By Carlos N. Olvera
As residents, hardly a person is unfamiliar with the brig Pilgrim and what she stands for, as she is tied up at the Ocean Institute in the Harbor. The brig Pilgrim has become part of the fabric of Dana Point history and to have this replica here is indeed an honor. Both the original Pilgrim and this replica have a unique history that we all should be fluent with.
The Pilgrim of old became a part of our history in 1835 when Richard Henry Dana Jr. was aboard as a sailor and wrote of the area as “the only romantic spot in California.” Built in the fall of 1825 in Medford, Massachusetts, she was one of many ships named Pilgrim, going back as far as 1786. The original owners were Blake, Stanton & Hallett, of Boston.
A detailed history of the brig can be found in the book The Medford Brig Pilgrim—1825 by R. M. Biddle, 1999. Biddle was a recent speaker on the subject at a recent Dana Point Historical Society event and gifted a copy of the book to the organization.
Pilgrim was small, at a length of 86 feet, with a crew usually made up of nine—a master, mate, cook, carpenter and five seamen.
After several changes in ownership, Dana boarded her in August 1834, then owned by Bryant & Sturges, a large Boston-based trading company. In July 1837, the brig was recorded as arriving in San Diego with 11,055 hides and 12,006 horns. By 1841, she was owned by Robert Haley and sailed between South America, the Caribbean and Boston. She reportedly was in distress with disrepair at St. Thomas in March 1841. But by mid-May the vessel was back in Boston, and by June in New Orleans delivering hides, hams and pork, before returning to Philadelphia from Canada in August of that year.
On her ill-fated voyage, reported on Nov. 22, 1841, the Pilgrim—under command of a Capt. Shephard—was sailing from Maine to Alabama with a cargo of lime and was destroyed by fire at sea. The captain and crew were removed and taken to Pensacola by the schooner Lady Washington. Subsequent reports had her lost in 1854.
The Pilgrim of recent was built in 1945 as a three-mast schooner of Denmark, named the Joal, a Baltic sailing vessel. In 1975 she was sailed to Portugal under command of Capt. Ray Wallace—designer of the Columbia of Disneyland—where she was converted to a square rigged brig. Pilgrim, 98 feet long with an average speed of six to seven knots, sailed to Miami with a crew of 20. A new crew of 14 then sailed her through the Panama Canal anchoring in Dana Point Harbor in June 1975.
With her crew in authentic uniforms, Pilgrim was greeted with a special program, music and Spanish dancers. A reenactment of the tossing of hides off the cliffs and to the brig was a highlight. After a day of celebration, the Pilgrim sailed off to its final destination in San Pedro, to become a floating museum. The plans were to move the ship to Monterey as part of an attraction, but the California Coastal Commission didn’t agree. So in May 1981, relinquished by her owners, she returned to Dana Point being purchased by the then Orange County Marine Institute—now the Ocean Institute—for a reported $500,000. After four years of wrangling while at anchor, the Pilgrim finally entered escrow and a new slip was provided. But when the time came to go sailing, an old maritime law from the ‘20s precluded the Danish-built hull from being used as a U.S. ship. A special federal act was enacted to allow sailing by then Congressman Ron Packard.
Dana’s voyage was also memorialized in the 1946 movie Two Years Before the Mast with Brian Donlevy as Dana. Filming began in 1944 but due to the war, the open sea was not available for filming. So Paramount Studios built a 140-foot copy of the brig Pilgrim in an outdoor water tank.
The vessel also had starring roles in the 1997 movie Amistad with local Ocean Institute staff as extras on board. The brig “played the part” of the Tecora, the slave ship. The prop nameplate from the stern of the ship in that film is now hanging in the boat locker near the pier. Pilgrim also appeared as three other ships in the movie—Washington, Providence, and The Gentleman. It was also in the 1997 movie Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
The first Pilgrim was lost to fire at the age of 16. The second Pilgrim, our Pilgrim, is now 70 years old. Where does the time go?
“How did it get so late so soon?” – Dr. Seuss
Carlos N. Olvera is chairman of the OC Historical Commission and mayor of Dana Point.
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