Lumber Schooners of the Redwood Coast

In the mid-nineteenth century, the sawmills and lumber towns of Mendocino County were isolated from the more settled places that lined San Francisco Bay. The lack of roads, the ungainly North Coast mountains, and the abundant rivers and streams made overland travel difficult and dangerous. Lumber schooners provided the only viable conduit between frontier towns and the civilized world. It was a ship, in fact, that triggered the lumber boom along the redwood coast.

Sketch of Lumber Schooner [Public domain] lumber schooners

The Wreck of the Frolic

In the summer of 1850, the brig Frolic, bearing a full load of cargo from China, broke up on the rocks in what is now known as Frolic Cove near the village of Caspar. Hearing of the wreck ten days later, San Francisco tycoon Henry Meiggs commissioned a salvage operation to retrieve the valuable goods. Jerome Ford, the man dispatched by Meiggs to assess the situation, found very little cargo to recover but discovered another treasure in its stead: copious amounts of virgin redwood, there for the taking. Within two years, Meiggs and Ford established a sawmill on the southwestern point of the Mendocino Headlands.

Dog Holes and Schooners

The square-rigged clipper ships and brigs customarily used to ship cargo to the East Coast and overseas were far too large and bulky for the tight, rocky coves found in early lumber towns. Such places were so small, said the first sailors on the scene, a dog would have trouble turning around in them. The image stuck and the coves were commonly referred to as dog hole ports. Smaller, more agile ships were needed to make the required tight turns or quick responses to difficult sailing conditions. The answer was the schooner, which not only had a shorter, shallower hull, but triangular sails that afforded better handling. As an added bonus, this smaller class of ship and the rigging of its sails required fewer sailors than did the bulkier brigs and clippers. With the introduction of the steam windlass to hoist and lower anchors, ships were often manned by crews of eight or fewer men.

Lumber Schooners: Risky Business

Illustration from DOG-WATCHES AT SEA by Stanton Henry King [Public domain] lumber schooners

Illustration from DOG-WATCHES AT SEA by Stanton Henry King [Public domain]

Even with a nimble ship, sailing into a dog port and loading or unloading cargo was a constant challenge. A ship might find itself becalmed just short of its destination, waiting for days on end for the wind to stir. Many ports lacked wharves or were too rocky for ships to enter. Shallow, squarish boats called lighters that hauled lumber out to the ships might be doused by a rogue wave and lose its load, or it might be thrust against the ship it was servicing.

Schooner captains were highly skilled pilots but their ships still struck rocks, capsized, became stranded on sandbars, ran aground, or broke up in violent Pacific storms.

Some schooners survived for decades while others met premature and tragic ends. In The Doghole Schooners, Walter A. Jackson chronicles dates when schooners were put into service, when they perished, number of lives lost, and the financial losses incurred by their owners. Ship owners and lumber merchants could lose a fortune overnight.

Businessmen and sailors weren’t the only ones at risk. In Mendocino City: A Daily Journal 1852-1938, W. Francis Bacon recounts a disaster that occurred on November 10, 1865. A brig anchored in Mendocino Bay was imperiled by a vicious winter storm. Seeing the crew in distress, townspeople dispatched a rowboat to retrieve the sailors. Both the brig and rowboat capsized during the attempted rescue and twelve people perished. Half of them were townspeople.

Shipwrights began designing schooners specifically for dog hole ports. Elaborate wharfs, slings, and chutes were developed to improve delivery of lumber, railroad ties, shingles, and bark to the ships in port. Huge investments were made in the hope of reducing accidents and maximizing profit. A cadre of sailors, the Scandinavian Navy as it was often called, routinely sailed between the Mendocino ports and major cities like San Francisco to deliver mail and supplies and take on cargo bound for markets to the south.

Sunset of the Age of Sail

Lumber towns and dog hole ports continued to pop up along the coast throughout the nineteenth century. As their output increased, so too did the demand for greater shipping capacity. Steam-powered ships first appeared as ferries on San Francisco Bay and packet ships to and from South America. These steamers offered stability, power, and capacity unmatched by the sail-rigged schooners. Wood and coal-burning steamers gradually replaced the graceful sailing vessel that had been a mainstay for so many years.

Line Drawing of Rope and Anchor lumber schoonersBut the steamer’s days were numbered. Bridges and trestles were being constructed. Roads snaked through the forests and down the coast. Railroads cut through the mountains and straddled rivers. Stagecoaches rumbled through towns, carrying passengers and mail. Just as the romantic days of the sail had quietly drawn to a close, so too did the day of the steamer. And as Mendocino County greeted a new century, it greeted another arrival…the automobile.

4 Replies to “Lumber Schooners of the Redwood Coast”

  1. Another enjoyable post, Keith. I’ve learned much of the history over the years but you put it very well and concisely. I’d hoped but couldn’t zero in a Sonoma County woman’s story to tell but had thought she might have been a mill owner on our coast….guess I’ll stick to mining country, in Bisbee this time.
    Looking forward to your finished project.

    • Thanks, Arletta. I rely on Mills of Mendocino County for most of the information about mill owners, when the mill opened, and what type of mill it was. I wonder if someone has done the same for Sonoma County? Though the lumber boom, such as it was at the time, blew through the central Bay Area, Marin, and Sonoma rather quickly.

      Thanks for the kind feedback.

  2. The schooners visited the waters of Puget Sound for lumber as early as 1850 to feed the building boom in San Francisco. Seattle grew around the first steam powered sawmill on the sound. Logs were skidded out of the woods to the water and then floated to mills such as at Port Gamble. The logs were generally squared up into 16 inch by 16 inch sizes to make shipment more efficient.

    After the transcontinental railroads sawmills were “rail” mills where wood was often cut to marketable sizes and “cargo” mills for shipment via ship.

Thoughts, questions, or comments?