PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council Monday night got its first glimpse of a proposed maritime museum being proposed for Fort Butts near Portsmouth High School.
The nonporofit Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) wants to build a maritime museum and major archeological research facility at town-owned Fort Butts, the largest Revolutionary War earthwork in Southern New England and a strategic encampment during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778.
Using a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, RIMAP has created a master plan for the facility.
The project, if it goes forth at all, is still four or five years down the road, RIMAP director Kathy Abbass told the council Monday night.RIMAP is seeking no funds from the town; the project would be funded by grants and private money, she said.
“We’re in the process to see if this would be financially feasible,” said Ms. Abbas, adding that if the organization’s business plan doesn’t make sense, the project will be shelved. “Can we raise the money to build the building? I don’t know. We’re in the process for that.”
If realized, however, the museum would be a strong international tourism draw for Portsmouth, she said.
The genesis of RIMAP’s idea came in 1999, when its researchers discovered evidence that the Lord Sandwich transport — one of many ships sunk by the British in Newport Harbor in 1778 — was formerly known as Capt. James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which carried Capt. Cook, his crew and scientists around the world in 1768-1771.
Although Capt. Cook was never here, Rhode Island has seen five of the ships associated with him, according to RIMAP, adding that the four vessels that were lost here may eventually be found.
Capt. Cook is among history’s most famous naval explorers. His Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel, surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, leading to the British claim and colonization of that continent. The ship is revered by Australians the same way the Mayflower is treasured by those interested in early New England history, according to RIMAP.
“Australia has a very strong interest in helping us find this particular vessel,” said Ms. Abbas, adding that the Australian National Maritime Museum is interesting in funding part of the project and possible setting up a satellite exhibit in its facility.
While the maritime museum could be located anywhere in Rhode Island, it makes sense to build it at Fort Butts, Ms. Abbass said.
“The ships were lost as part of that Battle of Rhode Island’s preliminary activities,” she said.
The goal is to open the building by 2019 — the 250th anniversary of when Capt. Cook, British astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander observed the transit of Venus from Tahiti during Cook’s first voyage around the world.
“We’d like to come back in a couple of years and say, ‘Yup, the project is working,’” Ms. Abbass told the council.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she loved the idea of having a museum located close to the high school. She also noted that when she went to Portsmouth, England last year, she visited the Mary Rose Museum, which features the remnants of an English warship which sank in 1545 but was salvaged in 1982.
“It is a huge economic driver in that town. People from all over the world came to see that ship,” said Ms. Pedro, adding that private funds were used for that project, too.
Ray Berberick, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee, said his panel has been working on a proposed “Portsmouth Freedom Trail” highlighting key historical sites in town.
“There may be some synergy between what we want to do and what they want to do,” Mr. Berberick said.
More money for two groups
In other business Monday night, the council agreed to grant a bigger stipend to two local organizations than what was allotted to them when the provisional budget was passed last month.
Taking a total of $13,000 from a line item reserved for estimated legal fees, the council voted 5-1 to grant $13,000 more for the Portsmouth Free Public Library and $5,000 for the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, a group that studies substance abuse issues in town.
Ms. Pedro voted against the motion, saying the council should have shifted the money from the School Department’s budget.
“They have a $1 million surplus,” she said. “Every year they get a raise and every year they have a surplus and the other departments suffer.”
The council will host a public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10, at Portsmouth Middle School. The council is expected to approve a final budget at its June 23 meeting.