The historic warship once known as the “Grey Ghost” may be moving down the St. Johns River to another temporary home after the Mayor’s Office filed an emergency bill to initiate the move.
But that home is actually the permanent pier that the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association’s USS Orleck was supposed to move to by the end of summer, just east of the Berkman Plaza marina.
Museum president Dan Bean said the association’s agreement with the city has always been to move the ship to what’s called Pier One. So if the bill, filed by the mayor and set for first reading on Tuesday night, says it should move, they will “go where we are told.”
“That doesn’t mean that if the city believed that there might be a better place for the ship to help the Downtown reach its fullest development and potential, then we might move again,” Bean said. “There’s much to be done as far as finalizing what the waterfront is going to look like for Downtown, and we are excited that people are moving in that direction and we want the Navy warship to be a part of it.”
The Gearing-class destroyer was built in 1945 at a cost of $6.3 million, then operated in the Navy’s 7th Fleet during the Korean War. Renovated in 1962, the 390-foot warship then did duty during the Vietnam War, wearing the nickname of “The Grey Ghost of the Vietnam Coast” as it earned 14 Battle Stars on top of four awarded it during the Korean conflict.
The Orleck later served as a training ship, even appearing in the TV miniseries “Winds of War” before its sale in 1987 to the Turkish Navy, serving until 2000 as the TCG Yücetepe. The Orleck then became a floating museum in Orange, Texas, and moved in 2010 to Lake Charles, Louisiana, as part of another waterfront attraction. The ship ownership was transferred in 2019 to the Jacksonville Naval Museum after three years of disuse, towed in late March to its current downtown St. Johns River mooring site outside the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront at 225 E. Coastline Drive.
The Orleck was supposed to move in late summer to Pier One, part a new Downtown museum district in The Shipyards site between TIAA Bank Field and the Berkman Plaza. It would join historic Fire Station No. 3, just moved to that 620 E. Bay St. site, as well as the planned $85 million-plus Museum of Science and History.
But while the brick fire station was moved on March 26 from Metropolitan Park to its permanent home at 620 E. Bay St., no work has begun on modifying the pier behind it for the Orleck’s arrival. Right now, Fire Station 3, rebuilt after Jacksonville’s tragic 1901 blaze, sits on a grassy site on East Bay Street. There is no parking lot or access to the pier where the Orleck is slated to move to.
“Our concern is accessibility in the meantime,” Bean said. “We are asking the city to do what it can to expedite the development of that area so that we are not isolated for too long. That area is going to get developed and the ship will be fine. It’s just the in-between time is of concern.”
Bean said the city is considering building a new road from East Bay Street to the river, with parking that would nicely serve both the fire museum and Orleck site. He hopes that is expedited “as the development catches up with us.”
“We float, so we are movable, but right now it is Pier One,” he said.
The bill allows for installation of eight mooring bollards as well as “dolphins” — pilings sunk into the river bottom to hold the Orleck in place — to safely moor the destroyer. That would take about four weeks to get done, Bean said. So the bill requests passage as an emergency within one cycle, so a temporary construction easement can be approved, so it could be voted on Dec. 13. The Orleck could be moved by February or March, Bean said.
The 77-year-old Orleck has seen more than 10,000 visitors since it opened for limited tours a few months ago, Bean said. It is currently open for public tours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Tours are a $15 donation per adult and $10 per child.