Why was timber being shipped all the way from Seattle to San Francisco? Why not bring down wood from the Sierra Nevada which geographically was much closer? The answer suggests what the Age of Carbon has robbed from us.
People couldn’t bring the wood from the Sierras because at the time there was no easy way to do it. The railroad hadn’t been built yet. Hauling timber down from the mountains by ox or cart wasn’t feasible. And so, as it had been for thousands of years prior, the maritime ruled supreme. For most of human time, river ways were in fact road ways. You could cut vast territory quickly and efficiently by plying the rivers. In the 1800’s the only way to move wood out of the Great North Woods was to float it, eventually to the mills and lumberyards of Chicago. And in the 1850’s it was far easier to ship timber by schooner than muscle it down from the Sierras. Even in the early years of the Gold Rush, timber was barqued 13,000 miles around Cape Horn from New England.
Which tells us something else. You can’t cut big timber without a mill. A mill requires blades. And gear trains and steam or water driven engines. Little of that could be easily had on the West Coast of North America in the 1840’s. So the first west coast mill built in Bodega Bay in 1843 by Stephen Smith was a big deal. It meant that boards could be easily had.
Within a few decades nearly 800 mills lined the coast from the Bay up through the Pacific Northwest. Their sole purpose in the early years was to mill the giant coastal timber stands and ship the cut wood to San Francisco. Originally it was done by square riggers, but by the 1860’s special lumber vessels were being constructed, many coming out of the Bendixsen shipyard in Humboldt Bay. The ships had simple rigging and deck arrangements to facilitate the loading of lumber. Much like with modern container ships, the board cargo was all deck stored.
The three masted 165 foot Wawona came out of the Bendixsen yard in 1897 and ferried timber from Gray’s Harbor down to California for nearly 16 years, after which she was deployed as a cod fishing vessel in the Bering Sea.
The Wawona herself was built of Douglas Fir, fashioned from material that had once been matter parceled from the sea. So for the breadth of her lifetime, from 1897 to 1947, sea energy harvested sea energy to be consumed by humans, or bore sea energy across the ocean, so that it could be cut and planed and hammered and fastened and battened into gingerbread Victorian homes, carapaces for up and coming merchants and gold boom urbanites. In this way ocean was borne onto the land once again.
After the Wawona retired in 1964, she took harbor in Seattle’s Lake Union where she was slated for restoration at the Center for Wooden Boats. For years it was possible to visit and walk aboard her masted carcass. A couple years ago, though, restoration efforts were halted, she was towed to dry dock in 2009, and she was dismantled.
If you’re reading this, you will never in this lifetime or any other have the chance to walk aboard the deck of Wawona.
But picture this: The new millennium, 1900, and the Wawona bucks and canters in heavy surf, her hull tethered to a doghole chute. The sharp knock of called lines and pulleys against spars and mast on a gray afternoon and more to go of an already long day as sailors wire sweet redwood and fir onto the sheltered deck. The winter air reeks of sea lichen, and bladderwort, and the must and rusted pine tar oakum that caulks the decking. Picture the moist grunge, that sludgy wort that grows in the nether space between land and water, crumbling chinked mortar between port cobbles and brick, the living grease of taupe and ambergris mold that slickens the surfaces of skid rows and harbors. It’s 1991 and the spring maritime has wet and chilled the night streets of Pioneer Square and inside the OK Hotel, mud honey, floors sticky with beer and air with sweat and smoke stink and Novoselic and Grohl and Cobain – he’s just a boy yet – drive out Smells Like Teen Spirit.