Marina Day last Saturday was a historic one for a historic ship as the schooner Governor Stone docked at the Port St. Joe Marina for the first time.
While the vessel had made numerous appearances in Carrabelle, Apalachicola and Panama City, over the years and the Gulf Coast Tourist Development Council approved funding to bring the ship to town in order to help celebrate the national event.
“We felt bringing the vessel to the Marina was a great way of showing our support for the marina and would enhance visitor experience while in Port St. Joe,’ said TDC director Jennifer Jenkins.
The Governor Stone docked mid-week and hosted a sunset cruise on Friday for local guests who helped bring the ship to town. During the Marina Day festivities on Saturday, locals boarded the vessel for a guided tour and history lesson.
While on board, guests learned a bit more about the ship, its history and how it came to be in Port St. Joe.
The first schooners were built in Gloucester, Massachusetts inthe 1700s. Designed to be sleek and fast they were used to carry fish from port to port and often as fishing ships. Crews would be able to fill their hull with fish, race back to port to sell at market and then quickly get back to prime fishing areas.
The word schooner comes from the Scottish word “scoon,” which means, “to skim.” During the American Revolution, most schooners survived attacks from British warships due to their speed and maneuverability. After the war, they became cargo vessels and could be found across the Great Lakes.
The Governor Stone, a floating national historic landmark, was constructed in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1877, originally built for Charles Greiner as a cargo freighter for his chandlery business. Greiner named the vessel in honor of the first post-Civil War Governor of Mississippi, John Marshall Stone.
The Governor Stone is the last known schooner from an era where similar vessels numbered in the thousands.
In the past 100 years the boat carried equipment and materials to deep-draft ships lying off shore, and hauled general freight between ports along the Gulf Coast.
For 60 years, while owned by Nathan Mulford Dorland and Patrick and Thomas Burns, it fished the near shore waters of the Gulf and operated as an oyster buy boat, visiting the oyster tongers, transporting their catch to the local markets.
Dorland, an Alabama settler, was a successful terrapin farmer who rose to fame after killing the last Gulf Coast pirate, Spud Thompson. Dorland purchased the Governor Stone for $425.
Once Dorland grew tired of the oyster trade he sold the boat to Patrick Burns who continued using it as a buy boat, captained by his son Thomas. Burns’ son eventually added a 16-hp motor to the vessel and made his own living, using the ship to bring contraband rum shipments ashore from Cuba for $500 a trip.
Designed with a flat bottom, these ships could easily reach ports that kept larger cargo vessels at bay. The Governor Stone’s speed was made possible by a hull constructed of yellow cypress, juniper and heart pine. The vessel, and others like it, provided the communication and transport abilities that made the development of the coastal South possible.
As it turns out, the Governor Stone has been through more than oyster-buying and questionable activities.
While under the ownership of Burns, the ship sank…twice.
In September of 1906, a hurricane devastated the gulf coast and destroyed a fleet of schooners in Heron Bay, Alabama that included the Governor Stone. While 21 men were lost in the storm, Capt. Burns survived and eventually the vessel washed up on shore with $600 worth of damage.
Burns kept the ship for another 33 years until 1939 when it sank in a storm. By that time, the wooden schooner was outdated, replaced by motorboats and Burns left the boat to the ocean.
Years later, Mississippi resort owner Isaac Rhea had the boat salvaged and fully rebuilt as a day-sailing ship. Once back on the water, the vessel was renamed Queen of the Fleet and ferried tourists around the area from 1940 to 1943.
In 1942 the boat was briefly commissioned by the U.S. government as a war ship and was used to train merchant Marines. In 1947 the boat was returned to Rhea with an upgraded engine.
The boat continued to cycle through various names and owners until it was purchased by John Curry in 1965. Curry and his wife were avid sailors and lived on the boat. They sailed the history of the boat and interviewed people who were connected with it ultimately learned out the original name and re-christened the ship as the Governor Stone.
In 1991 Curry donated the boat to the Apalachicola Maritime Museum where it became a sail trainer for at-risk youth for the next 13 years. The same year, the Governor Stone was designated as a historic landmark by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior. It is owned and maintained by the non-profit volunteer group, Friends of the Governor Stone.
“It’s a historic landmark that floats,” said Harry Dennard, President of the Friends of the Governor Stone. “It’s the only one of its kind.”
The vessel requires certified operators for each port it visits.
Capt. Bill Hamilton has been a friend of the Governor Stone, and a captain, for three years. Hamilton sailed in his youth and went on to teach scuba lessons and host dive charters. For him, joining the Friends of the Governor Stone was a way to get back to sailing. Though the group has 130 members, the captain sees raising awareness for the boat as a worthwhile cause.
“We have more hope than money,” said Hamilton. “People won’t want to save it if they don’t know how it is.”
Port St. Joe was the last stop for the boat in 2013. After leaving the marina it returned to its home port in St. Andrews where it will be dry-docked while repairs are completed on the 133-year-old ship.
The Friends organization recently received a historic preservation grant and plans to use the funds to restore the boat as close to its original state as possible.
The ship will be assessed and repairs will be made to the keel and deck structures along with the lines and sails. These improvements are expected to take 18 months to two years.
Hamilton and Dennard are excited to complete the project and have the Governor Stone back on the water as soon as possible.
“It’s the last one,” said Hamilton. “You sail on it, and you get a sense of what history was like.”