41st Annual Meeting – Wooden Artifacts Session, May 31, “Schooner Virginia: Addressing Inherent Issues in Ship Restoration” by Nicole Wittig

As a furniture conservator who was fascinated by sailing ships in his childhood, and spent many hours carving and building ship models, I was eagerly awaiting Nicole Wittig’s presentation on the preservation efforts regarding the schooner Virginia, which is currently in a storage shed at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia.
Looking forward to the mechanics of a ship’s restoration, I soon realized that this talk was going to address a much more fundamental issue that conservators face on a near daily basis: what aspect of an objects history should be brought back, and how will that affect the viewer’s perception of the object. How should the Virginia, a vessel that was significantly altered over time, be restored and ultimately perceived?
Beginning her talk with a historic narrative, Ms. Wittig described Virginia as a sailing vessel built on the eastern shore of Mobile bay in 1865. Utilizing historical records, Ms. Wittig related how a series of ads appeared in 1866 in Mobile papers, mentioning ships of a very similar tonnage and description. She surmised that the Virginia was probably constructed not from plan, but by local master shipbuilders, and had been designed to service the region’s oyster fishing fleet. Decades later, in the 1930‘s, it was mentioned as one of four such vessels in the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey (HAMMS), and recorded as a fishing vessel now working the west coast of Florida. The Depression Era HAMMS endeavor was significant since it was designed to record the disappearing American wooden sailing fleet, before the such vessels would be replaced by ones built of metal with engine propulsion. As such, the survey went into great detail regarding Virginia’s physical description and included construction drawings and photographs. I was especially taken by a photograph of the schooner, which depict it with twin masts and sails. It immediately brought back memories of a challenging childhood project, to build an accurate wood model of a Gloucester schooner, and the many hours I lovingly spent carving masts and fitting thin cotton to simulate sails.
The Virginia continued its service as a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico over the following years, and was discovered by the Coast Guard in 1967, naming it to be the oldest operating fishing vessel in continuous service. When retired in 1990, Virginia had achieved a remarkable 127 year operational career. It was then purchased by the National Civil War Naval Museum, in the desire to preserve the vessel as an example of a Civil War blockade runner. Ms. Wittig went on to mention that definitive documentation regarding this possible aspect of the vessel’s life has not yet been fully discovered.
The following portion of her talk was devoted to documenting Virginia’s overall and interior dimensions, which are a length of 55’, a breath of 14’, and a draught of 3’, considerably larger than any object this conservator has treated. One approach to this task involved the taking of hand measurements and producing Adobe Illustrator drawings. Another approach utilized Total Station, a terrestrial laser scanner, noting millions of exterior points, which then permitted one to create a 3D image of the vessel. Although this technique does not lend itself to measuring interiors, it was able to produce striking multidimensional images, as seen in Ms. Wittig’s Power Point presentation.
Virginia’s current condition was also noted. One of the major preservation issues that has developed since the vessel has been out of water since the year 2000 has been the drying out of the timbers. This has led to dimensional changes in the wood, such as the keel twisting, necessitating not only the vessel’s cradling, but also the drilling of holes through its breath, and the installation of long metal rods to stabilize the structure. Sections of wood exhibit splintering and dirt and debris are now found in the wood crevices, retaining moisture and leading to wood deterioration. Although Virginia is stored in a covered shed, metal components are degrading, such as the rudder, which exhibits gross corrosion, with the metal delaminating in sheet-like sections. What was immediately striking to this conservator was the apparent lack of an ongoing maintenance program for this vessel, permitting these conditions to fester.
The presentation closed with an outline of the various preservation choices and goals that will need to be decided upon. If Virginia is designated as a Civil War blockade runner, would that not disregard its long fishing history? Were it to be reconstructed to its sail configuration, would that not also negate its engine propulsion history? And if other choices are made, such as preserving it as the longest operationally running fishing vessel, where would the money for its preservation come from, if the Museum of Civil War Naval History decide to deaccession it? Noting these challenging issues, Ms. Wittig suggested basing any decision on the HAAMS survey, since it provided the most thorough and reliable documentation for the vessel.
The Q&A afterwards was lively, with questions regarding tracking the name of the vessel, Virginia’s possible Civil War involvement and conservation costs.
All in all, a welcome revisit to an aspect of my childhood!