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Ladies of Wood, Ship Models Tell of Past

December 11, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

The wood lady suspended from the ceiling caught the visitor's eye.

"Who knows what stories of the sea she could tell of distant ports visited and the storms her vessel survived," he commented to the youngster beside him as they walked through the halls of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro.

The lady was once a figurehead mounted on a sailing ship from a bygone era. The use of figureheads on ships dates to antiquity. The Romans attached bronze statues of their gods to the prows of their vessels, and the Vikings carved intricate designs on their roving ships. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sculpting figureheads was a profitable art form in America. Steam replaced sail, and figureheads, which sailors believed brought luck, vanished from the high seas.

This is but one of the many examples of maritime memorabilia on display at this modern museum. The building is the old terminal that once accommodated passengers and cars on ferry boats, which operated between San Pedro and Terminal Island. Ferry service was discontinued with the completion of the Vincent Thomas Bridge in 1963.

300 Ship Models

There are more than 300 ship models on display, ranging from the earliest sailing craft to the most modern tankers and container carriers. Interior compartments of the Titanic are revealed in a cutaway side of an 18-foot model of the ship.

Nearby is a model of the vessel used in the 1972 film "The Poseidon Adventure." Powered, it once cruised in a 300-foot-long tank, where the film was made. The model was presented to the museum by 20th Century Fox Studios. Also on view are carved ships encased in bottles and examples of scrimshaw, a sailor's pastime during long whaling voyages. Walls of the museum are lined with marine paintings.

Some of the models recall momentous events in naval history. There is one of the HMS Victory, flagship of Lord Horatio Nelson. During the Napoleonic Wars, Nelson, with 27 British ships, engaged a Spanish fleet of 33 vessels off Cape Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805. Flying the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty," a great sea fight followed, and it was a victory for the British. Mortally wounded, Nelson lay dying on the Victory and uttered his last words: "Thank God I have done my duty."

There is an exhibit hall devoted to the U.S. Navy. Among its models are the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the oldest ship in the Navy (launched Oct. 21, 1797). An array of cruisers, destroyers and other craft of World War II vintage recalls many memories to visitors who served on the actual vessels.

View of Harbor

A park adjacent to the museum affords a fine view of the harbor and is an ideal spot to enjoy a picnic. Most days you will find container ships loading or disgorging cargo on Terminal Island across the way.

The Port of Los Angeles has become a world center of commerce, navigation, recreation and commercial fishing. It is also the leading import auto port in the United States. Last year, more than 400,000 shiny new cars were unloaded here. You can generally see thousands of them waiting for prospective buyers as you approach the harbor. An additional point of interest: Ports O' Call Fishermen's Village with its shops and restaurants is next door to the museum.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is operated by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission is free. The museum is at the foot of 6th Street, Berth 84 in San Pedro. Follow the Harbor Freeway (110) to the Harbor Boulevard exit. (Use the same exit for the Vincent Thomas Bridge.) Stay on Harbor Boulevard to the museum. Free parking. For information: (213) 548-7618.

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