the transition from oil lanterns to electric lighting, radio, and radar. During World War II, it was converted to an armed training ship on San Francisco Bay, painted wartime gray, and fitted with heavy weapons. LV 83 returned to normal duties after the war, and was retired in 1961. In 1968, Save Our Ships (now Northwest Seaport), purchased the vessel for preservation and gave it the station name “Swiftsure”, after the closest light station to Seattle. It is a National Historic Landmark and the last lightship to retain its original steam machinery and many other historic features.
If you are interested in contributing to the restoration, or for more information, please contact Northwest Seaport. Continue to see updates via NWS Facebook and this website.