From 1906 until 1977, all U.S. presidents had an official yacht. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, that seafaring vessel was the USS Potomac.
The steel-hulled Potomac was 165 feet long, with room for two Secret Service cabins, but the ship’s size and construction wasn’t the only consideration. Roosevelt also needed to be able to move, via wheelchair, from the lower to upper deck. With that in mind, one of the ship’s smokestacks was covertly converted to an elevator.
The disguised elevator is now kept in Long Wharf Park in Maryland as a monument honoring the former president, its once-secret purpose revealed.
The redevelopment of Long Wharf was one of Roosevelt’s first WPA projects. Completed in 1935, it included a bridge and a place to dock the presidential yacht. Roosevelt visited the site upon its completion to dedicate it, and the smokestack elevator monument commemorates that visit.
Although the elevator’s installation was necessary for Roosevelt’s mobility, its hand-pulley design didn’t make it an easy ride. “When the president used it, it was literally just a platform roped to a pulley,” explained Les Dropkin, of the Potomac Association. “He would pull himself up, or let himself down, arm over arm. Roosevelt was very strong, and always wanted to do things for himself.”
After the president’s death, the ship remained docked at the park from 1946 to 1960. Here the Potomac led its second life, used by the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission and sometimes by the governor. The ship eventually began to deteriorate, and in 1960 it was sold and used a ferry in the Caribbean.
In its last brush with fame the yacht went from president to king in 1964; Elvis Presley bought the ship at auction for $55,000, reportedly because he hated the idea of the Roosevelt’s yacht heading to the scrap yard.