A Ghost Ship in Maritime Washington: Everett’s Haunted Schooner Equator
By Kristy Conrad, Washington Trust Development Director.
Image: the hull of the Schooner Equator inside a shelter built by the Port of Everett.
Working in historic buildings, there is no shortage of ghost stories. (Even the Washington Trust’s own Stimson-Green Mansion is said to be haunted…by friendly former partygoers.) But with Halloween approaching and the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area gearing up for its first year of activities, there is one spooky maritime tale that is worth recounting: the haunted historic Schooner Equator in Everett.
The Equator didn’t start out as a ghoulish tale. The pygmy schooner was built in 1888 in San Francisco by California shipwright Matthew Turner. Hailed as “the ‘grandaddy’ of big-time wooden shipbuilding on the Pacific Coast,” Turner reportedly built more sailing vessels than any other single shipbuilder in America—228 seagoing vessels across 37 years, from 1868 to his death in 1905. The Equator was just one of the 133 two-masted schooners Turner built in his lifetime.
Later that year, the Equator was chartered by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who sailed with his wife Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson from Honolulu to the Gilbert Islands. The voyage became the basis for Stevenson’s travelogue In the South Seas.
Given Turner’s business interests in the South Seas, the Equator was originally built as a copra (coconut) trading ship. A year after its launch, in March 1889, it sailed through and survived the South Pacific tropical cyclone that destroyed American and German warships and numerous merchantmen at Samoa.
The Equator was equipped with a steam engine in the 1890s and worked as a tender, or support ship, for salmon cannery operations in Alaska. In 1915, the Equator arrived in Seattle, when it was purchased by the Cary-Davis Tug and Barge Company for use as a tugboat. In 1916, it was chartered by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to conduct coastal surveying in Alaska. Upon return, the schooner remained in operation as a tugboat until 1956, when it was abandoned on the coast of Jetty Island outside Everett as part of a breakwater with other discarded vessels. It remained there for 11 years.
In the 1960s, efforts to save the Equator were led by Everett dentist Eldon Schalka, who in 1967 mobilized volunteers from the Everett Kiwanis Club to haul the vessel ashore and clean the muck out of it; it was then dry-docked at the 14th Street Fisherman’s Boat Shop in Everett. Schalka helped to establish a nonprofit group to restore the vessel, which despite little fundraising success managed to get the Equator listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, in Everett’s first National Register listing.
Across the subsequent decades, various plans to preserve and house the Equator were proposed and fell through, and the funds necessary for a full restoration were never acquired. Now reduced to a hull, the vessel was moved in 1980 to the Port of Everett’s Marina Village and later to its current location at the corner of 10th Street and Craftsman Way. In November 2017, the back of the Equator collapsed, and the Port took steps to enclose the shelter around the schooner to protect it from further decay. Given the extreme deterioration of the vessel, preservation in place is not an option, so the Port of Everett is working with partners like the Everett Museum of History and Maritime Washington National Heritage Area to preserve portions of the vessel and honor its storied legacy.
In the meantime, the Equator has been left to its ghosts. It is said that dancing lights appear above the hull at night, and psychics have reported that those lights are in fact the ghosts of Robert Louis Stevenson and his friend, Hawaiian King Kalakaua. This spooky season is the perfect time to pay a visit to this safe haven for its ghosts and history lovers alike!