Our Providence

In 1966, a young Harvard graduate in Newport, Rhode Island, with a passion for naval history noted that the American Bicentennial was approaching.

No one else seemed to be paying any attention to this milestone event just yet, but John Fitzhugh Millar thought that Newport, as the heart of a maritime state and the place which prompted the founding of the Continental Navy, ought to contribute to the expected national celebration by focusing on the maritime aspect of Revolutionary history. Eventually, Millar selected five ships he thought could tell the story of the birth of the navy and set about getting reproductions built. Surely, with this much lead time, money could be raised and ships could be launched. Surely, many people would be interested and financially supportive.

Or not. While plenty of people thought that a tall ship celebration was a fine idea, none were willing to contribute funds. So Millar turned to a local bank in 1968, the manager of which initially gathered the staff together for the express purpose of laughing at young Mr. Millar and his idea of building five full-size Revolutionary-era ships. When Millar persisted, the manager promised $250,000 to build one ship if he could find a shipyard that would do it for that little and sent him on his way, never expecting to see the young man again. But the bank manager underestimated him – a few months later, Millar found an experienced shipyard in Canada in need of additional work and returned to the bank to collect his loan. The manager had to give it to him.

This loan was not to build the replica of Providence, but one of her early enemies, HMS Rose.

Given his financial limitations, Millar chose to build Rose, the largest of his envisioned fleet because of all the stories it could tell. It took several years, but Rose was launched in 1970 and created a lot of interest. Rhode Island’s Lieutenant Governor made Millar a founding member of the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission and Millar promptly suggested that the Rhode Island Commission invite the commissions of other states to band together into a larger organization to raise money. The resulting Bicentennial Council of the Thirteen Original States was able to raise millions for bicentennial projects, which made lots of projects possible.

By 1973 Millar was ready to move forward with the rest of his plans. He created a nonprofit organization dubbed Seaport ’76 Foundation for the purpose of taking responsibility for Rose off Millar’s shoulders and to fund the construction of the additional ships, starting with Providence. These men, mostly former naval and marine officers, insisted that the replica of a ship as important to the American Revolution as Providence must be built in the United States. Millar argued that the cost differential was prohibitive – the Canadian shipyard he’d used for Rose could build Providence for $150,000, but building her in Rhode Island would cost $1.6M. The board was unmoved. Providence had to be built in the United States.

The Construction

And so it was. Providence was built in a disused section of the US Navy Base at Newport over the course of two years. No plans for the original ship existed, but Rhode Island sloops of her type were common, so designing a reproduction was not as complicated as it might have been. There were also several artworks depicting Providence and a few models based on intelligent guesswork. The models were flawed and the artwork was not very detailed, but based on the evidence at hand, the plans the naval architect drew for the reproductions were certainly very close to what the original Providence must have been like.

Only one significant change from the original was made — the new Providence would be built with a heavy-gauge fiberglass hull instead of wood, which had a lifespan of only 15 years. The board agreed that this was appropriate for the sake of longevity and maintenance. However, one member of the board had more ideas about her construction. This board member – without informing the rest of the board – called the naval architect, Charles Wittholz, with requests. The original Providence had a reputation as a fast ship. Could the architect make some modifications to make her sharper? Yes, that could be done. The board members also had plans to sail her in the Inland Waterway, so could her keel be made shallower with a draft of only eight feet? Yes, that could be done as well. And so it went. A few weeks before the ship was due to be completed, the architect called Millar. He had made the requested modifications, but now his calculations for stability showed that the modified ship would not meet Coast Guard standards. What would Millar have him do?

Stunned, Millar quickly came up with some fixes of his own. First, the amount of sail would have to be reduced. Second, an additional lead keel would have to be added along the length of the ship to increase stability. The increased draft meant that the ship would never sail the Inland Waterway, but that couldn’t be helped. Lastly, a “dolphin striker,” a vertical spar pointing downward from the bowsprit, was added despite the fact that Millar could not find any evidence of dolphin strikers being used prior to 1792. Even with the reduced sail area, the tension on the bowsprit would be too much without the striker. It had to be done.

It was enough. The ship was completed and Coast Guard approved. It was not quite as historically accurate as planned, but still pretty close. The new Providence was completed in October 1976. While the highlight of the Bicentennial was the Fourth of July, celebrations took place over the entire year, so Providence was able to take part in a number of events.

The board had more surprises in store, however

Around 1980, they informed Millar that they actually did not intend to exhibit Providence with Rose as part of a Revolutionary-era fleet, they had no interest in Rose at all, actually, and they did not want to build any more ships because they were too expensive to maintain, insure, and repair. They just wanted to have fun sailing Providence around. Millar was heading off to graduate school that fall and in no position to pay the costs by himself, so he made plans to sell Rose and resigned from his position at the Foundation.

The Interim

Providence was left in the hands of the board members, who did have fun sailing her around. They were not able, however, to earn enough money to support her, and Seaport ’76 was bankrupt by 1995. Providence was going to be sold to an organization on the west coast when the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, “Buddy” Cianci, stepped in and convinced the creditors to donate their interests to the city. For the next few years, the sloop served as a symbol of the city and was used to take high school students on short sailing ventures around Providence Harbor. When the next mayor was elected, however, he felt this was a luxury the city could ill afford. The city created the Providence Maritime Heritage Foundation to take over responsibility for the ship, which developed a number of programs and experienced some success. They conducted sail trainings and participated in tall ship events, and in 2004 the Foundation leased Providence to the Walt Disney Company to appear in the second and third movies of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but in 2005 the Foundation ran into financial difficulties that could not be overcome. The ship was put in dry dock, where it slowly fell into disrepair.

The Rescue

In 2011, the city sold the ship to a charter-boat captain, Thorpe Leeson. Captain Leeson used Providence for charter sails out of Newport and took good care of the ship for about four years. Then, in February 2015, a severe winter storm struck. Providence was in dry dock in Newport Shipyard when one of her jackstays was knocked over by the gales. The ship fell, the mast and spars were shattered, and the jackstay punched a large hole in the hull. Leeson listed the sloop for sale to anyone interested in restoring it, and in 2017 Providence was purchased by the Tall Ship Providence Foundation for the express purchase of restoring the ship to its previous glory and using it as the centerpiece of new maritime museum experience in Alexandria, Virginia.

It took nearly two years of work, but under the guidance of Master Shipwright Leon Poindexter, Providence was repaired and restored to its original appearance as a sloop of the Continental Navy. After arriving in Old Town Alexandria, the ship opened to the public for 30-minute tours as well as evening cruises on the Potomac and private charter sails. In Summer 2020 the Tall Ship Providence Foundation will open a new, permanent Visitor Center at the south end of the marina where the tours will be incorporated into a larger, interactive program that will also feature a multimedia presentation on “The Birth of the Navy.”

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