Alexandria, VA – Locals and visitors of all ages have an opportunity to visit an old friend in a new place as the Tall Ship Providence is now moored at its permanent home at the newly-constructed Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center in front of Old Town Alexandria’s Waterfront Park, located just south of King Street. There, visitors can learn about a ship that played a vital role in the Continental Navy; witness firsthand where crewmembers worked, ate, and slept; and learn about one of the giants in Virginia’s political history.
“When we thought about who would be a good person to name this facility after, which was going to be a major attraction for Alexandria, only one person came to mind,” said Clair S. Sassin, president and CEO of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation. “That was Senator John Warner. He was in the Navy, served in the Marines, served as Secretary of the Navy, led the Bicentennial celebration, served as Virginia’s Senator for 30 years, and lived in Alexandria.”
Although Senator Warner had rebuffed attempts to attach his name to other projects, Sassin said he was particularly drawn to this endeavor: “I think it was a connection to the Marines, to the Navy, to military service, and to Alexandria, that interested him. And from the day he agreed to lend his name, he was actively engaged until he passed away.”
A graduate of Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia Law School, Senator Warner enlisted in the Navy at 17, served in World War II, and later joined the Marine Corps as an officer in the Korean War. He was appointed Under Secretary of the Navy by President Nixon and subsequently nominated to be the Secretary of the Navy, a position he held from 1972 to 1974. He was the first Under Secretary and Secretary to have served in the uniform of both the Navy and Marine Corps.
From 1979 to 2009, Warner represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate, including as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2007. The second-longest serving senator in Virginia history, and one of five World War II veterans serving in the Senate at the time of his retirement, Warner was selected to oversee the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration celebrating the 200th anniversary of our nation.
The Tall Ship Providence was the first ship authorized by the Continental Congress for the Continental Navy. In addition to seizing 40 British vessels during its four years of service, Providence holds the distinction of being the first American command of legendary Captain John Paul Jones, the first American ship to fire on a British vessel, the first American ship to bring Marines to foreign soil, and the first ship to leave the Stars and Stripes on foreign ground. The original Providence was the last ship to be scuttled after participating in the Penobscot Expedition in 1779 to clear British troops. Rather than be captured by the British, the fleet was sunk.
The reproduction of the 110-foot, 12-gun sloop-of-war Providence was constructed for the Bicentennial celebration. Providence was owned and managed by a series of nonprofit organizations and different individuals before the nonprofit Tall Ship Providence Foundation purchased it. Providence was in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
The Tall Ship Providence Foundation includes eight former Secretaries of the Navy on its advisory board. It has raised $8.5 million to date, which includes $1 million from Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. for the Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center’s fourth-grade education program.
The Alexandria City Council approved construction of the Heritage Center in 2020. The floating dock includes an Education Center, a Naval History Theater, an Observation Deck, Ticket Office, Gift Shop, and a pier for Providence. There is no cost for visitors to cross the gangway to get a closer view of Providence. For those visitors who want to experience what it was like to be a member of the Continental Navy, including a tour of Providence, however, tickets are required.
The one-hour tour begins with each visitor signing a log, after which they are told that they are now a member of the Continental Navy and given an information card with their position in the Navy and their responsibilities. For example, a visitor might be told that they are a “master gunner” and responsible for tending “to the care, maintenance, and operation of the ship’s artillery,” including being “responsible for the upkeep and care of the ship’s powder magazine.”
Once assignments are made, the group moves to Providence, where Captain John Paul Jones welcomes them. Their time on the ship includes being regaled by Captain Jones, touring the hold where the crew slept and ate, and spending time on the quarterdeck with its expansive views of the Potomac, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Old Town.
After disembarking the Providence, visitors step into the Naval History Theater for a short 11-minute film that traces U.S. naval ships from the Providence to today’s Navy and includes remarks from retired four-star Admiral Michelle Howard, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, who has served as Superintendent of the Naval Academy since July 2019, retired four-star General Robert Neller, who served as the 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and military historian Michael McGrath, as well as stunning views of the Providence on open water.
The theater also displays personal items belonging to or associated with the late Senator, including swords from his private collection and the flag that flew at half-staff over the United States Capitol on the day he passed away. On the way out of the Maritime Heritage Center, visitors pass below a sign with the famous John Paul Jones’ exhortation, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
In addition to dockside tours, Providence offers sunset sails, specialty sails, and private charters. The Maritime Heritage Center is also available as a venue rental. Details can be found at tallshipprovidence.org.