The ship was built in Southampton, England in 1885 and was one of the last large sailing ships built of wrought iron. She was built for the Liverpool company R.W. Leyland & Company, and is named after the Wavertree district of that city.
The ship was first used to carry jute between eastern India and Scotland. When less than two years old the ship entered the "tramp trades", taking cargoes anywhere in the world. In 1910, after sailing for a quarter century, the ship was dis-masted off Cape Horn and barely made it to the Falkland Islands. Rather than re-rigging the ship its owners sold it for use as a floating warehouse at Punta Arenas, Chile. Wavertree was converted into a sand barge at Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1947.
This ship was discovered in 1967 at the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires by an American citizen working on a sand barge and acquired by the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968. The ship were sent to the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires for restoration. In 1969 after restoration was complete, the ship was towed to New York.
The vessel was designated a national landmark on June 13, 1978.