In most of the United States, Fourth of July is as much a pagan celebration of midsummer as it is a patriotic festival. In San Francisco it's usually a nothingburger, possibly because it marks the midfog season. Over the years I visited Midwestern and Eastern cities on the 4th and loved the heat and communal barbeques and fireworks (Chicago's Lake Michigan and Boston's Charles River tied for lights-and-music extravagance). This year I impulsively booked a 4th of July Cruise on the USS Potomac
around San Francisco Bay, and the experience was a happy surprise. (Photo above is of a recently retired Chicago dad who was visiting his East Bay daughter.)
The USS Potomac
was designed as a Prohibition-era patrol boat for the U.S. Coast Guard. Christened Electra
in 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had it transferred to the U.S. Navy and remodeled as his presidential yacht for relaxation, discreet political business, and entertaining. "How did this boat end up in Jack London Square in Oakland?" I asked the new Executive Director of the nonprofit in charge. "It's sort of a crazy story. Let me give you the short version..." he began.
There are a number of histories on the internet of what happened to the USS Potomac after FDR's death, but the best account is by Sam Gnerr in a 2020 article for the Redondo Beach Daily Breeze:
"After FDR’s death in 1945, the Potomac was returned to the Coast Guard, which then decommissioned it in May 1946. For the next 14 years, the state of Maryland used the boat as a fisheries industry enforcement vessel along its coastal areas. In 1960, the state of Maryland sold the Potomac to a private owner. The buyer moved it to the Caribbean, where it was used as a ship ferrying passengers between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.The deteriorating Potomac’s next owner, the Hydro-Capital Co., acquired the ship in 1962. Its plan included renovating the ship at a cost of $500,000, then mounting it in the newly constructed King Harbor in Redondo Beach as a tourist attraction."
There were weather problems, harbor problems, insurance problems, lack of maintenance problems, and somehow Elvis Presley's mother got involved and called her son telling him he needed to buy the USS Potomac
. He did so and then donated it to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude's Hospital for Children charity, which auctioned it off. After a number of different owners, it was purchased by sleazy Stockton bailbondsman Aubrey Phillips in 1971, who parked it at San Francisco's Pier 26 as a tourist attraction that nobody visited. I vaguely remember seeing it on the waterfront during that decade and it always looked dodgy.
Sam Gnerr continues: "In 1980, the Potomac, adorned with a banner for a phony, nonexistent children’s charity — was raided by U.S. Customs agents, who had seized it after determining it had been acting as a headquarters for a marijuana dealing ring. The ship reached its lowest point when the feds towed the boat to Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, where it sank unceremoniously six months later, probably due to a leaky hull."
A 2017 SF Chronicle article by Bill Van Niekerken continues the story
: “It looks like she died of old age,” said Lt. Cmdr. G. Ray Olsen. “Her hull is corroded and very rusty.” “I’d scrap her — the whole bottom’s rotten,” added Tim Hinkster, a Pacific DryDock employee. The Coast Guard wouldn’t be deterred, and raised the ship out of San Francisco Bay and again put it up for auction. No luck. Another try, and a drop in price, produced a taker, Walter Abernathy, a Port of Oakland executive. He was also the only suitor, and he bought the Potomac with a minimum bid of $15,000. Abernathy took some razzing, with his purchase called Wally’s Folly, but he remained optimistic. “I figured anything that attracted that much attention had to be valuable,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The article ends with: "According to Chronicle reporter Sandy Zane, the restoration of the presidential yacht cost $5 million. Half the money came from a federal matching grant, and the rest was raised through private channels, in large part due to Roosevelt’s son James and his grandson Michael, who lived in Berkeley.."
I looked at the Executive Director's nametag closer after his history recitation and it read Ford Roosevelt. "Any relation?" I asked. "Grandson," he replied. "I used to run an educational non-profit for underprivileged youth in Los Angeles for a few decades and they ran out of money. So I then saw the posting for Non-Profit Executive Director for the USS Potomac
last fall, and I moved here with my wife to Alameda last November. And it costs fifty cents with a Senior Clipper Card to get to work."
Hanging out with an honest to goodness Roosevelt link while cruising on this presidential yacht was wonderful enough, but the ship itself was magical. You could feel all of the vessel's history from the highest to lowest, and also the love that has gone into its restoration.
USS Potomac cruises have a 120 passenger maximum which meant the evening was not crowded and fellow passengers were an odd, delightful mixture.
The $125 price included "snacks and beverages," which consisted of water and good wine and a snack pack that sent one into instant 6th grade field trip nostalgia.
There are two-hour cruises four times a month, on Thursday and Saturday mornings, which are a bit pricey at $75, but it is worth every penny (click here for the schedule
). I was afraid we would be subjected to a loudspeaker historical narration, but instead the volunteer docents will give personal tours or just allow you to sip wine and absorb the vessel's atmosphere while looking at incredible views. This may be the best tourist activity in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Going around the Golden Gate Bridge on the Fourth during a fog storm was exciting and spooky, but the fireworks on the bay were absurd, explosions followed by colored fog. The Gay Pride Parade recently projected rainbow lasers up Market Street over a long weekend and its refractions in the ever-present fog was beautiful. My advice to whoever is sponsoring the San Francisco Fourth of July celebrations is to commission a laser light artist to create a piece specifically designed to create impressionistic laser shows in the fog. It could be a double play of ecologically forward-thinking (no explosions and animals harmed) plus extraordinary artistry.
My advice for the USS Potomac
is to consider ditching San Francisco and having a Fourth of July cruise next year to the South Bay where Oakland, Fremont, Foster City and other Bay Area cities have local fireworks shows that can actually be seen. It would also be a specific acknowledgement of the East Bay where the USS Potomac
has found a loving home.