Day Trips

The Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston hosts Texas' official tall ship, the 'Elissa'

The <i>Elissa</i>
The Elissa (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Elissa, the official tall ship of Texas, is a magnificent-looking vessel even without all of her sails unfurled. Usually docked at the Texas Seaport Museum where she is a part of the exhibit on maritime history, the ship was brought out on Labor Day to greet the latest naval ship to carry the name of U.S.S. Texas.

Operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation, the Texas Seaport Museum is a storehouse of seafaring memories. The museum documents Galveston's important role in establishing the state's commerce from cotton to oil.

"The most unique aspect of the Elissa is that she sails," said Kurt Voss, director of the Texas Seaport Museum. "Most museum ships do not." The ship was purchased by the historical foundation in 1975. In retirement, it has been a floating ambassador for the state, as well as an exhibit at the museum. In the spring and summer, the tall ship goes out for sea trials and is used as a summer camp for future seamen and future volunteer crews.

Built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, the Elissa is one of only four sailing ships in the U.S. that predate 1900. During her working days that lasted until 1970, the ship visited Texas at least twice. In 1883, she brought a load of bananas to Galveston and left loaded with cotton. Three years later she showed up on the Texas coast laden with an unknown cargo but left with an empty cargo hold.

Over the years, the Elissa has had at least five different names. She even worked as a smuggler ship for a time in the Adriatic Sea. The historical foundation rescued her rusting iron hull from the scrap pile of a shipyard in Greece. It took seven years to get the three-mast, square rigger in sailing condition. She opened as a tourist attraction in Galveston on July 4, 1982.

The hull of the 129-year-old Elissa is iron and welded steel, and the decking of the 205-foot-long ship is Douglas fir. The 16-foot-deep hold is capable of carrying 430 tons of cargo or the equivalent of eight railroad boxcars. The main mast rises three inches short of 100 feet above the deck. If all of the 19 sails were laid out at once, the cloth would cover a quarter of an acre. An engine was first installed on the Elissa in 1918. Besides wind power, it can be driven by a 450hp V-12 diesel power plant.

Old met new on Labor Day when the Elissa lowered her sails and maneuvered among the tankers and cargo ships to meet the U.S.S. Texas at the entrance to Galveston Bay. The newest ship to bear the name of the state is a 377-foot-long nuclear submarine. The submarine has a crew of 134, can travel submerged at 25 knots, and can remain underwater for up to three months.

In comparison, the 306-foot-long U.S.S. Cavalla on public display in Seawolf Park in Galveston had a crew of 80. The World War II submarine could remain underwater for three days and had to surface for six to 12 hours to replenish its air and charge its batteries with a diesel engine.

The new Texas is the fifth naval ship to carry the name of the state. The first was a Confederate ironclad that was captured by Union troops while still in the shipyard. The second was commissioned in 1862 as the country's first battleship. Next was the battleship launched in 1912 that is now a floating museum maintained by the state parks department outside of Houston in Buffalo Bayou. The fourth Texas was a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser commissioned in 1977, and retired in 1993. The newest Texas will be stationed in Connecticut.

The Texas Seaport Museum is at Galveston's Harborside Drive and 21st Street at Pier 21 surrounded by restaurants and a block from the Strand Historical District. The museum opens daily from 10am to 5pm except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and during spring sea trials when the volunteer staff is busy sailing the Elissa. For more information, call 409/763-1877, or go to

795th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Texas Seaport Museum, The Elissa, U.S.S. Texas

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