by P. Gates

Editor's Note: From time to time we present nonprofit attractions that deserve a look. If you believe the canard "there's no there, there" Oakland seems an odd resting place for the Potomac, while in service as the presidential yacht from 1936 to 1944, it afforded the president a haven of rest during some of the most momentous times in United States history. From the dark days of the great depression through the long years of national recovery, Franklin D. Roosevelt's task was most difficult and exacting. Truly a time "to try men's souls." Then came Hitler, Pearl Harbor and World War II. He needed a vessel to, as JFK put it, "mess about in boats."

At speed on San Francisco Bay.


There's no doubt that the Potomac was the President's favorite means of escape from White House pressures, and it afforded him many hours of relaxation and comfort before the advent of World War II. He was an avid sailor and former secretary of the Navy, who had a great love for the sea as well as a keen knowledge of ships.

The Potomac began life as the Electra, one of a class of U. S. Coast Guard Cutters. Two of the class, including Electra, were built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Wisconsin, a firm that gained fame during WW II by turning out the best submarines in the US Navy. The vessel, designed for coastal patrol duties, especially with regard to rum runners, was completed on October 26, 1934. After delivery to the Coast Guard, she was home ported in Norfolk, Virginia.

At the time of the Electra's completion, the presidential yacht was the Sequoia. This 100 foot long, 100 ton yacht had been built in 1925 and was typical of her era with much wood cabin finish work. The President considered the Sequoia a bit posh for the Depression Era and particularly disliked being carried from the main to boat decks. All of that combustible material worried the staff. So Roosevelt asked the Navy to look for a replacement. Because of its size, new construction and relatively nonflammable interior, the Electra was chosen and formally transferred from the Coast Guard to the Navy for conversion.

Naval correspondence dated January 1936 indicated that the intent was to give the vessel "interior finish, fixtures, and fittings using standard Navy practice." Because of Roosevelt's term as Secretary of the Navy, this sparse wardroom style met his approval. On January 30, 1936 the Electra was renamed the Potomac and assigned the hull number AG 25. She was moved into the yard at Norfolk and conversion work was done. On March 2, 1936 the Potomac was officially commissioned and placed into service.

During her nine years of presidential service, the Potomac ranged the East coast from Florida to Maine. Log entries show that it was used for travels from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Key West. Roosevelt used her to entertain the King and Queen of England, press conferences, as a broadcast studio for one fireside chat, and of course, as a fishing platform with friends. The Potomac secretly delivered President Roosevelt to Long Island where he was picked up by the cruiser U.S.S. Augusta and a double placed on the Potomac while the Augusta steamed north to Newfoundland where Roosevelt and party were met by H.M.S. Prince of Wales, Churchill and Sir Dudley Pound from England to sign the Atlantic Charter and plan the United States' role in the war.

After president Roosevelt's death, President Truman transferred the Potomac to the State of Maryland where she was used as a fisheries research vessel and at times as the Governor's yacht. From there she found her way into private hands and began to lose her imposing identity with U.S. History. She was rescued in the West Indies in 1962, where she performed the dreary tasks of a transport vessel, and returned to Los Angles where two businessmen restored her with the idea of making her a floating museum.

In 1964 she was sold to Elvis Presley who in turn gave the vessel to Danny Thomas for a St. Jude's Hospital fund raiser. A string of owners followed until in August, 1980 the Potomac, along with another ship, was seized in San Francisco on suspicion of marijuana smuggling. While moored at Treasure Island, a floating piling pierced her hull and she sank. Raised by the Navy Reserve, she was put up for sale in 1981 and bought at an auction by the Port of Oakland for $15,000. The ship is now owned by the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht Potomac (Potomac Association), a nonprofit public benefit corporation.

In October 1990, the National Park System Advisory Board awarded the Potomac designation as a National Historic Landmark.

The late James Roosevelt, eldest son of the President, headed the Association's Board of Governors, which raised more than $5 million in private and public funds for the restoration of the vessel. Shipping firms, including American President Lines, Crowley Maritime and Matson Lines, joined in the restoration effort. There was strong backing from organized labor and support from individuals who remembered the Roosevelt years and what he accomplished for his country. Michael Roosevelt, the President's grandson, an attorney who lives in Berkeley, is now the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

The Potomac is chartered to help raise money for the future educational program and the operation of the ship. On May 20th at the Annual Port of Oakland Maritime Day at Jack London Square, the Potomac opened to the public for tours. In the fall, the Potomac opens as a floating classroom with school tours teaching students about the New Deal, the Great Depression, and the origins of World War II aboard a ship that played a significant role in major events of the era.

The FDR Pier, her home port, will be remodeled to better accommodate the physically challenged members of our society. Contributions are accepted. Tours are encouraged, and charters are available at times. Write to: The Potomac Association, Box 2064, Oakland, CA 94604 for dates and details.