Presidential yacht being restored as `Roosevelt era' museum

Daylight streams through holes in the hull, rust abounds from stem to stern, and the fixtures that once served royalty, heads of state, and cabinet members are long gone. The remains of the USS Potomac, the 165-foot, 225-ton vessel that once served as Franklin Roosevelt's presidential yacht, stand as a monument to neglect and the ravages of age.

But a group of history buffs and sailing enthusiasts are bringing back to life the decks once trod by the likes of Britain's King George VI, the Duke of Windsor, and Elvis Presley.

``Right now she's a mess. She's mostly a skeleton,'' said Mel Wax, spokesman for the Port of Oakland, which bought the rotting hulk in 1981 for $15,000. ``The metal decks are there, but you can see the ribs.''

The port authority, which operates shipping facilities on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, recently loaded what was left of the once-proud Potomac onto a barge and sent it to a shipyard in Stockton, Calif.

Workmen there will rebuild the hull, install engines and paint the vessel at a cost of nearly $2 million.

The Potomac then will be returned to Oakland for finishing touches, Mr. Wax says. The restorers plan to fit the ship with furniture and memorabilia from the Roosevelt era, which spanned the New Deal and World War II, and maintain it as a floating museum.

``She'll be restored to look exactly as she was when she was a floating White House,'' Wax says.

The ship, a riveted steel vessel, was constructed at shipyards in Manitowoc, Wisc., and launched in 1934 as the Coast Guard cutter ``Electra.''

The following year, it was sent to the Norfolk, Va., naval shipyard for conversion into a presidential yacht.

When finished, the ship had a dining room, four luxury cabins, stainless steel bath, twin galleys, private presidential quarters and extra-wide passageways to accommodate President Roosevelt's wheelchair. Crews also installed a hand-operated elevator so that the president could move unrestricted between decks.

The vessel was then rechristened the ``USS Potomac.''

James Roosevelt, the president's eldest son, serves on the board of the nonprofit preservation association.

The association's work is funded partly by a $2.5 million appropriation from Congress.

In August 1941, Roosevelt used the Potomac to slip away from the United States unnoticed for a meeting off Newfoundland with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

``Roosevelt pretended he was going on fishing trip,'' Wax recalled. ``He went down through the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts and over to Nantucket where he secretly transferred to the cruiser Augusta. It took him to Argentia, Newfoundland, where he met with Churchill who was on the Prince of Wales.''

The two leaders forged the Atlantic Alliance, setting a course for America's entry into World War II in Europe.

After FDR's death in 1945, his successor, Harry Truman, gave the Potomac to the state of Maryland. The ship was used as a governor's yacht and fisheries research vessel until the early 1960s.

Rock star Elvis Presley bought the ship in 1964 but found it too expensive to maintain and donated it to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Los Angeles.

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