Friday, October 28, 2016

Sawmills on Puget Sound

Puget Sound Maritime historian Joe Baar shares his timeline of the early sawmills on Puget Sound along with some thoughts on their importance to the Mosquito Fleet and other local shipping.

Stetson and Post Sash and Door Company Mill, Seattle, 1882, Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Williamson Collection, Neg. 1741-84.

A sawmill’s economic purpose is to extract wealth from the natural world by processing timber into lumber. Sawmills embodied the first mechanical infrastructure in the Puget Sound region after European settlement began during the early 1850s. By the mid-1860s Puget Sound’s mills were exporting lumber to customers around the world, and the earnings from this trade attracted population and investment to the region.

Lumber was Washington State’s leading product in 1889, valued at more than $15 million then, or in today’s terms, almost $400 million. Statewide, lumber production increased from 1.2 trillion board feet in 1889 to 7.3 trillion board feet 40 years later, in 1929.

Sawmills fundamentally consist of machinery. The mill assembled on Henry Yesler’s beach in 1853 had three main parts: a 12-horsepower steam engine, a boiler, and a 48” circular saw. Wear and tear on machinery in use requires constant maintenance to keep the plant in service. We can imagine, then, every sawmill on Puget Sound would likely have a machine shop and possibly a foundry to provide replacement parts for those worn out or broken during the mill’s operation. The alternative to these ancillary services would have been a 6- to 9-month wait for spare parts shipped from San Francisco or New York; this downtime would be long enough to bankrupt most mill owners, so the mill’s capability to repair itself was a critical issue.

Port Blakely Sawmill with lumber ship, possibly the Forest Friend. 
Courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection.

Steamers of Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet also used machinery for motive power, and just as with the sawmills that preceded them, their machinery was subject to wear, tear and breakdowns. Sawmills dotted throughout the area could always restore worn or broken parts much more quickly than they could be shipped from distant manufacturers, and probably at a better price. Finally, in 1882 Robert Moran and his brothers started a ship-repair business at Yesler’s Wharf in Seattle, so 29 years after the first powered vessel came to Puget Sound, maintenance and repair services specific to maritime needs were at last available on a large scale in this region.

  • 1828 Hudson's Bay Company establishes a sawmill at Fort Vancouver
  • 1846 Great Britain cedes territory south of the 49th parallel to the U.S.
  • 1847 Puget Sound Milling Co. leases land 8/20 at Tumwater and incorporates 10/25; purchases mill equipment from HBC for $300 in lumber, delivered to Fort Nisqually @ $16/M board feet
  • 1848 January, California gold rush begins at Sutter’s (saw)mill, Coloma, California
  • 1851 Denny Party lands on Alki beach; Henry Yesler, in San Francisco, asks John McClain to order components for a steam-powered sawmill, to be shipped to Seattle
  • 1852 May, Henry Yesler’s mill machinery is shipped from NYC: 12-hp steam engine, boiler, 48” circular saw
  • 1852 October, Henry Yesler arrives in Seattle and convinces Boren and Maynard to give him a 500-foot wide parcel between their properties for the public good 
  • 1852 Puget Mill Co. at Port Ludlow established with 2 sash saws by John R. Thorndike and W.P. Sayward
  • 1853 late March, Henry Yesler’s mill machinery is assembled on the beach at Seattle and cuts its first log: price $35/M board feet (=$976.50 today)
  • 1853 Josiah Keller, Andrew Pope & William Talbot form Puget Mill Co at Port Gamble
  • 1853 William Renton forms Port Blakely Mill
  • 1853 September, Port Gamble mill in operation with a muley saw
  • 1853 Washington Colony Mill on Whatcom Creek established by Henry Roeder, Russell V. Peabody at Whatcom Creek falls
  • 1854 Port Madison mill moved from Apple Tree Cove by George A. Meigs
  • 1855 Treaties replace the Donation Land Act of 1850, white settlement proceeds
  • 1856 Marshall Blinn and William Adams form a corporation in San Francisco to establish a sawmill at Seabeck under the corporate name of Washington Mill Co; their intention is to supply lumber to the gold rush cities of California
  • 1856 Battle of Seattle
  • 1858 February, Lawrence Grennan & Thomas Cranney’s Saw Mills established at Utsalady
  • 1858-9 Port Discovery Mill established by S.L. Mastick & Co., of San Francisco, at Discovery Bay’s Mill Point on the W. shore at Broder’s Road
  • 1858 Fraser River gold rush
  • 1858 July, Sarah Yesler arrives in Seattle
  • 1858 Port Ludlow mill is leased to Amos & Phinney, later to Pope & Talbot
  • c.1859 Maynard Mill established on Discovery Bay south of Port Discovery Mill, in the bight at the S. end of the Bay
  • 1862 Port Gamble mill ships lumber to 37 ports worldwide, Cape Town to Shanghai
  • 1869 March, Henry Yesler’s new mill begins operation, double the capacity of his first facility
  • 1876 After Lawrence Grennan’s death, Thomas Cranney sells his Saw Mill at Utsalady to Pope & Talbot’s Puget Mill Co.
  • 1877 Seabeck’s population is 400, Seattle’s is 3,100 whites
  • 1880s Logging railroads and more robust roads bring down the cost of transporting logs by land enough to allow logging farther than 2 miles from the nearest body of water
  • 1882 Moran Brothers begin a marine repair business at Yesler’s Wharf
  • 1883 Bellingham’s Colony Wharf opens
  • 1886 August, Seabeck’s Washington Mill burns; Seabeck is abandoned until 1914
  • 1890 Bellingham’s Ocean Dock constructed by Fairhaven Land Co – lumber interests
  • 1890 Port Ludlow mill closes
  • 1893 February, The Panic of 1893 begins
  • c.1894 Puget Mill Co. moves Cranney’s Utsalady mill machinery to other P&T mills
  • 1895 James A. Loggie rents (Washington) Colony Mill at Whatcom falls from Roeder & Peabody and renames the company Whatcom Falls Mill Co.
  • 1897 Bellingham’s G Street Wharf opens
  • 1898 Port Ludlow mill re-opens
  • 1898 Klondike gold rush
  • 1903 Towns of Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham and Fairhaven consolidated as Bellingham
  • 1903 Whatcom Falls Mill Co. establishes a new plant at the foot of “Q” St
  • 1904 Moran Brothers Shipyard launches battleship USS NEBRASKA
  • 1909 A-Y-P Exposition, Seattle
  • 1913 Bellingham’s Citizens’ Dock opens
  • 1914 Laurence Colman and Arn Allen rehabilitate Seabeck as a YMCA town
  • 1918 Bellingham Municipal Dock opens
  • 1920 Port of Bellingham formed
  • 1935 Port Ludlow Mill finally closes
  • 1936 Kenneth Burwell Colman incorporates the Seabeck Conference Grounds as the Seabeck Christian Conference Center, until 1981
  • 1940 Whatcom Falls Mill Co. is dissolved
  • 1995 Port Gamble’s Puget Mill closes

-- Joe Baar

Moran Brothers Shipyard, Seattle, undated, with lumber ready for loading. 
Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ghost Ships at Work

A lovely panorama of a Puget Sound marina with snow-capped mountains. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

But wait! What's really going on here? What is familiar about that shape in the middle with the small forest growing out of it?

This is actually the ship La Merced, once a proud schooner, now a permanent part of a breakwater for nautical businesses on Guemes Channel at Anacortes.

Over fifty years La Merced has created its own ecosystem. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

La Merced was built in 1917 in Benicia California, during the ship-building boom of World War I. She carried petroleum products for Standard Oil and other concerns. Like so many of the big ships, she was eventually converted for us as a cannery in Alaska. In 1966 she was sold to Lovric Shipyard in Anacortes where she was filled with sand and dirt and grounded on a bed of rubble. The ship was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

La Merced at Anacortes, circa 1966. Photo, National Register of Historic Places.

There are a number of examples of ships used as breakwaters. La Merced is a bit unusual among these in that the hulk is raised completely out of the water and thus readily visible. In most cases, ships enlisted into service as breakwaters have been sunk to the waterline or just above, with only portions visible at low tide.

D-Day -- June 6, 1944

The most notable historical example are the ghost ships of Normandy -- a flotilla of American and British merchant ships on a suicide mission. As the Allies prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy in an all-out assault on the entrenched German forces, somewhere between 50 and 100 old er or damaged ships limped across the English Channel to be deliberately sunk as part of the complicated landing strategy devised for the treacherous beaches. Called "corncobs," these hulks did their part to create breakwaters to protect troop transports.

The Ghost Ships of British Columbia

We have several examples of ship breakwaters in our own backyard -- almost. Three such installations exist on the inner coast of Vancouver Island -- at Royston, Kelsey Bay, and Oyster Bay, as well as one at Powell River on the mainland of British Columbia. All were built in service of the lumber industry beginning in the 1930s, creating sheltered harbors -- uh, harbours -- for log booms. The Powell River group is the largest floating hulk breakwater in the world, according to Tourism Powell River. The 10 concrete-hulled ships, many of them damaged in service to the U.S. Army, are sunk 12-15 feet underwater and held in place by concrete anchors. 

Ship breakwater at Royston, Vancouver Island. Photo, Gerry Thomasen, [Creative Commons]

A number of the Vancouver Island hulks have Puget Sound connections. The St. Paul is an 1874-built clipper ship which ended her days afloat as a museum ship berthed at Seattle's Hiram M. Chittenden Locks during the 1930s. In 1942 she was towed up to Oyster Bay and sunk. The five-masted barkentine Forest Friend was built in Aberdeen in 1919 and served, naturally enough, the lumber trade, including mills on Puget Sound and Lake Washington. However, her career lasted barely a decade, far less than the St. Paul, before damage and legal troubles sidelined her. At some point in the 1950s she was "holed, sunk, and used as a breakwater," according to her registry. (James) A floating drydock from Puget Sound is an even more unusual addition to the Oyster Bay breakwater.

The St. Paul under tow out of Seattle, circa 1923. 
Courtesy Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (Williamson Collection)

  • Rick James, The Ghost Ships of Royston (Vancouver: Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, 2004).
  • Rick James, "Fine Old Ships of Yesteryear continue to serve...but perhaps for not much longer," Resolution (Maritime Museum of British Columbia), Winter 1995, pp. 13-17.
  • Joseph Israels II, "Ghost Ships at Normandy," New York Tribune Inc., November, 1944.
  • National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form for La Merced, 90000588.
  • Brochure: The Giant Hulks Tourist Information, Tourism Powell River.

--Eleanor Boba