Ralph, Irving & Peking
“Well I found that ship in Hamburg, her name it was Peking”
I do not recall the first time I saw the majestic ship Peking, which has been berthed at the South Street Seaport in New York City since the late 1970’s. I may have seen it on some school or family outing at that time, but it was when cousins opened a shop at the revitalized Seaport around 1983 that I started going there on a regular basis. My mom was doing the books for the shop, and at one point my sisters were working there as well, so there were numerous opportunities to leave the suburbs and go to downtown Manhattan to walk the cobblestone streets around Schermerhorn Row, get some ice cream and visit some stores, all the while surrounded by the pungent smells of the nearby Fulton Fish Market. More than anything though, I remember that even as a teenager, no visit to the Seaport would be complete without crossing over South Street and under the FDR Drive and heading over to the piers. Then, as now, directly in front of you on the pier is the Ambrose Light Ship, its bright red hull and Fresnal lens on top of its mast drawing you over to look. Off to the right, behind a large obstruction is The Wavertree, a fine old sailing ship in its own right originally from England. The obstruction to the Wavertree, dwarfing it in height, length, and just about every other category is of course the Peking, whose black hull and enormous masts take up almost the entire length of the pier. Whether it was in 1983 or today in 2013 every visitor to that part of Manhattan turns their head to gaze at this wonder of a bygone era. So it has stayed moored at the Seaport, year after year in the same spot, through rain and snow, brutal summer days, and even hurricanes, much like the conditions it no doubt experienced in its years as a working vessel since being built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911.
“An acre of sail was up aloft, some seventeen stories tall”
Over the years since I started going to the Seaport I began learning more about the Peking’s history. The first thing that became obvious to me was, why a sailing ship in 1911? The Titanic’s maiden voyage was in 1912, which despite its demise, was certainly of its era, technology wise. But this four-masted barque built in that same era was a bit of a mystery to me. Of course the museum had the answer. The Peking and her sister ships (the so called Flying P-Liners) were used primarily in the nitrate trade on routes the new fangled steam powered ships had difficulty covering. Of these there was no route more perilous than a trip around Cape Horn. So it was on that route she spent much of her early life, with a slight interruption during World War I, when she was given to the Italians in war reparations, before they in turn sold her back to the original owners to continue the nitrate trade. Around this time in the story, a man named Irving Johnson came to serve aboard the Peking. Johnson, a Massachusetts farm boy who dreamed of the sea made a film about his 1929 voyage on board the Peking, ‘Around Cape Horn.’ When her life as a commercial vessel was over, she was purchased by the Royal Navy as a training ship and renamed Arethusa II, and then Pekin.