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The West Coast lumber trade was a maritime trade route on the West Coast of the United States. It carried lumber from the coasts of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington mainly to the port of San Francisco.
As late as the California Gold Rush, New England lumber was still carried 13,000 miles around Cape Horn to San Francisco. But that started to change when Captain Stephen Smith (of the bark George Henry) established the first west coast lumber mill in a redwood forest near Bodega, California, in 1843. By the mid-1880s, more than 400 such mills operated within the forests of California's Humboldt County and along the shores of Humboldt Bay alone.
At first, the lumber was shipped in old square-riggers, but these aging ships were inefficient as they required a large crew to operate and were hard to load. Soon local shipyards opened to supply specialist vessels. In 1865 Hans Ditlev Bendixsen opened one of these yards at Fairhaven, California on Humboldt Bay adjacent to Eureka. Bendixsen built many vessels for the lumber trade, including the C.A. Thayer, now preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. He constructed 92 sailing vessels between 1869 and 1901, including 35 three-masters.
The lumber schooners were built of the same Douglas fir as the planks they carried. (Schooner Oregon Pine was named after the tree.) They had shallow drafts for crossing coastal bars, uncluttered deck arrangements for ease of loading, and were especially handy for maneuvering into the tiny, Northern California ports. Many West Coast lumber schooners were also rigged without topsails, a configuration referred to as being baldheaded. This rig simplified tacking into the strong westerlies when bound north. Crews liked baldheaders because no topmast meant no climbing aloft to shift or furl the sails. If more sail was desired then it could be set by being hoisted from the deck.
The demands of navigating the Redwood Coast, however, and a boom in the lumber industry in the 1860s called for the development of handy two-masted schooners able to operate in the tiny dog-hole ports that served the sawmills. Many sites along this stretch of coast utilized chutes and wire trapeze rigging to load the small coastal schooners with lumber. Most of these ports were so small they were called dog-hole ports—since they supposedly were just big enough to allow a dog to get in and out. Dozens of these were built, and almost any small cove or river outlet was a prime candidate for a chute. Each dog-hole was unique, which was why schooner captains often sailed back and forth to the same ports to load. The mariners were often forced to load right among the rocks and cliffs in the treacherous surf.
The schooner rig dominated the lumber trade, since its fore-and-aft rigging permitted sailing closer to the wind, easier entry to small ports, and smaller crews than square-rigged vessels. These ships needed to return to the lumber ports without the expense of loading ballast. Shipyards built some smaller schooners with centerboards that retracted. This helped the flat-bottomed vessels to enter shallow water.
At the time of the construction of the barque Hesperus in 1882, Jackson writes, "the form of the West Coast lumber vessels had become well established and were a radical departure from the New England built ships." Because lumber is a bulk cargo that does not require shelter, and is difficult to stow below decks, lumber ships from yards such as the Hall Brothers in Port Blakely, Washington were built without the between decks of the New England "Downeasters." "Close to half of their cargo was stowed as deckload – that is above deck."
Jackson also writes that a triangle trade had developed at this time, with "lumber out to Australia, coal to Hawaii, and sugar to San Francisco. It should be noted that the return cargoes were compact and heavy, thus no need for the conventional deep hull form.".
Recently, evidence of the local trade in Northern California was unearthed when a historic oven used in Fort Bragg from 1909 until 2003 was discovered to be built with "hundreds of century-old bricks, many stamped with the name of the California brick factory from which they had come: Richmond, Stockton and Corona." Press coverage states that "these bricks had come north from San Francisco as ballast on lumber ships. In the years after the 1906 quake, Fort Bragg sent tons of timber to the city to be used in rebuilding. Coming home, the ships used bricks from Bay Area factories for weight and for new construction in Fort Bragg."
Soon steam schooners (wooden but powered) replaced the small two-masters in the dog-hole trade and larger schooners, such as the still existing C.A. Thayer and the Wawona, were built for longer voyages and bigger cargo. West Coast shipyards continued to build sail-rigged lumber schooners until 1905 and wooden steam schooners until 1923. In 1907 observers noted the increase in size of schooners. The first three-masted schooner built on the Coast was launched in 1875. It was also the first lumber schooner to exceed 300 tons. Ship wrights built the first four-master in 1886 and the first five-master in 1896. The later were more generally involved in the overseas trade. Sail schooners grew from fifty to 1,100 tons during this period. More than 50 major shipbuilders operated on the Pacific Coast during the era of the coast wise schooners. Demand for coastwise lumber shipping continued until after the First World War and total lumber transported by the railroads did not exceed its seaborne competition until about 1905. Even in the 1870s mills shipped lumber directly from some dog-holes to Asia and South America.
Eventually, however, steam-powered vessels proved more dependable than sail, and railroads gained greater penetration of the coastal regions. Sailing vessels continued to compete with steamships and railroads well into the 20th century, but the last purpose-built lumber schooner was launched in 1905.