Sad end for a venerable coastal steamer


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A friend called to report that the Nobska, the venerable New England coastal steamer that for a time was an Inner Harbor restaurant during the 1970s, was broken up last month at the old Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

The ship's scrapping marked an end to the more than 30-year preservation effort of the New England Steamship Foundation - originally founded in 1975 as the Friends of the Nobska - to save the historic ship.

For 48 years, the classic white-and-black vessel with its straight bows, tall buff-colored funnel and ear-piercing steam whistle, steamed back and forth across Nantucket Sound, transporting freight, automobiles and generations of vacation-bound passengers to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard from the mainland.

"The last pieces were lifted out of the dry dock about a week ago, and there are still a few piles sitting on the pier waiting to be loaded onto trucks," David Brouillette, deputy superintendent of the National Park Service's Boston National Historic Park, said yesterday.

The park includes the former naval shipyard and its two historic occupants, the USS Constitution and USS Cassin Young, a World War II destroyer.

"It's very sad, and we're certainly not happy about the outcome. For the last 10 years, the National Park Service worked closely with the foundation trying to help them to secure funding," Brouillette said.

"We kept putting off what we had to do until we had exhausted all avenues of funding. Unfortunately, this was a business deal that went bad, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "And we needed the dry dock as soon as possible for the Cassin Young and the Constitution for needed repairs."

The Nobska was the last surviving coastal steamer in the nation and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Brouillette said it would have taken at least $20 million to rebuild and restore the steamer, which is exactly what the foundation hoped to accomplish and failed to do.

The 210-foot-long Nobska was built for the New England Steamship Co. at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, and its steel plates first felt the cold waters of the Kennebec River when it was launched in 1925.

A graceful-looking vessel that was named for a point of land near Woods Hole, Mass., the Nobska boasted the latest amenities in both comfort and safety, and it could transport 25 autos in its hold.

Its two Babcock and Wilcox watertube boilers generated steam at 200 pounds of pressure to the ship's four-cylinder, triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine, which allowed the vessel to steam at 14 knots.

Always popular with passengers, some of whom included John F. Kennedy, Katherine Cornell, Charles Lindbergh and James Cagney, the Nobska continued sailing on through the years, a steady and reliable old friend to islanders.

It was replaced by larger diesel-powered ferries, which were less glamorous but had a greater capacity for carrying passengers, autos and trucks.

By 1965, the Nobska operated summers only, and in 1973, the Steamship Authority inaugurated service between Hyannis and Nantucket, leaving it as the sole remaining steamer to ply the Woods Hole-Oak Bluffs-Nantucket route.

The Nobska was removed from service in 1973, and two years later was sold by the Steamship Authority for $61,750 to Alfred M. Johnston, a Philadelphia builder, who sold it to the city of Baltimore for $175,000 - and then leased it from the city for $24,000 a year.

Johnston sublet the ship to Vincent Pirro, a restaurateur who incurred substantial losses operating it as a restaurant, docked in front of the old McCormick spice plant on Light Street.

"Before I eat there again," a Sun critic wrote, "this restaurant has got to do something about the food."

In 1980, Adam Spiegel, heir to a Chicago mail-order fortune, former Evening Sun reporter and former publisher of the Carroll County Times, took up the cause of transforming the old vessel into a successful floating restaurant. By 1982, Spiegel who had planned to invest $2 million from loans worked out with the city to complete renovations, was frustrated by costs.

During its years in Baltimore, the old ship was gutted, leaving only the engine, which was dutifully cared for by the Friends of the Nobska.

In 1988, the ship left Baltimore and returned to New England waters after it was purchased by the Friends of the Nobska, who removed the engine and tried to do basic maintenance while hoping for the financial aid that would never appear.

The Nobska's odyssey continued as it was moved from Fall River, Mass., to Providence, R.I., to New Bedford, Mass., and to Boston, its final port of call, in 1995.

"I rode it a lot as a kid, and between the ages of 15 and 35, I bet I've written 2 billion words trying to save the Nobska, so, I guess you could call this real advocacy journalism," Tom Dunlop, managing editor of Martha's Vineyard Magazine, said yesterday with a laugh.

"I remember how tall and slender she was and how she drove through the waves and how her steam whistle cried and moaned and gave me the chills," he said. "And when you heard that whistle, it was like a thousand voices from on high, saying, `I'm here.'"

Dunlop didn't make a farewell visit to the vessel that had been so much a part of his life, preferring to remember the days when he and his father rode the swaying decks to Nantucket or Oak Bluffs on a day excursion while taking in the salt air.

"I did my farewell visit when I rode the Nobska from New Bedford to Charlestown," he said. "We are a country that wants the forever new and we have a shoddy record on preserving what was, and it's a shame the foundation never quite managed to get everything in place at one time."

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