The second launching of the first Coast and Geodetic Survey ship PATHFINDER

Today the NOAA Central Library unveiled the newly restored painting, Pathfinder, painted in 1899 by renowned maritime artist, Antonio Jacobsen. Included as part of the NOAA Central Library Rare Books collection, the painting is the oldest extant painting of a NOAA ancestor ship in the possession of NOAA.

Capt. Skip Theberge, NOAA ret., Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, NOAA, and ear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, USN ret.,
Capt. Skip Theberge, NOAA ret., Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, NOAA, and Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, USN ret., unveil the newly restored Pathfinder painting.


Craig McLean, director of the Office of Oceans and Atmospheric Research, Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director Office of Coast Survey, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, NOAA assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, Cheryl Oliver, director of NOAA Preserve America Initiative, Deirdre Clarkin, director of NOAA Central Library, and Capt. Skip Theberge, NOAA ret.


The Pathfinder vessel was one of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s early ships, in service from 1899-1941. The history of the Pathfinder is unique, as its career spanned 40 years charting Philippine waters before its loss in the early days of World War II. In addition to helping open the Philippine Islands to then modern ship-borne commerce, its pre-war work was instrumental for both strategic and tactical purposes in the retaking of the Philippine Islands during World War II.  

At the ceremony, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet (USN, ret.), NOAA assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, described the importance of hydrography to the nation, and the importance to preserving NOAA heritage. Rear Adm. Shep Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, offered appreciation for the officers on board the Pathfinder, their mission, and the ship’s legacy. The ceremony was sponsored by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Heritage Society.

Restoring the painting

Prior to coming into possession of the NOAA Central Library around 2007, the Pathfinder painting suffered damage during the mounting process and was not properly stored in a climate-controlled environment. This resulted in paint loss, bubbling at the surface, and torn edges. Although once heavily restored in the mid-20th century, it was time for the painting to be restored once again. The NOAA Central Library consulted with the Smithsonian Institution Lunder Conservation Center and obtained guidance and the conservation steps necessary to assure the painting will be available to future generations. The library received a grant from the NOAA Preserve America Initiative to have the painting cleaned, restored, and reframed by John Hartmann of Hartmann Fine Art Conservation Services, Inc.

Amber Kerr of the Smithsonian’s Lunder Center examines the Pathfinder painting.


Schuyler Miller of Hartmann Fine Art Conservation Services, Inc.
Schuyler Miller of Hartmann Fine Art Conservation Services, Inc., works on restoring the Pathfinder painting.


A brief history of the ship

The Pathfinder was originally built for surveys of the Bering Sea and maritime approaches to the Klondike and Nome gold fields up in Alaska. Because of its projected working areas and mission, it was designed to be a particularly sturdy little vessel at 196 feet long and with a breadth of beam of 36 feet 6 inches. Although built for Alaskan service, the Pathfinder only completed two missions there when they received orders directing the ship to the Philippine Islands.

U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey ship Pathfinder.

This was a time when the U.S. military presence had increased in the Philippines. In the decade following the Spanish American War—after Spain had ceded the Philippine Islands to the U.S.—many in the Philippines had hoped for independence. This  ultimately led to the Philippine Insurrection. Inaccurate and inadequate charts of the area caused frequent groundings of U.S. military vessels operating in the Philippines. The Navy lost the USS Charleston when it struck an uncharted rock. In response to defense needs, the Army and Navy called for hydrographic surveys by the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey.  

The Pathfinder never returned to the United States and remained in the Philippine Islands, surveying its waters for the next forty years. As with the Coast & Geodetic Survey headquarters building located in Manilla, the Pathfinder met its end at the beginning of World War II. The headquarters was bombed on Christmas Eve 1941 and Pathfinder endured bombing raids over the next few days and was ultimately destroyed.

“Transcending the story of the Coast Surveyors is the sum total of their work,” Capt. Albert “Skip” Theberge (NOAA ret.) said while speaking at the ceremony. “Besides helping open up modern commerce and increasing maritime safety, the charts and surveys produced by the Coast and Geodetic Survey were an invaluable aid to the armed forces of the United States during General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign to retake the Philippine Islands during the second World War.”   

Culture and legacy

For many of the officers on board the Pathfinder, the Philippines was an exotic and exciting place to explore.  The ship’s crew was comprised of officers from the United States with much of the crew being native to the Philippines. They used cutting edge technology for the time and prided themselves on accuracy, precision, and integrity while conducting their work through language and cultural barriers. Coast & Geodetic Survey officers trained generations of Filipinos to conduct survey work from the most basic labor to highly skilled geodesists, topographers, and hydrographers.

Mapping shoreline topography with plane table and alidade.
Mapping shoreline topography with plane table and alidade. Because of crocodiles, working in water was particularly dangerous.

Before the Pathfinder was lost, it was briefly renamed the Research, and served as a training ground for native cadets of the Philippine Coast & Geodetic Survey.  Following the war, this work was continued by the Coast & Geodetic Survey until turning over the work completely to the Philippine government in 1950. Then named the Bureau of the Coast & Geodetic Survey, today it is part of the Philippine National Mapping and Resource Information Authority. This early contribution of the Coast & Geodetic Survey to nation-building is a virtually unique cultural achievement.

Learn more

NOAA Central Library has created a webpage providing an extensive history of the ship including highlights from launching during the era of the Spanish American War to ultimate loss in the Philippine Islands in the early days of World War II.  The page provides a bibliography for further exploration.  

Coast Survey thanks the NOAA Central Library for contributing the content of this blog post.

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