Rose Kissinger: The Queen of the Pacific

By: Steefenie Wicks

 Rose Kissinger holding her invention in a clipping from the 1953 Sausalito News. Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

 Rose Kissinger holding her invention in a clipping from the 1953 Sausalito News.

Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Rose Kissinger was the only woman to spend 22 years aboard the fully rigged ship the Pacific Queen, aka the Balclutha.  In 2012, I wrote a column on Rose, along with her husband Frank, telling the story of how they became the owners of the ship.   Recently, the San Francisco Maritime Museum has taken an interest in Rose’s life aboard the ship, along with its history.

The Maritime Museum Library has much information on the ship along with an old radio interview that Rose did in 1946.  At that time the announcer, Tommy Hotchkiss of KGER, made a point of saying that there was only one ship under the American flag.  He went on to explain: “A ship is a sailing vessel with four masts each squared-rigged.  There are other classifications, such as barque, barkentine, brig, brigantine, schooner, sloop, lugger, cat, ketch, yawl along with many others under sail.  But there is actually only one true ship left under the American flag; that ship is the Pacific Queen.” 

One should remember that this was 1946.

During the radio interview, Rose explained how she and her husband came to be the owners of this sailing ship. “It was in 1933 that we purchased her.  We knew at the time that the sailing ship was fast disappearing, we felt that one should be preserved for the younger generations to come.”   She went on to explain that her husband Frank was a showman, who believed the ship would be able to pay her own way.  Indeed it did, as over 200,000 people came aboard the Pacific Queen when she was docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, four months before the WWII.

During this radio interview Rose explained that the Pacific Queen was under yacht registry, which made her the largest yacht in the world at that time, 300 feet long.  Frank Kissinger believed that the Pacific Queen could out sail many of the newfangled yachts of that day.  

When asked how fast she could sail, Rose replied, “She has been recorded at 18 knots, that’s about 20 land miles an hour.”  Rose went on to say that the Pacific Queen had been used in sailing films, making her debut in the Clark Gable version of“Mutiny on the Bounty.”    From there the ship appeared in the Gary Cooper film “Souls at Sea,” then in “Rulers of the Sea” starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

It is interesting to note that at the time Rose was giving this interview her husband Frank had had some ideas of his own as to what should happen to the Pacific Queen.  In 1946 Frank had the idea to turn her into a gambling ship.  He planned to play draw poker onboard since it was then legal under state law.    Frank’s idea was to anchor the Pacific Queen in Richardson’s Bay, then hire a small fleet of water taxis to shuttle folks out to the new gambling ship.

Captain Frank had become aware that nearly 20,000,000 American males and perhaps a quarter of that many females had become devoted to the country’s most popular indoor sport, the game of poker.  “Hey Joe! Sell me another five bucks worth of chips, will you?”  This became the call onboard the ship along with the reply: “That’s the last time I try to draw to the middle of a straight.”

The Balclutha moored at the Hyde Street Pier

Courtesy Photo

In 1946, the Pacific Queen was docked in Sausalito; there were no laws that said she could not become a gambling ship.  However, the Marin County District Attorney, along with the Sausalito Police Chief, had yet to -- shall we say -- play their hand.   Frank was soon to find out that as long as the Pacific Queen was moored in Sausalito it was under the Police Chief’s jurisdiction.  Frank decided that he would not bank the game himself, but would take a cut from each pot, meaning that the law could not touch him.  What he did not expect was the fact that the District Attorney would draw up an ordinance to ban draw poker.  As long as the Pacific Queen was moored in Richardson’s Bay, it would be illegal to have gambling on board.

During all this, Rose was becoming an inventor.  When asked on the radio program about her development of a training aid to study navigation, she was quick to answer.  “Yes,” she said, “I invented a device which is a small globe of the earth within a larger transparent plastic sphere representing the sky.  Both globes are on the same pole, but the earth and sky revolve separately from each other.   In their proper places on the sky are various navigational stars and of course the imaginary lines in the sky that compare with latitude and longitude on the earth.  The Department of the Navy learned about it and took it over. It became the teaching aid that the Navy used in navigation instruction.  The Navy then secured a patent for me and I have all the commercial rights.”

The history of Frank and Rose Kissinger is part of the woven fabric of the history of the ship Balclutha aka the Pacific Queen.  These two individuals had a dream that is still alive today at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco.