10 top American museum ships
Friday, October 13, 2017
America is home to more than 35,000 museums — preserving and displaying just about everything from beer cans to barbed wire. The majority of them are brick-and-mortar repositories, but there's a genre of floating museums as well.
Museum ships can be found in coastal harbors and inland waterways across the country. Most are historically significant naval vessels, decommissioned and conserved to live second lives in honor of their officers and crew — and to help educate the public about America's storied naval heritage. Other types of vessels, such as windjammers, dredges and lighthouse tenders, have been similarly converted and in most cases serve as exhibits at maritime museums.
Condensing our research into this unique and fascinating category of museums, we've identified the following 10 vessels as the best among America's museum ships.
1. USS Massachusetts
Fall River, Massachusetts
Known as "Big Mamie" to her crewmembers during World War II, this South Dakota-class battleship resides with other U.S. Navy vessels in Fall River's Battleship Cove, a maritime museum and war memorial that features the world's largest collection of WWII naval vessels.
Highly decorated with 11 battle stars, "Big Mamie" saw action with both Atlantic and Pacific fleets from 1942-45. In the Pacific, she participated in the Solomon Islands and Philippines campaigns, and at war's end her crew saved the vessel from scrapping, convincing the Navy to donate her for public display. Also to be seen at Battleship Cove are the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy and the submarine USS Lionfish.
2. USS North Carolina
Wilmington, North Carolina
The first newly constructed battleship to enter service during World War II, the USS North Carolina was a workhorse, taking part in every major naval offensive in the Pacific theater. Her 15 battle stars made her the most decorated battleship of the war.
The ship received so much attention for her performance in the war that she earned the lasting nickname "Showboat." She is now a popular museum ship and memorial kept at the Wilmington Seaport.
3. USS Yorktown
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
One of the most illustrious and active of the WWII-era Essex-class aircraft carriers serving the U.S. Navy, Yorktown participated in several campaigns in the Pacific theater, earning 11 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. She later served in the Vietnam War, earning five more battle stars.
Late in her career, she was deployed as a recovery vessel for the Apollo 8 space mission and was used in the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!," a film that recreated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the USS Yorktown can be visited at Patriot's Point in Mount Pleasant.
4. USS Alabama
Another South Dakota-class battleship, the USS Alabama served in World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, earning nine Navy battle stars. While she fought many battles and was credited with downing 22 Japanese attack aircraft, she also was noted for never having lost a sailor due to enemy action.
Decommissioned in 1947, she was placed in the reserve fleet at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. In 1964, Alabama was moved to Mobile Bay and opened as a museum ship the following year.
The ship was added to the National Historical Landmark registry in 1986. Visitors to Mobile's Battleship Memorial Park can also tour the USS Drum, a submarine that patrolled from Pearl Harbor during WWII.
5. USS Midway
San Diego, California
Although she missed out on World War II — commissioned a week after the end of the war — the USS Midway was the largest ship in the world until 1955 and served the U.S. Navy for an unprecedented 47 years. She saw action in the Vietnam War and served with distinction as the Persian Gulf flagship in 1991's Operation Desert Storm.
Decommissioned in 1992, she is now a museum ship at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego — home the Navy's Pacific Fleet. Visitors can tour the ship, including its massive flight deck featuring more than two dozen aircraft. Among the docent guides leading tours are many former crewmembers.
6. USS Missouri
An Iowa-class battleship, the USS Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the United States during World War II. She joined the action in the Pacific in 1944, fighting in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and went on to serve in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
Mothballed in 1955, but reactivated and modernized in 1984, the ship saw further action providing fire support during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Missouri received a total of 11 battle stars for service in World War II, Korea and the Persian Gulf and was finally decommissioned after 16 years of active service in 1992.
In 1998, she became a museum ship at Pearl Harbor, where she is docked near the USS Arizona Memorial.
7. USS Constitution
If there were to be a grand prize for America's most outstanding museum ship, it would surely go to the USS Constitution. Launched in 1797 and named by President George Washington after the Constitution of the United States, the three-masted, wooden-hulled frigate is the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat.
Built in Boston where she still resides, Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom, when she defeated five British warships. Although she was retired from active service in 1881, she's never stopped sailing.
Designated a museum ship in 1907, she completed a three-year, 90-port tour of the nation in 1934. She sailed under her own power for her 200th birthday in 1997 and again in 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her victories in the War of 1812. "Old Ironsides," as she's known, can be visited free of charge at Boston National Historical Park, part of the Charlestown Navy Yard.
8. William M. Black
She's no battleship, but this 1934 steam-propelled sidewheel dredge served the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for nearly 40 years battling mud and silt on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. One of the last paddle steamers built in the United States, William M. Black carried a crew of 49 and dredged 80,000 cubic yards of material a day.
A rare example of a steam-powered dredge, she now serves as a museum ship and is open for tours at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
9. Star of India
San Diego, California
Originally named Euterpe, this full-rigged iron windjammer was built in Britain in 1863 for the Indian jute trade. After a long career racing back and forth from Great Britain to India, and later transporting emigrants to New Zealand and Australia, she became a salmon hauler on the Alaska to California route.
Retired in 1926, she was eventually restored in the early 1960s and is now a seaworthy museum ship home-ported (along with nearly a dozen other historic vessels) at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. She is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still sailing regularly, and she's both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
10. United States Lightship Columbia
Columbia really never sailed anywhere during her 28-year career as a floating lighthouse marking the approach to the Columbia River. Life for the 18-man Coast Guard crew was marked by long stretches of monotony mixed with periods of dread while riding out gale-force storms.
Columbia was the last lightship to be decommissioned on the U.S. West Coast. An automated navigational buoy replaced her in 1979. Now a museum ship, Columbia anchors exhibits at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.
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