Belle of the Bosphorus: an American icon plies the Bosphorus for 75 years.
Now the longest-running ship on the Bosphorus, the Hiawatha has become a potent symbol of Turkish-American relations and our committed presence in the region.
Constructed of teak and mahogany with brass fittings by the American Car and Foundry Company inWilmington, Del., in 1922, the Hiawatha was brought to Istanbul by its first owner, Ambassador Charles H. Sherrill. At the conclusion of his tour in 1933, and with the move of the capital and the embassy to Ankara, Ambassador Sherrill donated the Hiawatha to the U.S. government. For a period, she was included in the consulate's motor pool and crewed by consulate staff.
Long operated by a private contractor at no cost to the U.S. government--her upkeep is underwritten by American businesses--the Hiawatha is managed by the consulate general's employees association and may be rented by members and affiliates for excursions during the April-October sailing season. She can accommodate 15 passengers, and a 160-horsepower General Motors diesel engine propels her to speeds of up to 15 knots.
The Hiawatha's most important role remains representational, however. Three U.S. ambassadors and 27 consuls general have proudly served as her custodians through the years. Many have fond memories of notable guests and adventures aboard the vessel. Some of the VIPs treated to Bosphorus cruises include first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton (1953 and 1999, respectively), General Douglas MacArthur (1932) and NATO Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower (1952). The passenger manifest has sparkled with artists such as the great American writer James Baldwin, groundbreaking composer Philip Glass and renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Adding a further star turn to the Hiawatha's lore, in 1975 Consul General Howard P.Mace took her to Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara to visit American inmate Billy Hayes. Upon arriving at the quay, he was informed that Hayes--whose experiences formed the basis of the 1978 film "Midnight Express" (screenwriter Oliver Stone subsequently apologized for its scurrilous depiction of Turks and Turkey)--had escaped earlier that day.
More recently, the Hiawatha has borne Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as well as a host of Congressional representatives.
The Hiawatha's original captain, Naci Bey, remained at the helm for more than five decades until his retirement in 1986.
Budgets and Bombs
Saved by the consulate's employees association from being sold in the wake of federal budget cuts in 1987 (when then-Consul General William E. Rau said he would sell her over his dead body), the Hiawatha faced her gravest challenge in 1989.
Early on the morning of Dec. 6, the leftist terrorist group "16 June," well aware of the Hiawatha's significance as an emblem of U.S.-Turkish amity, firebombed her at her moorings in Kurucesme, a historic neighborhood on the Bosphorus not far from the consul general's official residence. Although much of her superstructure was severely burned, the Hiawatha remained fundamentally sound and--following a four-month renovation--returned to service in May 1990.
With her classic profile and plucky character, the Hiawatha has continued to inspire ship spotters in Istanbul and imitators who have constructed replicas. However, with fourscore-and-five years of cruising to her keel, she is showing her age. Significant structural, drive train and safety upgrades likely are required.
Last November, the Hiawatha was taken to a dry dock facility in Tuzla, southeast of Istanbul, thanks to the generosity of Turkish industrial magnate, sailor and longtime Hiawatha admirer Rahmi Koc.
It is the sincere hope of current and former employees of the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, and of all those who have had the privilege and pleasure of viewing the Bosphorus and Golden Horn from her deck, that the Hiawatha again will be restored to prime condition, ready to thrill future generations of Americans and Turks as an enduring envoy of friendship in the storied city where East meets West.
The ongoing, vital assistance provided by corporate sponsors will help realize that hope.
The author is a vice consul at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul.