The Elissa is a restored nineteenth-century sailing ship that belongs to the Galveston Historical Foundation. She was designed as an iron-hulled, three-masted barque and built at the shipyard of Alexander Hall and Company of Aberdeen, Scotland, for Henry Fowler Watt of Liverpool, England, and launched on October 27, 1877. Her overall length is 162 feet; her deck length is 152 feet. Her molded depth is sixteen feet, her beam twenty-eight. Her gross capacity is 430 tons. She carries nineteen sails made of 12,000 square feet of a synthetic material that resembles canvas. Her hull plates and forms are of iron, except where restored with welded steel. The fore and main masts (technically, the lower trunks) are welded steel, as are the lower yards and bowsprit. The upper yards and masts are made of Douglas fir, as are the decks. The interior woodwork is made of maple, teak, and pine. She carries 245 tons of ballast.
The Elissa began her career as a British merchantman on December 19, 1877, when she carried a cargo of Welsh coal to Pernambuco (now Recife), Brazil, where she arrived on January 28, 1878. For the next ninety years, she was steadily employed as a tramp freight carrier traveling all over the world. The main United States ports she stopped at were New York, Boston, Savannah, and Pensacola. She also stopped at Galveston in 1883 and 1886.
Although small sailing ships like the Elissa were soon replaced by the more efficient tramp steamers that were developed in the 1880s, the Elissa continued to serve her British owners until 1897, when she was badly damaged in a North Atlantic gale. In 1898 she was sold to the Norwegian firm of Bugge and Olsen, which changed her name to Fjeld and sailed her for another fourteen years. In 1912 she was bought by Carl Johansson of Sweden, and her name was again changed, this time to Gustaf. In 1918 she was cut down to a barkentine rig and an engine was installed. During the 1920s she operated primarily in Scandinavian waters handling lumber and general cargo. In 1930 she was bought by a Finnish firm, and her rig was cut down to that of a schooner. In 1936 a new engine was installed aft and her sailing ship bow was snubbed off.
The ship continued as a lumber and general cargo carrier in Scandinavian waters until 1960, when she was bought by a Greek firm and began operating in the Mediterranean. Her sailing rig had by now been completely removed, with her mizzen mast restepped as her main mast and used for cargo handling. She now sailed as the motor ship Christophoros and was used in the Greek coastal trade. In 1967 she was sold to new Greek owners, and her name was changed to Achaios. She was not, however, destined for the mundane coastal trade, but instead embarked on a career as a smuggler operating in the Adriatic.
In 1970 she was purchased again, this time the object being her restoration as a full-rigged sailing ship. She had been seen moored at Piraeus, the port of Athens, Greece, by Peter Throckmorton, curator at large for the National Maritime Historical Society. Throckmorton mortgaged his house to buy her from the Greek smugglers. While negotiations for the sale were in progress, her name was changed to Pioneer. When the purchase was completed, however, her name became again, for the first time in seventy-two years, Elissa. The next step in Elissa's preservation was to find sponsors in the United States willing to underwrite such a project. In 1971 San Francisco expressed interest in obtaining the ship, but due to funding difficulties was unable to go forward. An offer then came from Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972, but fell through upon the death of its sponsor. In 1974 the Elissa was at last purchased by the Galveston Historical Foundation, chaired by Peter Brink, as a restoration project to complement the Strand Historic District, the Victorian market center of the city. Galveston wanted the Elissa because of her old business connections in the port. She was also one of the few surviving square-riggers in the world and the oldest listed in the Lloyd's of London Registry of Shipping. For the next three years, she remained at Piraeus while civic groups in Galveston raised $40,000 to bring her across the Atlantic. In 1977 extensive hull repairs were undertaken in preparation for her transit, with the work being done largely by volunteers receiving minimal pay.
In the summer of 1978 the Elissa became the first item outside the United States to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In December 1978 the ship began the first leg of her long voyage to Galveston; she was towed to Gibraltar, where she passed the winter. On June 25, 1979, she was towed out of Gibraltar and set sail for Texas; she arrived off Galveston on July 20. A dockside celebration with flags and bunting and bands was held in Galveston on August 4 to honor the arrival.
In the next three years the Elissa underwent a complete restoration, under direction of David Brink, which included extensive hull repair and new masts, yards, rigging, and sails, as well as a new deck and new deck houses. Her cabins, saloon, and forecastle were restored. Restoration was largely complete by July 4, 1982, when she was formally opened as a tourist attraction. On Labor Day of that year, the Elissa also sailed again as a full-rigged ship on sea trials off Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico, and has sailed periodically since then.
The actual sailing of the Elissa was the capstone to her restoration and the climax of some twelve years' effort to save her, find her a home, and rehabilitate her. The total cost for the Galveston project was about $4.2 million. Money for this was obtained from individual donations and from grants from such organizations as the Moody Foundation of Galveston, supplemented by federal funding. In 1986 the Elissa went to New York Harbor to participate in the Fourth of July Statue of Liberty 100th birthday celebration. She again left Galveston in 1989 to sail along the southern coast visiting port towns, while construction began on the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston. The museum, which showcases the Elissa, was open to the public in 1991 and includes 5,000 square feet of exhibit space and a theater where films on the restoration of the Elissa are shown. The Elissa is now berthed at Pier 21 in Galveston, just off the Strand, and is visited by approximately 60,000 to 70,000 tourists a year.