The tall ship Elissa is a three-masted iron barque built in 1877 by Alexander Hall & Company of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has a raised quarterdeck of 34 feet, a height at the main mast of 99 feet 9 inches, and a forecastle of 19 feet. She displaces about 620 tons and carries nineteen sails totaling over 1/4 acre in surface area combined. She is 205 feet long from her stern to the tip of her jibboom. "Tall ships" are so classified by the configuration of the sailing rig. A "barque" carries square and fore-and-aft sails on the fore and mainmasts, but only fore-and-aft sails on the mizzenmast.

According to Marjorie Lyle, the granddaughter of Elissa's builder, the name "Elissa" was taken from the epic Roman poem The Aeneid, which tells the story of the tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dido was originally a Phoenician princess named Elissa, who fled from Tyre to Africa and founded Carthage.

Elissa's history

Elissa was launched in October of 1877 for Henry F. Watt of Liverpool. She was built during the decline of the Age of Sail for the purpose of maritime commerce, and over her 90-year history of use for trade, carried a variety of cargos to ports around the world for a long succession of different owners. The original British Registration number was 78726 and her signal was WVKG. Captain G. Wheaton was appointed master of the ship. In 1897 she was sold to a Norwegian, and renamed "Fjeld" after her owner. She plied the waters to and from South America in trade until being sold in 1912 and renamed "Gustaf".

Throughout the next six years, she changed hands three times. An Avance oil-engine was installed in 1918. In 1936, her masts were removed and her bow was altered during her re-building into a motorship. In 1959 she was sold to a Grecian owner and renamed "Christophoros'. She changed names again in 1968 to "Achaios". In 1970, she was seized by Greek authorities and held in Piraeus Harbor, Greece. She was bought later that year by the marine archaeologist Peter Throckmorton from the ship breaking yard and was renamed "New Pioneer".

In October of 1975, she finally was sold to the Galveston Historical Foundation for $40,000.00. The foundation bought the ship with the intention to restore her to sailing order. Four years later, she finally arrived in Galveston. The labor of love over the next three years restored her to sailing condition, and on the Fourth of July, 1982, she was opened to the public as a floating museum.

Since then she has sailed to New York to participate in the Tall Ships' parade, and has sailed there yearly since 1986. Her berth is at Pier 21 at Harborside drive in Galveston, Texas, USA. Each year, hundreds of volunteers work to keep her seaworthy and train each year to sail her. She is designated as a National Historic Landmark, and has also been designated one of America’s Treasures by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Galveston Historical Society maintains her as a living museum dedicated to the art of 19th Century square-rigged sailing.

A personal note

In 1981 as a 15 year old kid, I was personally privileged to walk on the decks of Elissa during the restoration phase of her 125-year history, and before she was opened to the general public. I remember standing on the decks of the historic ship and watched the craftsmen restoring her deck. The salt-soaked planks had been smoothed and oiled, and the workers were hammering cotton tightly into the seams between the planks with mallets and blunt-tipped chisels. At the aft of the ship, they carefully poured hot tar into the tightly packed seams to soak into the compressed cotton and seal the seams agains sea and rainwater. The mainmast had already been raised and much of the rigging was in place. A deep sense of history struck me as I stood on the deck of the gently swaying ship, smelling the salt water and hearing the creaking of the wood and the distant cries of sea gulls. I have since been back as a tourist, but I will never forget that day on the deck of the Elissa.

Texas Seaport Museum and Tall Ship Elissa
Pier 21 at Harborside Dr.
(409) 763-1877