BELFAST, Maine — Nearly two years ago, a crowd of hundreds cheered and a high school band played “Hail to the Chief” as the USS Sequoia, the former presidential yacht, was barged into Belfast harbor.
The so-called Floating White House arrived in Maine in October 2019 to undergo a stem-to-stern restoration at French & Webb, a custom boat building company in Belfast.
But the Sequoia, shrouded in plastic in a city-owned parking lot next to the Harbor Walk, is still waiting for the restoration to begin. The delay is due to the pandemic, according to Amanda Green, the office manager at French & Webb. Now, the company is waiting for a go-ahead from the ship’s owner to get things rolling, she said.
French & Webb plans to adorn the boat with a sign that will include information about it and a picture of the way it will look when the work is finished, Green said.
That should be a sharp turnaround from the way it looked when it came to Maine. The Sequoia, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1925 and hosted many heads of state in its heyday. But it fell on rough times in recent years, including being the subject of a 6-year legal battle over its ownership.
At one low point, it was even occupied by a family of raccoons.
It was a sad descent for a ship designed by wooden yacht expert John Trumpy for Emily Roebling Cadwalader, the granddaughter of John Roebling, the chief engineer and original designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Cadwalader only owned the ship for about six years. In 1931, the U.S. Bureau of Navigation purchased the houseboat-style motor yacht. The government used the yacht, made of long-leaf yellow pine, mahogany and teak, to patrol the Chesapeake and Delaware bays as a decoy vessel to attract would-be bootleggers.
Later that year, President Herbert Hoover moved the ship into presidential service and started using it for meetings and pleasure cruises.
Over the years, it was also used by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.
Roosevelt hosted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the ship, where the two discussed ways to avoid war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
Kennedy celebrated his 46th birthday — his last one — on the Sequoia, accompanied by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, friends and two orchestras.
Johnson was on the Sequoia when he pressured members of Congress to pass his landmark civil rights legislation and plotted his next moves in Vietnam.
And a melancholy Nixon played “God Bless America” on the yacht’s piano after he decided to resign the presidency.
The Sequoia returned to the private sector in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter ordered the ship sold at auction. A Rhode Island businessman purchased it for $286,000, with the intention of charging visitors $2 apiece to see it. Carter later joked that selling the yacht was one of his worst decisions as president.
More recently, the Sequoia was trapped in legal limbo for four years at a small boatyard in Virginia. Its current owner is the Equator Capital Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity investment firm that bought the ship in 2016.
It will be part of the group’s Equator Collection, which provides funding to preserve and maintain maritime assets that are significant to the history of the United States. When the Sequoia is restored, it will be used to promote conservation causes, especially those that are focused on the ocean, according to the website for the Equator Collection.
In 2019, Michael Cantor, the managing partner of Equator Capital Group, said the intention was for the team of boat builders and craftsmen in Belfast to do a plank by plank restoration to restore the yacht to its former glory.
“Sequoia will be seaworthy and ready for Americans to once again enjoy the former presidential yacht’s storied past,” he said at that time.