The USS Potomac’s Origins
The USS Potomac was built in 1934 as the Coast Guard Cutter Electra. The 165-foot vessel, displacing 416 gross tons with cruising speeds of 10 to 13 knots, was commissioned as a US Navy vessel in 1936, renamed the USS Potomac, and served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential Yacht until his death in 1945.
As former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR had a deep love for the sea and Navy tradition. He hated flying and preferred to travel by train or ship throughout his presidency.
During the sultry summer days in Washington, DC, he enjoyed cruising on the USS Potomac rather than staying in the White House. The USS Potomac gave the 32nd president much-needed respite from the cares of governing the United States throughout the Great Depression and World War II. He loved holding informal strategy sessions with close advisors and congressional leaders in the privacy and seclusion of the yacht. Recreation aboard the vessel included fishing, poker games, and family gatherings, and he spent endless hours onboard with his beloved stamp collection. In addition, at least one of FDR’s famed radio broadcasts originated from the USS Potomac on March 19, 1941.
A Special Vessel With Special Passengers
A paraplegic since he was stricken with polio at the age of 39 in 1921, FDR’s greatest fear was being caught in a fire and being unable to escape. He therefore preferred the USS Potomac, an all steel vessel, to the wooden Sequoia. A hand-operated elevator was installed inside a false stack on the ship and the President—who had developed an extremely strong upper body—was able to use ropes and pulleys to move the elevator up and down between the saloon and upper boat deck.
There are few records of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt coming aboard her husband’s Floating White House. In 1941, she celebrated her 57th birthday with family members aboard the USS Potomac. She also came aboard during the June 9, 1939, visit by the United Kingdom’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, when the two couples cruised to George Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon (click this link for a description of the Royal visit including a copy of the ship’s log). Other royalty to board the Presidential Yacht included Crown Princess Martha of Norway, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden.
World War II Changes Use of the USS Potomac
On Monday, August 4, 1941, four months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR boarded the USS Potomac ostensibly for a fishing trip and a visit to Martha’s Vineyard. The President, however, was secretly transferred to the heavy cruiser USS Augusta on the morning of August 5 to travel to Newfoundland where he would meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill—their first meeting as heads of state. During this top-secret rendezvous, the two world leaders forged the principles of the Atlantic Charter, forming the Allied partnership during World War II, and what Roosevelt called the "United Nations," to plan the post-war peace. With the United States’ direct involvement in the war at the end of 1941, the President’s recreational use of the USS Potomac came to an end.
History After FDR
From FDR to Elvis “The King”
After FDR’s death in April 1945, the USS Potomac began a long and ignominious decline from her former role in world affairs. After many adventures and many owners—including Elvis Presley at one point—she was seized in 1980 in San Francisco as a front for drug smugglers and impounded at Treasure Island, where she sank. The ship was raised and unceremoniously dumped on the East Bay Estuary, where she sat abandoned and rotting. A week away from being sold as scrap, the ship was rescued by the Port of Oakland, and the process of restoration was begun.
The USS Potomac Resurfaces—Back to Her Old Glory
Re-floated by the Navy two weeks after sinking at Treasure Island, she was sold to the Port of Oakland for just $15,000. The Port of Oakland spearheaded a cooperative effort with organized labor, maritime corporations, and dedicated volunteers to complete a $5 million restoration.
Opened to the public in 1995, the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac now operates this National Historic Landmark as an active memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the momentous times through which he led our nation.
USS Potomac Mission Statement
To preserve and protect the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac for use as a classroom and museum dedicated to imparting to present and future generations the continuing impact of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era.
Today’s USS Potomac
Today, the USS Potomac, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Floating White House, is a National Historic Landmark and a vibrant part of the East Bay Waterfront. Over a 12-year period, $5 million was spent to restore the 165-foot-long vessel as a memorial to the president who authored the New Deal and led the United States during the Great Depression and the World War II years. The USS Potomac, the centerpiece of the museum exhibit, opened to the public in 1995 and is open for dockside tours on specified dates from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM. Public 2 HR and 3 HR cruises on the San Francisco Bay take place from late April through early November on specified dates.
The Visitor Center business hours are 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM, Monday–Friday, where there is a wealth of information about the USS Potomac, including a fascinating video on her history, hard times, and resurrection. Storyboards that chronicle the yacht's history line the walls, and there is a library of books and videos available for viewing at the Visitor's Center.
The USS Potomac Association is involved in educational programs about the ship for area schools, history and educational cruises, special events cruises, and selected private charters.
The USS Potomac Association is an organization run by volunteers and a very small staff. Volunteers include the policy-making Board of Governors, history docents, office and administrative workers, the ship's maintenance crew, and program and membership volunteers. Although not a requirement, many of these individuals served in the armed forces, Merchant Marine, maritime unions, or have worked at ports throughout the country.
Experience, Support, and Preserve History
We are always looking for volunteers interested in preserving and perpetuating the history of the USS Potomac and the FDR era. Learn more about volunteer opportunities, ways to donate, or book a cruise or event aboard Franklin Roosevelt’s Floating White House.