Monday, September 16, 2013

Chicago's Santa Maria Replica

The Santa Maria at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (

On this date in 1951 The Chicago Tribune ran an article that lamented the slow demise of the replica of the Santa Maria, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship during his voyage to America that was built in Spanish shipyards for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, along with its sister ships, the Niña and the Pinta.  The United State Congress had appropriated the $50,000 necessary for the construction of the three caravels, and on July 7 of 1893 the Santa Maria’s captain, Victor M. Concas, wrote in his log book, “147 days out of Cadiz, dropped anchor in front of the Worlds’ Columbian Exposition.”

The ship was the centerpiece of the last day of the fair, Columbus Day.  Scrubbed clean and fully crewed, the Santa Maria and her sister ships left their mooring space near what is now La Rabida hospital and moved to a point off the fair’s music hall where they dropped anchor about 500 yards off the beach and lowered small boats.  In the first boat stood an actor portraying Christopher Columbus, sword in one hand and a flag in the other.  The pageant had everything:  monks kneeling in prayer at the base of a cross, natives of San Salvador ducking behind palm trees for cover, native chiefs summoned, and friendly greetings exchanged between native and foreigner.

The three caravels in New York harbor on their way to the 1893 fair in Chicago (wikimedia photo)
The glory didn’t last long, and the ship rapidly faded along with the memory of the great white city of 1893.  The Knights of Columbus hatched a plan to save the ship in 1900, but nothing came of it.  By 1903 The Tribune in an editorial called the ships “useless, deserted, forgotten hulks, victims of wind and storm and the prey of vandals, stripped of their furnishings and appliances, stripped even of all sentiment and associations, melancholy reminders of the festal days of the white city.”

The ship did not go without a fight, though.  In fact, on Columbus Day of 1911 the ships set sail again, reaching Grant Park at 8:30 in the morning as 100,000 “natives” lined the shore from Jackson to Grant Park.  Even as the celebration went on, the Santa Maria struggled.  At one point in the pageant, all of the crew as well as the actors aboard were summoned to the pumps as the ship’s hold began to take on water.

Onlookers at the fair watch the three ships sail into Jackson Park (
In 1913 the ships left Chicago, headed for San Francisco.  One observer remarked, “Their decks are absolutely rotted and their hulls are not much better.  They will go down surely.” The vessels made it as far as Detroit, where a fickle wind damaged both the Santa Maria and the Pinta as they were being towed to a dock.  By 1914 the Niña and the Pinta had made it to Buffalo when the promoter in charge of the move to San Francisco ran out of money and they were returned to Chicago during that summer.  The Santa Maria, ever intrepid sailed on to Westerly, Rhode Island where it was determined she could not make it through the rest of the trip.

Then came the ultimate insult when a New York city lawyer bought the Santa Maria for $940 at an Admiralty Court sale.  A fundraising campaign allowed the ship to return to Chicago, but her arrival was not the same glorious entrance that she made in 1893.  The Tribune wrote in an editorial, “The protection of the caravels entails no more expense than the repair of an occasional golf green or the adjustment of a water plug . . . In spite of the almost sacred character of the relics the park board already has suffered them to be dragged half way over the continent by irresponsible adventurers, to be shown as dime museums and hawked about in the port of strange lands, libeled fro debt and no hand raised to protect them save that of distant folk whose regard for rare sentiment overrode the quibble for the dollars it required to save the Columbian replicas from destruction.”

By the end of 1919 the Santa Maria floated alone at the Jackson Park lagoon.  In 1918 the Pinta, her seams open after 25 years of neglect, sank.  The following year the Niña burned to the water line.  $90,000 was spent at that point to restore the remaining ship, but by July of 1938 The Tribune reported, “[The Santa Maria] has been allowed to rot for lack of paint and the replacement of a timber here and there . . . Her once smartly tarred shrouds of imported hemp are black with age . . . She reeks of bilgewater that slushes about her tons and tons of rock ballast.  She’s a nobody.  But she doesn’t complain.  Only when the wind is in a certain quarter in the east and the swells drive into the lagoon form the lake does she teeter a bit at her moorings.”

The three Spanish ships in Jackson Park harbor (chuckman's collection)
There was another flurry of activity in 1946 aimed at restoring the caravel, but the news was not encouraging.  James A. Regan, Sr., head of the Calumet ship yards, the place where the 1920 restoration of the Santa Maria was carried out, said, “The ship is much worse off now than in 1920.  For the first rebuilding we salvaged only the keel and the metal work.  It is doubtful that even the keel is usable now.”  Many began to ask the question, “What do you do with the replica of a ship when almost none of the materials that make up the replica are usable?”  And the folks at the Jackson Park Yacht Club were beginning to complain about the hulk that was making navigation in the harbor difficult.

By 1951  the Santa Maria was broken at the keel and would not last another year.  In 1952 a crane with a clam shell attachment was brought in on a barge, and it didn’t take long for the Santa Maria to end up as rotten kindling to be carted away and dumped.

The great fair of 1893 was an event so important that it sits as one of the four stars on the Chicago flag; it was an event, after all, that was named in honor of the captain who commanded the three ships that sailed into the unknown seas in 1492.  60 years after the triumphant entrance of the three replica ships into Chicago waters, the memory of the last one sailed over the horizon and into the limitless seas of time.