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The Columbia Story (continued)

Contrary to Disney dogma concerning the Columbia, there are, in fact, several contemporary drawings of her in existence. Note the five windows on the ship's transom (stern)--a detail captured by Disney.

After scouring the wharves and ways of Boston, they soon settled upon a modest ship named Columbia Rediviva. No one really knows when she was built. Leading historians and the National Archives believe she was built new in 1787 when found by the investors. But the Latin word "Rediviva" in her name meant "reborn" or "restored to life," suggesting that perhaps she was an older vessel that was merely being rebuilt in 1787. The ship's name, as well, seems to be shrouded in mystery as to its translation. Some sources state the ship was named for Christopher Columbus; others have suggested "Columbia" means "dove," or even "freedom." Since Columbia was a private vessel and didn't belong to the fledgling Unites States Navy, the ship's name is not preceded by "U.S.S."

The ship was slightly more than 83 feet in length on deck, with a beam (width) of 24 feet.  Her tallest mast towered nearly 100 feet above the water's surface. She was painted with a broad swath of yellow, with blue, dark green or black trim. On the transom, the words "Columbia Rediviva, Boston" would have been set in large gilt letters. A huge American flag with 13 stars would have flown from her mizzenmast. As John Scofield writes in Hail Columbia, "Americans liked their flags large in those glory days of the Republic."


Accompanying the Columbia on her voyage to the Pacific Northwest would be a "tender," a smaller ship that would carry additional crew and supplies, and which could easier navigate the shallow bays and sounds of the Northwest. Most expeditions of the time were comprised of two ships, and Columbia's consort was a 60-foot-long vessel named in honor of first lady Martha Washington, the Lady Washington.

Both ships were fairly heavily armed, with the Columbia carrying about 12 large "carriage" guns with several smaller "swivel guns" mounted on the ship's railings. The Washington probably featured a similar complement of weaponry.

John Kendrick initially commanded the Columbia, with Robert Gray in charge of the smaller Washington. They set sail from Boston Harbor on September 30, 1787.

Her first voyage to the Pacific Northwest was an adventure in itself, especially when the ship rounded the Cape Horn at the tip of South America. The two ships had been separated in the massive storms that the region is known for, but soon were reunited.

Trade went well in the Nootka Sound region of the Pacific Northwest, but the American ships weren't the only ones there gathering otter pelts. Spanish and British ships also traded with the Indians--and with the increased demand, the Indians became savvier. The Columbia didn't get nearly the number of pelts she had hoped for, because the Indians had raised their prices.

This image of Columbia, left, and her tender Lady Washington, graced Crewman Robert Haswell's book chronicling the voyage. The Lady Washington, a single masted sloop when portrayed here, was eventually converted into a two-masted brig. Aside from a crude rendering on a commemorative coin, this is the only drawing from the period in existence showing the Lady Washington.

At this time, Kendrick, skipper of the Columbia, ordered Gray to take command of the ship, and Kendrick decided to stay in the Pacific Northwest aboard the Lady Washington (why Kendrick decided to surrender command of the flagship and transfer to the tiny tender is a mystery to this day). So, Gray captained the Columbia toward the Orient, stopping for supplies in the Sandwich Islands--today known as Hawaii.

The ship eventually reached Canton, China, and negotiations began with the Chinese. Gray, unaware and inexperienced in dealing with the Chinese, had essentially been taken as an easy mark by the Cantonese traders, and was forced to write the Columbia's owners that they would be disappointed in their profits on the voyage.

After taking aboard tea and silks in trade for the pelts, the Columbia got underway. She was supposed to meet the Lady Washington nearby, but Gray--perhaps sensing a loftier achievement for Columbia--headed west.

The ship rounded the southern tip of Africa, and entered the Atlantic. A few months later, on August 9, 1790, the Columbia entered Boston Harbor to the thunder of a thirteen-gun salute. Scofield writes, "She had sailed twice the circumference of the earth--nearly 50,000 miles--in the two years, eleven months and nine days she had been away from Boston." Columbia was the very first ship of the young United States to carry the Stars and Stripes around the world, and for a while the captain and crew were wined and dined as conquering heroes.

While the mission had been financially disappointing, the Columbia's owners thought they could still reap profit from the region, so eventually, Gray set out for the Pacific Northwest again. On this second voyage, the ship sailed up and down the coast, eventually sighting what they thought was a fine harbor. The ship crossed between two sand bars, and entered a "noble river." The natives, coming to the ship in canoes, were awestruck at the sight of the massive three-masted ship. John Boit, aboard the ship, wrote in his journal, "Capt. Grays [sic] named this river Columbia's and the noble entrance Cape Hancock, and the south point Adams." And so, the mighty Columbia River got her name.

During the journey, the ship ran aground on some rocks, and her keel was broken--a nearly fatal injury for the ship. But Columbia was repaired, and eventually made her way once again back to the States.

What eventually became of Columbia? If we are to believe the Disneyland version of history, as stated in many official guidebooks sold at the Park throughout the years, the ship vanished "without a trace, 'somewhere in the Orient.'" Birnbaum's guide even goes on to state, "Some legends say that a crew member took her over and made her a pirate ship."

The truth, as is often the case, is far less exciting and romantic. Scofield writes, "Columbia herself survived only briefly. Though probably only six years old when she returned to Boston Harbor that summer evening of 1793, she had led a hard life... Sometime in the summer of 1801, her owners, whoever they were by then, gave up the struggle to keep her afloat. Columbia's register in the National Archives, cancelled on 15 October of that year, bears the terse epitaph, 'ript to pieces.'"

Next: Setting sail for Disneyland

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Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve's latest book, the history of Disneyland's newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

Steve DeGaetano may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

2008 Steve DeGaetano

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