The present Flagship Niagara is the fourth ship to bear that name. Earlier restorations and reconstructions, thwarted by funding shortfalls and the passage of time, failed to preserve the warship.
Early in the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, combined efforts with a group of Erie citizens whose vision was that of building the Niagara as a working ship that would sail again. The ship and a new museum would be significant attractions for the revitalization of Erie’s bayfront.
In 1984, the state legislature authorized the building of Niagara, the cost of which, by the time of her launch in 1988, amounted to about four million dollars. Naval architect Melbourne Smith was chosen to lead reconstruction. Demolition of the old Niagara was completed in 1987. To preserve the spirit of the 1813 vessel, some conserved timbers were use in nonstructural parts of the new hull.
The keel was laid on May 7, 1988, at an Erie harbor construction site where work was done by the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps, a state organization reminiscent of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps. Work progressed quickly. On September 10, the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, the hull was launched in Erie harbor.
The ship first sailed for one daysail in 1990, and in 1991, Senior Captain Walter Rybka was hired to train a primarily volunteer crew to sail the ship. In 1992, engines were added to facilitate the ship’s first voyage to the East Coast, and Niagara has been in active operation, sailing all over the Great Lakes and East Coast, ever since.
In 2001, a long process to convert the ship into a USCG inspected sailing school vessel was launched. By 2005, four watertight bulkheads were built to compartmentalize the ship for stability improvements that were needed to meet SSV requirements. Many other improvements such as state-of-the-art electronic navigation equipment, emergency alarm systems, updated engineering equipment, etc… were added as part of the USCG inspection process. 2006 was the ship’s first opportunity to earn revenue (from student tuitions) while underway. Collectively, the Flagship Niagara sailing programs have been growing by nearly 50% per year.