date published: August 15, 2005

Refurbished tall ships are sure to be the life of the new Boston Tea Party Museum
by Josh B. Wardrop / photography by Della Huff

Since 1973, the waterfront site of The Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum—a floating tribute to the most significant act of rebellion that inspired the American Revolution—has been a huge attraction for visitors to Boston looking to indulge their love of history. In 2001, however, lightning struck the site’s wooden bridgetender building, sparking a fire that caused enough devastation to the structure that the City of Boston ordered its demolition. Today, however, Historic Tours of America Inc., owners of the museum and its accompanying tall ship replica, the Beaver, are engaged in a massive renovation project aimed at returning the Tea Party Museum to its former glory—and well beyond.

Five years after the fire, Debbie Wythe, project manager for the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum, seems to have found the positive in the face of an unfortunate situation. That positivity comes across in the excitement she feels for the new and improved Tea Party structure, tentatively scheduled to open in spring or summer of 2007. The $13 million project provides for a new museum building with expanded attractions and a few amenities the old one lacked—such as heat, air conditioning and restroom facilities.

But a key opportunity presented by the fire was the chance to enhance the nautical experience of the Boston Tea Party. While the original Tea Party Museum included a replica of just one of the tall ships involved in the historic event back in 1773, there were actually three vessels present—the Beaver, the Eleanor and the Dartmouth. “The Beaver was [already] getting a complete overhaul as a result of this project,” says Wythe. “We really wanted to [begin the process] of including the other two ships as well.”

And so it began. Now, 27 miles north of Boston in the seaside community of Gloucester, master shipwright Leon Poindexter is working to bring the Boston Tea Party ships back to life. Having spent the last year doing extensive restoration work on the 1908 Danish brig that has represented the Beaver since the early 1970s, Poindexter and his four-man team are devoting their attention to the Vincie N—a fishing boat built in 1936, and acquired this past March from the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center by HTA, which is being turned into a replica of the Eleanor.

With the Beaver luckily left untouched by the fire that closed the museum, Poindexter says the work involved was simply battling the rigors and damage of age. “The ship’s almost 100 years old and has never had a major rebuild,” he says. Therefore, Poindexter and his team turned their attention towards the boat’s topside—“redoing the planking and the framework, everything from the waterline up to the deck,” he says.

Don’t get the idea that the shipwrights took advantage of modern technology to do the work, though. Poindexter is adamant about keeping the replicas as authentic as possible. “The Beaver was originally built with Danish oak, and we’ve rebuilt it with white oak with locust framing. We’re rebuilding it the way it was originally built.”

The Beaver was also given a slight facelift in order to more closely resemble an 18th century whaling vessel, which—as Poindexter learned while researching the ship’s history—was its primary function. “The Beaver originally went over to England loaded with oil, derived from sperm whales,” he says. “After dropping it off, rather than send a ship back empty, the owner of the ship took on a cargo of tea, which was brought back to Boston.”

The Beaver has also received a paint job. Originally a black-hulled ship, it now has a yellow hull with a black whale painted on it. This too, Poindexter points out, is historically accurate. “In the old days, they would oil the hulls of whalers, which protected the hull but eventually turned black from the sun. Black hulls made boats easy targets for pirates, because they signified age. So, many owners would paint their ships yellow to make them look younger and faster.”

Poindexter’s eye for such detail, and his interest in the historical accuracy of the replica ships he builds, convinced Wythe and the people at HTA that he was the right choice to oversee the Tea Party project. Poindexter was initially contacted by HTA after he’d completed work as a technical consultant on the 2003 Russell Crowe seafaring epic Master and Commander, for which he oversaw the conversion of a 1960s frigate into the warship the H.M.S. Surprise. Compared to that job, working on the Beaver and Eleanor is a relative walk in the park.

The Vincie N, a younger ship, will undergo much the same sort of renovation as the Beaver as it metamorphoses into the Eleanor. In addition to rebuilding the ship from the waterline up, Poindexter and his team plan to build a deck and reshape the bow and stern, giving it a different visual look than the Beaver. Sail-wise, the two ships also differ: as a brig, the Beaver has two masts; the Eleanor, a full-rigged ship, has three.

Once a suitable vintage vessel can be found, according to Wythe, plans exist to construct the Dartmouth as well. The end result of pairing three replica tall ships with the new museum building, Wythe hopes, will be a tourist attraction that truly gives visitors a sense of the full importance of a key moment in our nation’s history. “The Boston Tea Party itself is a story that needs to be told—about standing up, in unity, for your rights. And we hope to have a museum that will allow visitors to hear that story and feel pride in their country.”

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