Richardson Museum to reconstruct Pearl in Cambridge


Dorchester Banner/Pearl Coalition
An image of what the Pearl might have looked like, on a sunset in the Chesapeake Bay.

CAMBRIDGE — In April 1848 an audacious escape on the Underground Railroad involved more than 70 fugitives and a 54-ton schooner named the Pearl. … This escape had evolved into a plan that would shock the country. For more than 10 years, abolitionists had been lobbying for the end of slavery in the District of Columbia with no success. They now wanted to shine a light on the horrors of slavery and the slave trade — a good number of those fugitives were on the verge of being sold to the labor-hungry cotton fields of the Lower South — in the capital of the country that had successfully waged a revolution in the name of democracy and self-determination. (Excerpt from Escape on the Pearl, written by Mary Kay Ricks)

The Pearl became a famous symbol of the ending of the slave trade, and played a major role in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular, and most controversial, book of the 19th century. Unfortunately, after its capture the Pearl was lost to history. Though it was certainly re-used as long as it was seaworthy, boat names were changed regularly and the Pearl’s disappearance is probably clerical.

The legend and history of the boat was not forgotten, thanks to author Stowe and other writers of the time, and in modern times the Pearl is set to re-emerge as the hero ship it once was.

An announcement was made this weekend that the historic ship Pearl was going to become a part of Cambridge’s modern history, as the Richardson Maritime Museum and the Ruark Boatworks have been commissioned to build a replica of the Pearl.

Heading the project is The Pearl Coalition of Washington, D.C. According to their mission statement, The Pearl Coalition’s mission is to foster a modern cultural understanding of slaves, slavery, and escapes from slavery, in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. This mission will facilitate cultural offerings designed to educate visitors on the array of racial, social, economic factors, contributions of the people and places involved in the Pearl escape, and the inner workings of the Underground Railroad.

The replica of the Pearl will be built according to existing records, which show that the original boat was a Chesapeake Bay-built Pilot Schooner, very similar to the Virginia Pilot Schooners. It will have a total length of up to 65 feet, necessitating enlargement of an outbuilding on the Ruark Boatworks property to house the ship during construction. Staff at the museum and boatworks are understandably excited about the new project.

“I feel really good about this project,” said Peter Zukoski, who has been named the project leader for Ruark Boatworks. “I think it’ll really help this city. It will turn into a national program — when people see this, they are going to start coming here. It will be very similar to Chestertown — Chestertown came alive when Sultana was being built.”

The Pearl Coalition intends the project to be a cooperative giving inner-city youth the chance to participate in the build. Which will “provide job training and educational programs for local youth, create awareness of African American history, and educate visitors to our nation’s capital,” according to David W. Smith, executive director of the Pearl Coalition, at a presentation at the Ruark Boatworks on Saturday. In that spirit, a group of local D.C. youth were on hand to learn about the project and get their first taste of what happens in a real boatyard. Attending were representatives of Ruark Boatworks and The Richardson Museum, Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley and Commissioner Robert Hanson.

MD-Richardson Museum reconstructs the Pearl 2x group

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Standing in front of a drawing of a Virginia Pilot Schooner are Ruark project leader Peter Zukoski, David W. Smith of the Pearl Coalition, Jane Devlin of the Richardson Museum, Cambridge Commissioner Robert Hanson, and Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley.

“The City Council and the City of Cambridge is excited about the opportunity for this project to be here in our community,” said Fifth Ward City Commissioner Robert Hanson. “The community is here to support this project and anything we can do, we’re here to help.”

“The stars are in alignment,” said Mayor Jackson-Stanley. “The things that are supposed to be happening in our fair city are happening, in their due time. The history of Cambridge is phenomenal, but now things have connected us to the world, and the world is beating a path to our door. I’m so glad to be a part of this, to be a part of the history of Cambridge.”

When finished, the Pearl Coalition vision is for the ship to be setting sail on a daily basis on the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers as a tourist attraction to the region. In the mean time, the excitement is centered at Ruark Boatyard, where preparations are already being made to start the construction. The Pearl is expected to take two years to compete.

“This is the catalyst the Richardson needed to take us to where the future lay,” said Jane Devlin, director of the Richardson Maritime Museum.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at

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