Co-author: Preston Nirattisai
It was no doubt a beautiful spring morning at Disneyland
in 1957. One can imagine the scene as Dick Nunis, manager of Frontierland, sat
enjoying his coffee at the Chicken Plantation restaurant, making out the weekly
cast member schedule. Walt Disney, leisurely strolling through the Park, pulled
up a chair and joined him.
As they sipped their coffee, they discussed the Park, and
enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine that filled the bright, clear-blue Anaheim
sky. It was another busy day at the Magic Kingdom. The Mark Twain steamed
majestically past, sounding her deep three-chime Powell steam whistle in salute.
Soon following in her wake, a pair of Mike Fink Keel Boats, the Bertha Mae
and the Gullywhumper, raced along the shore, happy guests--some wearing
coonskin caps--laughing and thoroughly enjoying themselves. In the distance, the
motors of the two Tom Sawyer Island rafts rumbled, while further up the
river, guests wearied themselves paddling the three Indian War Canoes. All told,
there were eight craft plying the river that day.
"Look at that! Now THAT is a busy river!" Walt exclaimed, in his typical exuberant, childlike fashion.
Nunis nodded in agreement as he took another sip of coffee, expecting the
distinctive raised eyebrow and Walt to complain about how crowded and congested
the river was. Walt continued: "What we need is another BIG boat!"
"But not another stern-wheeler," Walt continued, his
excitement bubbling through. "I
think we should have a replica of the Columbia. Did you know that was the
first American vessel to sail around the world?" Nunis put down his pencil, realizing that his scheduling would have to wait.
Walt, excitement building, acted out the adventure as he proceeded to regale
Nunis with the story of the Columbia and her exploits in the Pacific
Northwest. Nunis sat slack-jawed as his boss reeled off facts and details of
what was a nearly forgotten footnote in American history. The River, Nunis must
have thought, is about to get busier.
And so, with that, Disneyland's
Columbia was born.
The Sailing Ship Columbia
Disneyland's Sailing Ship Columbia was the first
"windjammer" built in more than a century in America, but the ship had deep,
deep roots. Later in this article, Preston Nirattisai, an experienced sailor on
the Lady Washington--itself with ironic connections to Disneyland's
Columbia--will compare and contrast a real working sailing vessel with
Disneyland's counterpart. But now, we're going to look a little closer at the
real ship's history, and why Walt Disney thought it a significant enough ship to
grace his new theme park.
While today's youth (and many adults) mistakenly view the
Columbia as a "pirate ship," (owing, in part, to Disneyland's
many misrepresentations of the ship and her history) the truth is the inspiration for
Disneyland's Columbia was a typical merchant ship of her day. And while
today's environmentally-conscience crowd may bristle at the notion, the ship was
built to trade otter pelts. (Yep--fur. Want to ride her now??)
Those pelts came from the Indians of the Pacific
Northwest. It was discovered by Captain James Cook, during earlier voyages to
the region in the late 1770s, that the Indians would gladly trade the pelts for
mundane items such as nails, saws, or hatchets. The ship would then head to
China, where the Chinese would pay $50 to $70 dollars per pelt, netting the ship
and its owners a small fortune. The Chinese would pay with silver Spanish
"Pillar Dollars," also known as Pieces of Eight. The ships would then return to
the United States with a cargo of tea, chests, silks and spices.
This Piece of Eight in the author's collection, dated 1789, was minted
two years after Columbia began her voyage to China. It's been suggested
that the "S" shaped banners wrapping around the pillars were the inspiration for
the U.S. Dollar sign ($).
This was an appealing business model to the wealthier
citizens of the new nation, and a group of investors got together to mount a
voyage. The first order of business was to procure a suitable flagship.