June 4, 2012


Awhile back, I played with the idea of writing a “Haunted San Diego”-style book that emphasized historical settings and details as they related to specific hauntings and other supernatural phenomena. Though that book never materialized (see in its place Timeless Ghost Stories), all the research and first entries remained alive and well on my trusty computer. In this, my 3rd post about The Star of India, I’ve been sharing what I learned about her haunted history, from collisions to mutiny and death, as they relate to the ghostly presences aboard her.

Beginning her life as a fully square-rigged ship christened Euterpe, The Star of India is the world's oldest seafaring ship and crown jewel of the Maritime Museum in San Diego, CA.

Part III—Changing Hands; Changing Name

Many of New Zealand’s families today can thank Euterpe for providing safe passage to their ancestors throughout the late 1800s. It was a hard journey. These brave sojourners spent a minimum of 100 days and as many as 142 aboard ship, battling hunger, ship rats, and each other; hazarding storm-lashed, mountainous seas that swept men from the deck into cold, churning waters in the blink of an eye; enduring shrieking gales that ripped sails to tatters and snapped yards like brittle sticks. Yet against the odds they survived. By some accounts, a baby was even born on one such trip en route to New Zealand and given the middle name Euterpe.

After 21 round trips, Euterpe’s service as an emigrant ship ended in 1897. She was sold, passed through several hands, and was finally acquired by the Alaska Packers’ Association in 1901. Re-rigged as a three-masted barque—the official designation for a ship with three or more masts, all square-rigged except the aftermast—she was used in the Alaskan salmon cannery industry.

For eleven springs, Euterpe set sail from Oakland, California, bound for the Bering Sea, and returned each fall with her holds full of canned salmon. It was during this time (1906) that she was re-christened Star of India.

And during this time, bad luck once again booked passage.

In the bow of the ship, an opening leads to the chain locker. It is into this storage area deep below deck that the thick, heavy anchor chain, or rode, is fed when the ship weighs anchor. Aboard the Star of India, raising and stowing the anchor required both muscle and machinery. Several crewmen would push on wooden bars set into a topside capstan, and this in turn set in motion machinery below decks.

It was spring, and Star of India was heading for the Alaskan salmon grounds. The command was given to weigh anchor, and the machinery ground into action, drawing up the anchor and feeding its massive iron chain into the locker. Above the scream of machinery and the echoing din of metal dropping away into the chamber, the screams of a Chinese crewman trapped in the locker were undetected. No one knew their crewmate was dying. The hapless seaman was slowly crushed to death.

Did this tragedy leave yet another lasting impression on the Star of India? Many visitors believe so. They report feeling a cold spot near the chain locker. What might be heard on a quiet night if you stood there for a time and just listened?

A Well-Deserved Rest

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover;
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

By 1923 the halcyon days of the tall ship were over, and the gallant, hard-working Star of India was laid up. Three years later, she was sold to the Zoological Society of San Diego to be the centerpiece of a planned museum and aquarium. The Great Depression and World War II interfered, and she languished until 1957, when actual restoration began thanks to windjammer captain and author Alan Villiers and citizens group “Star of India Auxiliary.”

Progress was slow, but in 1976, Star of India was once again a thing of supreme beauty and fit for seafaring. She put to sea for the first time in fifty years under the command of Captain Carl Bowman and to the applause of half a million fans both ashore and afloat. She continues to sail at least once a year and is the oldest active ship of any kind in the world. Star of India also holds a place of honor as the second-oldest ship afloat, after the USS Constitution (1798).

To visit her is to touch a bit history and to pay homage those who shipped aboard her; to men, women, and children who braved hazards we would think impossible today; who sometimes lost their lives in the process. Walk the deck and stop by the mainmast. Look high into the rigging and imagine a young boy climbing to touch the sky and to watch the ocean disappear over the arc of world. If you feel a cool touch as you stand there, don’t be frightened. It’s only John Campbell.

Clamber down narrow gangways to the emigrant cabins and crew quarters below. The ship gently sways and her timbers creak and the sea murmurs against the hull. The space narrows. The air grows thicker; more dank. Peer into the tiny cabins and imagine 100 days or more of poor food, tight quarters, boredom, fear, cold, sickness, a spectrum of raw emotions, and no escape except death. If you venture down to the hold, don’t forget a Chinese crewman whose pleas for help were never heard … at least while he still lived.

As you move about this beautiful ship, look closely and listen. The occupants are gone now, but they still may have something to communicate.

For more information about San Diego’s Maritime Museum and The Star of India, visit: www.sdmaritime.org/
Also online are some beautiful pics of the Star of India at sea (she's still a working ship).

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is located at 1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101

Happy Hauntings!

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