History rises on the waterfront: Sen. John Warner Maritime Heritage Center and port of Providence take shape

History rises on the waterfront: Sen. John Warner Maritime Heritage Center and port of Providence take shape
A floating classroom will educate guests. Senator John W. Warner (right). (PHOTO/TALL SHIP PROVIDENCE FOUNDATION/NATIONAL MARITIME HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

By Patrick Burchette

When the former secretary of the navy and second longest serving senator in Virginia’s history was on the cusp of retirement in January 2009, he privately objected after being notified of the navy’s decision to name the 12th Virginia-class nuclear submarine, SSN-785, in his honor. His protests fell on deaf ears.

The naming was not unexpected given Warner’s record of public service over seven decades: enlisting in the United States Navy at 17 during World War II, joining the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War, serving as secretary of the navy, heading the American Revolution Bicentennial Celebration, followed by his 30 years of service as senator for the Commonwealth. His time in the senate was marked by his leadership as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and landmark public works legislation.

What may be surprising was the late Warner’s near universal opposition and contempt for anything bearing his name, including a new $2 billion submarine. It is rumored that he even turned down the renaming of the newly refurbished Wilson Bridge in his honor.

Fast forward a decade, in the twilight of his years, Warner not only agreed to lend his name to a project dear to his roots, but actively participated in its planning and design. The Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center, home port of Tall Ship Providence will be permanently installed at 1A Prince St.

“The senator had lots of great ideas and input,” Clair Sassin, president and CEO of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation of Alexandria, said. “He never missed an opportunity to encourage young people to enter public service, and he viewed Providence, and the center, as an active way to educate and attract young people to maritime history and the difference we can all make through public service.”

The new center will begin to take shape next month and will serve as the launching point of Providence, a replica of the ship that played a significant role in American history.

The first ship authorized by the Continental Congress for the Continental Navy during the American Revolution, Providence was the first American command of John Paul Jones, arguably the father of the U.S. Navy. In addition to seizing 40 British ships during its four years of service, Providence holds the distinction of being the first American ship to fire on a British vessel, the first American ship to bring Marines to foreign soil and the first ship to leave the Stars and Stripes on foreign soil.

The original Providence was the last ship to be scuttled after participating in the Penobscot Expedition in 1779 to clear British troops. Rather than be captured by the British, the fleet was sunk.

The reproduction of this 110-foot, 12-gun sloop-of-war, Providence was constructed in 1976 for the Nation’s Bicentennial celebration. After its movie debut in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it was purchased and restored by the non-profit foundation. The foundation boasts eight former secretaries of the navy on an advisory committee, and to date has raised $8.5 million, which includes $1 million from Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. for the center’s 4th grade education program.

In addition to being the home port for the ship, the purpose of the center is to serve as a floating classroom to educate guests on the history of Providence and the role the Continental Navy played in the American Revolution. It will also provide a signature attraction on the historic waterfront.

The main offering of this floating structure is tours, which will begin in the Education Center. Guests will be transported back in time through an interactive colonial maritime experience. Visitors will board the ship to experience first-hand what life was like aboard an 18th century tall ship, “meet” Captain John Paul Jones and visit the captain’s cabin, quarterdeck, the main deck and the hold.

There will be a rotating exhibit of naval artifacts, including a gift shop and Naval History Theater featuring the film, “Providence, Dawn of the U.S. Navy.” In keeping with the tradition of historic preservation, the two small structures have cedar siding and roof pitches which are historically accurate for the period.

Because education is a centerpiece, the center will offer additional programs for schools and scouts including navigation, mechanical advantage and knot tying. The foundation is partnering with a number of local organizations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

“The Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center is all about history and when you experience Providence something special happens. A seed is planted in children and they ask questions, which helps develop an interest in learning more about American history. We know the more kids learn and have fun learning, the more they want to learn. The same is true for adults,” Sassin said.

For those looking to go out on the water, Providence will have weekly sails on the Potomac, including on Friday evenings with offerings of specialty beer and wine. The ship will also be available for private charters and birthday parties. The center will be outfitted with lighting and is capable of being tented and rented out for private events of up to 120 guests on the observation deck with unobstructed views of the Capitol.

“We know tall ships bring additional visitors and revenue to the city,” Scott Shaw, board chair of Tall Ship Providence Foundation, said. “Whenever a tall ship visits, hotel occupancy, retail and restaurant sales go up.”

If all goes as planned, the center will officially open in late June or early July. Currently under construction in a Baltimore shipyard, it will soon be making the voyage to its permanent home on the Old Town waterfront.

The writer is a board member of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation and former aide to Sen. John Warner.