Seaport’s towering Peking reopens for select Saturdays

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  The masts and rigging of the South Street Seaport Museum’s clipper ship, Peking, tower over Pier 16. No visitor to the Seaport could miss seeing this titan that stretches almost the full length of the pier. But it has been years since members of the public have been able to climb aboard.

On Saturdays through Oct. 19, the Peking is open to visitors from noon to 4 p.m.

“We are excited to have her open to the public again,” said Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum. “She is a magnificent ship. She’s not the only one [of this type] in the world, but she’s the only one in the United States.”

Peking was built in Hamburg, Germany 102 years ago to transport nitrate from the west coast of South America to Europe. Even at that time, sailing ships had mostly been replaced by steamships except for long trips with heavy cargo, where the cost of fuel would have been prohibitive.

She was built for F. Laeisz, a German company that still exists. She and her sister ships, whose names all began with the letter “P” were known as the “Flying P-Liners.”

Peking’s sister ship, Passat, laid down in the same year, carried 34 sails and could go up to 18 knots an hour under sail. Even so, Passat’s maiden voyage from Hamburg to Valparaiso, Chile, took 80 days.

The Peking’s capabilities would have been very similar. She was both fast and massive.

Standing on the Peking’s after-well deck, Boulware pointed out the Peking’s rig. “It’s magnificent,” he said, “and amazing to think that these are the same masts that sailors climbed in hurricanes and freezing conditions off of Cape Horn to get bird guano back to Europe in the 1920s. It’s hard to imagine as we sit here in the comparatively placid East River that this ship was actually rolled from side to side. The space where we’re standing now —you wouldn’t be able to stand. Her decks would be awash with water above our heads. This would be a washing machine of foaming water.”

Plywood covers what would have been the original deck or one installed soon thereafter. Under that is steel, and below that are Peking’s vast holds that would have been filled with cargo.

“In the famous movie made by Irving Johnson about Peking, he said, ‘Cargo is king. If you don’t arrive with a dry cargo, you might as well stay at home,’” Boulware remarked. “That’s the story of this ship. She wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that she carried around 3,100 tons of cargo.”

The captain and crew might have gone on successive voyages aboard Peking that would have taken them away for years at a time. Sometimes the captains brought their families with them. The captain’s quarters on the ship were partially restored after the South Street Seaport Museum acquired the ship in 1975.