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How the Tall Ships Really Came to NH

Hunting the elephant

The Portsmouth Sails extravaganza the following summer of 1981 was a triumph, kicking off a tradition that survives today. Berryman worked in the background. Now retired, he remembers it as “the most splendidly successful of my various maritime projects.” Keefe, however, was hailed as the local hero, and people wanted more. But the public was not quite ready for Bill Keefe’s next wild idea. Why not tow the decommissioned USS Albacore (AGSS-569) from Philadelphia to New Hampshire? Not even the president of the chamber of commerce had heard of the Albacore submarine. In fact, neither had Keefe—until shipyard worker Russ Van Billiard suggested it to him during a chance meeting at a local bank.


What looked at first like a pie-in-the-sky idea began to gain momentum and respectability when Keefe convinced Joe Sawtelle to sign on to the project. Perhaps  Sawtelle drew inspiration from the motto on the framed sampler that hung above his desk. Embroidered by his wife Jean it read: “We’re all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” If something looked like it could not be done, one friend remembers, Joe would do it.

The Portsmouth Herald compared the task of capturing the USS Albacore to Captain Ahab’s battle with the white whale Moby Dick. It was not an upbeat metaphor. But, as always, Sawtelle had a plan. He now considered a spot on Nobles Island as ideal for the beached submarine. His consultant Karl Kortum, curator of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, had given him a critical bit of advice. “The key to a successful maritime museum is having an elephant,” Kortum told Joe. Sawtelle needed to plant something big and exotic outside his planned museum to attract passing tourists. The Albacore looked more like a whale than an elephant, but it would do the trick.

Unfinished business

Joe got his elephant, but barely. No step in the process of landing the Albacore went smoothly. Red tape and rising costs were frustrating enough. Then on May 4, 1983 the submarine got stuck in the mud just yards from her planned foundation at the new Albacore Park off Market Street Extension. Engineers eventually built a cofferdam and flooded it with 9.5 million gallons of water. After three tries the submarine was successfully floated to its permanent spot, 27 feet above sea level. Opened in August 1986 the historic submarine now greets up to 60,000 visitors a year. Her story, almost forgotten, is now the subject of grammar school reports and naval history articles

Sawtelle’s proposed maritime museum at Albacore Park, however, remained a dream unfulfilled. When he died suddenly in May 2000 at age 71, the Seacoast community came to realize how extensive Sawtelle’s largely anonymous philanthropic efforts had been. But few knew that over 25 years he had collected more than 200 paintings and artifacts related to shipbuilding in Portsmouth. This historic collection, the largest of its kind ever assembled, is currently on display at the Discover Portsmouth Center and the Portsmouth Athenaeum. The exhibit “Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection” is also the subject of a new book by the same name. Sawtelle’s dream of showcasing the city in the Age of Sail and his vision of Portsmouth as a heritage destination have finally come together.

“He wanted his life to make a difference,” Jean Sawtelle says of her husband and best friend. “It was very important to Joe to have his time on earth mean something.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site where this article appears exclusively online. He is a co-author of Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Camdee. Eric Berryman is retired and lives in Virginia Beach, VA. His latest book was published by the US Naval Institute is Passport Not Required: US Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941.

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