The Strange Life of FDR’s Presidential Yacht

September 4, 2021

The Potomac, the presidential yacht once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Chris Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s special presidential yacht, the Potomac, had an interesting life. It was used by a US president, had various private owners that included the “King of Rock and Roll,” and it was involved in some unscrupulous activities before sinking and then eventually rising again.

The Potomac started as the Electra, which was part of a class of US Coast Guard Cutters. It was a 165-foot vessel weighing 376 gross tons, and it cruised at speeds of 10 to 13 knots. The ship was built in 1934 and was designed for coastal patrols.

The presidential yacht at that time was the Sequoia, a 100-foot vessel that had a cabin with a wood finish. Because the Sequoia was considered fancy by President Roosevelt, especially during the Great Depression, and because he had to be carried from deck to deck due to his medical condition, a new boat was requested. The Navy took charge of finding a replacement and chose the Electra. They converted it to the Potomac in 1936. The new ship had a concealed elevator installed near the rear funnel to accommodate Roosevelt when he moved from deck to deck.

President Roosevelt used it throughout his presidency and preferred to be on the ship instead of in Washington DC during the hot summer months. It traveled up and down the eastern seaboard and was used to entertain foreign dignitaries. It also was used for one of the fireside chats Roosevelt was famous for. During World War II, the ship was used primarily as a naval sonar research vessel.

After the death of President Roosevelt in 1945, President Truman transferred the yacht to the State of Maryland, where it was used as a research vessel studying the fisheries and as an enforcement vessel. In 1960, the ship was sold to a private owner and was moved to the Caribbean, where it became a ferry between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The Potomac was sold again in 1962 and transported to Long Beach, California, where two businessmen made it into a tourist attraction. But the attraction only lasted a year. Because of winter storms and large waves threatening the harbor where it was moored, the Potomac had to be anchored outside the harbor. The ship was deemed a navigational hazard in the new spot, and the owner’s insurance company would no longer insure it. The owners were forced to close the attraction and put the boat up for sale.

In 1964, it was bought at an auction for $55,000 by Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, on behalf of Presley, who never saw the ship in person. The plan was for Elvis to immediately donate the ship to the March of Dimes as a publicity event, but the charity denied the gift. A few weeks after Elvis bought the ship, he approached Danny Thomas and denoted it to St. Jude’s Hospital. The charity later sold the yacht for $62,500.

The Potomac then began another colorful portion of its history. The ship transferred from one owner to another in the late 1960s and 1970s. Then in 1980, it was seized by US Customs in San Francisco, along with another ship, as part of a marijuana smuggling ring. It was towed and moored at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and accidentally sunk after a piling pierced the hull. The ship was already in disrepair because of years of poor maintenance and a slow leaking hull.

The Navy Reserve raised the Potomac two weeks after it sunk and put it up for auction in 1981. The ship was bought by the Port of Oakland for $15,000. The Port of Oakland and other organizations then completed a $5 million restoration of the Potomac, and it opened to the public in 1995. The ship is now owned by the Potomac Association and is an FDR museum. It can be visited near Jack London Square in Oakland, California, and is a National Historic Landmark.

The Potomac at the harbor in Oakland, California, where it is now a museum.
The Potomac in Oakland, California

Sources: Daily Breeze, National Park Service, White House History, Desert Sun

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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