The Mud Fleet: Memories of the Coastwise Trade

[First published in Bay & Delta Yachtsman, San Francisco.]

On a winter’s day between the world wars, the fog lay heavily upon the Oakland Estuary, the narrow water between the Oakland waterfront and Alameda Island. The fog obscured a fleet of wooden ships stranded upon the mudflats, the plumb bows of stream schooners driven hard against the shore. Paint peeled in patches from their hulls and ironwork corroded in the salt air.

Old men attended them, dawdled with their broken gear, and pumped the bilges dry. They talked to themselves or an obliging stranger about the days when the steam schooners dominated the coastwise trade, hauling lumber, passengers, and livestock from the dog holes and outside ports along the West Coast. And sometimes they hauled a more clandestine cargo, cases of liquor concealed between double bulkheads during Prohibition.

The old men recalled the likes of Midnight Olsen and Hog Aleck, Saturday-night Jack and Whispering Winkle, captains of the coastwise fleet, men as old as themselves or dead already. They recited ships’ names like a litany:  Celilo and Bee, Chehalis and Svea, Idaho and Oregon, Wapama, Hanalei and the historic Lakme. There were at least 27 ships intimately associated with the Estuary where they first launched or finally came to rot.

A Graveyard of Ships

The Oakland Estuary first served as a graveyard of ships when the captains and crew of square-riggers abandoned their berths in the Gold Rush of 1849 and left their ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove or the San Francisco waterfront. Eventually, many of the hulks that hampered navigation were grounded on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove and to serve as warehouses and hostelries, jails and bordellos. Those with hulls and rigging still sound were towed up San Antonio Creek, the original name of the Estuary, and laid-up for better times. The same fate later awaited the steam schooners but better times never came, only teredo worms and dry rot, steel ships and diesel engines.

Unlike steel hulls that retain some value as scrap, not much could be salvaged from an old wooden ship, but it was wood that had given the steam schooners a purpose, wood for their hulls and lumber for their cargoes. Lumber was the primary product of the dog hole ports along the coasts of California and Oregon, named perhaps because they offered hardly enough room for a dog to chase its tail. Milled boards were loaded by a wooden chute led to the deck or a wire sling. The dog holes offered only a dangerous anchorage and often a lee shore upon which many a sailing schooner had wrecked. The introduction of the steam engine as an auxiliary provided greater maneuverability and independence to the coastwise fleet. The Lakme was among the first of the sailing schooner converted to steam in the 1880s. Her wooden bones probably still lay buried in the mud along the Estuary’s shore.

In command of the mud fleet was Captain Karl Rohberg who had served the Wilson Brothers as mate and captain for 35-years, 15 of those years as caretaker of the Svea, Idaho, and Oregon, all hard aground on the mudflats. He had been captain of the Svea, once towed through the Golden Gate bottom-side up. She had also earned the distinction of having 100 quarts of whiskey seized from her cargo in Grays Harbor, Washington.

The Oregon rotted near the hulk of the Svea. She had also sailed under the Wilson Brothers’ flag and was one of the coasting fleet that survived the night of February 4, 1921, when a gale, spawned among the Aleutians, battered the west coast with winds clocked at 75 miles per hour. The steam schooner Klamath wasn’t so fortunate. She stranded on the beach near Point Arena and broke apart.

Hull Full of Coffee Beans, Full Head of Steam

Another among the mud fleet was the Bee. She had also once capsized and towed to port. Returning with a cargo of Mexican coffee, with a full head of steam and coal smoke trailing from her stack, she labored heavily in a full gale on her return passage, shipping green water over her bows. She took water in her hold and the coffee beans swelled until they burst her decks. Eventually, she was salvaged and towed to San Francisco where she was condemned to the mudflats and never sailed again but remembered for an odd episode in her history when she hauled reindeer in the Alaskan territory.

In 1892, the Hay and Wright shipyard of Alameda, across the estuary from Oakland, launched the tiny Albion of 214 gross tons. Intended for the lumber trade, she was pressed into service as a passenger and cargo carrier in 1898 when the rush was on again for gold in Alaska. Overladen with passengers and freight, wallowing in the swells and with seas sometimes breaking on deck, the Albion steamed from San Francisco to Alaska and returned with a strongbox full of gold. That such a small wooden ship survived the hard passage was remarkable. That she even attempted it was foolish but the profits realized from the Alaskan trade tempted the more adventurous as well as the more acquisitive. The steam schooner Luella reportedly paid for herself on a single voyage north. The doughty Albion eventually stranded on Stewarts Point, March 21, 1913.

The Hay & Wright shipyard also produced the Phoenix which ended her days on the mud near the yard where she was built, and the Hanalei, which was not so fortunate.

Wreck of the steam schooner Fifield, Bandon, Oregon, February 21, 1916.


Wreck of the Hanalei

On November 23, 1914, the Hanalei was steaming down the coast from Eureka, bound for San Francisco. She carried 34 passengers, 26 officers and crew, and a cargo of lumber, cattle, sheep, and hogs. A heavy sea was running. Visibility was obscured by fog and rain when the watch on deck suddenly saw breakers directly ahead. The engine was backed hard astern and the Hanalei steamed clear but her position was uncertain. She circled in the fog, sounded her whistle, occasionally stopped her engine, drifting and listening and sometimes hearing surf breaking perilously close. Then she stranded with her stern on a reef off Duxbury Point. Her bow was only 300 yards from the shore but she was surrounded by surf boiling in a cauldron of shoals. The Hanalei carried no radio to call for help but the staff of the Marconi Wireless Station at Duxbury Point heard her distress signals. They alerted San Francisco.

The tugs Hercules and Defiance, the Navy transport U.S.S. Rainbow, and the steam Richmond all went to her aid but couldn’t press close enough to the reefs to be of assistance. Lifesaving crews from the Golden Gate and Fort Point Stations had their boats swamped in the attempt, their crews either drowned or washed ashore. Frustrated rescuers lit bonfires on the beach, their haggard faces colored by the fire, their hair damp from the fog, as the surf beat against the shoreline. They were helpless to aid the dying ship.

After 16 hours, debris and bodies began to wash up in the surf. Only 16 passengers of 34 survived.

Most of the steam schooners were fitted to carry passengers although secondary in importance to freight. The 200-foot Celilo was equipped to carry as many as 60 passengers, 20 officers, and a million board feet of lumber, no small accomplishment considering her small size.

On that winter’s day between the wars, the Celilo was among the best preserved of the mud fleet. The electric piano still stood in her main salon. The circular companionway leading to the dining room was still intact and the chairs remained, fastened to the deck, where 38 passengers could be accommodated at a single seating. The curtains still hung over the square ports, smelling of mold. The brass lamp was still secured to the bulkhead above the captain’s bunk, green with verdigris. The Celilo was kept ready to return to service when the shipping rates became more profitable but the Depression descended and the water level in her bilges continued to rise.

Of all the steam schooners that once sailed from San Francisco Bay, loaded redwood from a wire chute in some dog hole on the Mendocino coast, or stood across the Humboldt Bar, only the Wapama remains. She lies crippled upon the stocks at Pacific Drydock, her final disposition uncertain, but it seems appropriate that she is still only a stone’s throw from the Oakland Estuary which witnessed the beginning of so many of the coastwise fleet, and their ending.

Passenger dining salon, steam schooner Wapama.

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