6. The Story of the Wawona

The Wawona docked in Seattle

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.

The Deck of the Wawona

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.


5. The Room of Requirement: The Second Incarnation

Stumptown

The Room of Requirement was built of wood, not water.  How did that come to be?

The story of the first forest

The Russian River opens out to the Pacific at Bodega Bay just northwest of here. From there it winds easterly and northerly through Monte Rio and Guerneville.  It’s fed by many small tributaries, including one, Salmon Creek, that has it’s origins near the small town of Occidental.  For thousands of years, The Chinook would run up the Russian River much as they still do today, depositing themselves in the pools and on the sandbars to spawn and to die. Bear and other predators once ate their carcasses, leaving much of the fish on the forest floor.  The fish provided nearly a quarter of the nitrogen taken up by the riparian forest.  The ocean became fish.  And the fish became trees.

The wood for the Room of Requirement could have been milled near around here in the heavy first generation forest that once layered much of West County.  The first sawmill was built in Guerneville by John Heald, William Willits, George Guerne, and John Bagley.  The first three of the men would go on to establish towns of their own.  Who knows what went south with the fourth?  Nonetheless, they worked with such intent felling the giant redwoods, that the surrounding area eventually came to be known as Stumptown.  Other mills sprung up:  six in Occidental, one in Freestone, many of them supplying timbers for the nascent narrow gauge railroads that were extending their tendrils north.  And once the railroads were in place, the wood could be shipped to the still infant metropolises to the south.  By 1901, however, that area of the Russian River watershed had been largely deforested and many of the mills shut down.  Thirty years prior, so many old growth redwood grew here that the region may have had the densest biomass on the entire earth.

Seattle deforested

The story of the second forest

Or the wood for the Room of Requirement could have come down from the timber stands near Seattle.  Seattle was a late comer in the Anglo settlement of North America. The Denny Party didn’t land in the Puget Sound until September, 1851, but in short order, some members of the pioneer group set the saw blades spinning.  At that time the entire Sound was blanketed in 2000 year old fir standing 400 feet high.  Nothing like that exists in the world today.  Here too, the stands of trees were seasoned and nourished by the vast flow of nutrients that each year swam seasonally up from the Pacific.  Near uncountable number of Steelhead, Coho, and King had over the millennia born a treasure of maritime wealth in their bodies, coursed it up rock and rapid to lay it rest in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.  Functionally the fish were a way to transport potential energy from the ocean upstream in the system and back onto land.  Eventually much of that energy stored in timber mass, through human agency, would find it’s way back to the ocean and to new distant shores where it would one day be released in a conflagration.

Initially the wood was harvested up on the ridge lines of Capitol and Beacon Hill and then slid down on skids (in order for the logs to slide smoothly, the skids were greased by the original grease monkeys, a well-equipped and perhaps racially-tainted slur) to Henry Yesler’s harbor side mill at the base of the slope. There the logs were cut, loaded onto large timber ships that ferried the wood to San Francisco where it was devoured up by the Gold Rush building boom. The muddy timber camp, most likely the first skid row, was a sloppy mess of a place lined with bars and piled with rowdy lumbermen, windfall buckers (those logging mercenaries hired out to buck the worst of fallen trees), sailors and drunks.  Subsequent generations civilized the area into Pioneer Square, but it never really shed it’s cantankerous bearing. A hundred and forty years later on a cold spring Seattle night, Kurt Cobain stood up in a sweaty bar room in the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square and sang for the first time, Smells Like Teen Spirit.  The band was originally called Skid Row. A few years and name changes later, they had become Nirvana.

Grunge music, of course, leads us inevitably to the Story of the Wawona.