The Ben Franklin Bridge, seen from the deck

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A gigantic cargo ship once crowned the fastest in the world and then gutted by Nazi pirates is now a venue for Philadelphians to drink and have parties.

Docked in the Delaware River just south of Spruce Street, the Moshulu is a 115-year-old seafaring vessel that traveled the world for decades to transport grain, coal, coke and nitrate, among other heavy goods.

It’s lived everywhere from Norway to Australia and Chile to Mexico, but now the murky urban waterway is its permanent home. On and off since 1975, the ship has been incarnated as an upscale bar, restaurant, club and event venue — a rare fate for a boat of its size.

There probably aren’t more than five Tall Ships in the world that now operate as a bar or restaurant, according to Craig Bruns, chief curator at the Independence Seaport Museum.

The Moshulu, which will launch a brand new bar and lounge in mid-September, is something of a local legend. It’s appeared in movies like Rocky and The Godfather Part II. And now, 50 years after the Clean Water Act purified the Delaware River, development has surged along the banks — bringing a fresh audience to the Moshulu’s doorstep.

So how’d a historic 3,000-ton barge turn into a staple of the Philly waterfront?

“This ship can tell a million tales,” said Jake Wade, who was general manager of the Moshulu for 10 years. “I wish I knew them all.”

The Moshulu is a four-masted ship that was built in Scotland in 1904 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘The apex of its time’

Born in Scotland in 1904, the ship was first named Kurt — and at that time, it was state of the art.

“If you’re going to be doing [shipping], you want the best equipment that’s going to make you the most money and be the fastest to get things to the market,” explained Bruns, of the Seaport Museum. “This is the apex of its time.”

The waterborne chariot has changed hands a few times since its creation. In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. seized it. As the story goes, then-First Lady Edith Wilson personally renamed it Moshulu to honor a Native American tribe. It means the “one who fears nothing.”

As an American hulk, the Moshulu transported lumber and lived mostly in California and Washington. For a while, it sat dormant due to the advent of faster steam ships.

The interior is now a distinctive restaurant and wedding venue Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

In 1935 Finland bought the thing. Four years later, it won the Great Grain Race of 1939 — determined the fastest cargo ship in the world after transporting grain from Australia to the United Kingdom in *checks notes* just 100 days.

At the height of World War II, Nazi pirates got ahold of the ship. They captured and gutted the historic boat, turning it into what was essentially a floating warehouse to store war supplies.

Luckily, the story does not end there. The Moshulu was bought again by Finland in the late 1940s, then purchased by the U.S. in 1974. That’s when the celebrated ship finally moved to the greatest city in the world and began calling Penn’s Landing its home.

“It survives from a time of this golden age, from this pinnacle of sailing ships,” Bruns said. “It’s also a deep part of Philadelphia’s history now.”

The boat still has all the trappings of a seafaring vessel Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

From loading dock to lounge deck 

The massive sailboat is pretty marvelous to observe. With a steel hull, four levels and masts that reach 21 stories into the sky, the Moshulu feels almost all-consuming when you stand before it. In its prime, it could hold thousands of tons of cargo, which were dropped in via giant openings on the top deck.

Now, those are skylights that illuminate the restaurant on the first floor.

Roughly 65 weddings are held in the Moshulu’s State Room every year Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Other adaptations have been made. Both the port and starboard decks are outfitted with lounge chairs to take in the view. The original steering wheel has been moved inside, where it sits in a laudatory frame, and replaced with a less fragile version. And the chart house — where captains of yesteryear planned their routes — is a bar.

“It’s a toast to those who got the boat here,” joked former GM Wade.

With so much space, the Moshulu hosts tons of events — often at the same time. There are roughly 65 weddings on board every year, Wade said, plus regular dinners, dances, corporate events and Eagles watch parties.

“You could have a press event, a wedding, a late-night DJ event with people standing on stilts and hanging from the masts…all going on at the same time,” Wade said. “It gets crazy.”

The deck bar is stocked Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

When dinner is ruined by a hurricane 

The veteran hospitality pro said there are several unique challenges that come along with managing the Moshulu. It can be disorienting to work an eight-hour shift on board a floating vessel — especially when you consider changing tides.

The job takes some special maritime knowledge. It’s important to monitor the wind and rain, just in case staff has to pull down the tents that are strapped above the deck.

And extreme weather — like the heavy rains brought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — can threaten the ship’s peaceful existence.

There’s a giant iron cube that holds the boat in place, and it came undone during high storm tide. Emergency staff had to come out in tug boats and hold everything together until the situation subsided.

“We got so lucky,” Wade said. “When the tide finally went down, [the iron] went right back into place. I don’t even know how it went right back into place.”

This new bar and lounge will open soon Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

It’s not always easy to run a waterborne dining and drinking destination. The current task falls to Fearless Restaurants, the Marty Grims outfit that also operates White Dog Cafe and Louie Louie in University City, among other spots.

From the perspective of preservationists like Bruns, the payoff is huge. “It’s very expensive to maintain ships,” he said. “You need to have some sort of income. That is a very real, very sobering truth.”

He added: “If you’re able to impart the story of the ship itself while people are eating aboard, all the better.”

The Moshulu navigation wheel is now one of the deck’s bars Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...