Last of the lumber schooners: ‘C.A Thayer’

This 10-minute film follows the history of the 216-foot tall ship, ‘C.A. Thayer’, built 1895, a little-known gem of the National Parks at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The Fund for People in Parks supports some of the lower-profile National Park units in the western United States.

After three full careers, and over 100 hundred years, she remains restored and maintained for future generations to be experienced at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The film documents its journey from lumber schooner to fishing vessel, almost being lost to dilapidation and rot, then being lovingly restored through historic carpentry techniques by National Park Service staff and volunteers.

Visit the San Francisco National Park Service for more information.

In 1895, Danish-born Hans D. Bendixsen built ‘C.A. Thayer’ in his Northern California shipyard (located across the narrows of Humboldt Bay from the city of Eureka). She was named for Clarence A. Thayer, a partner in the San Francisco-based E.K. Wood Lumber Company. Between 1895 and 1912, Thayer usually sailed from E.K. Wood’s mill in Grays Harbor, Washington, to San Francisco. But she also carried lumber as far south as Mexico, and occasionally even ventured offshore to Hawaii and Fiji.

Thayer is fairly typical of West Coast, three-masted lumber schooners in size (219′ extreme) and cargo capacity (575,000 board feet). She carried about half of her load below; the remaining lumber was stacked ten feet high on deck, and secured with chain (as illustrated in this 1912 photo). In port, her small crew (eight or nine men) served double-duty as longshoremen; unloading 75,000 to 80,000 board feet was an average day’s work.

After sustaining serious damage during a heavy, southeasterly gale, C.A. Thayer’s lumber trade days ended in an Oakland shipyard, in 1912. But it was really the rise of steam power, and not the wind, that pushed her into a new career. Early each April from 1912 to 1924, C.A. Thayer hauled 28-foot gill-net boats, bundles of barrel staves, and tons of salt from San Francisco to Western Alaska. She spent the summer anchored out at Squaw Creek or Koggiung; the fishermen worked their nets and the cannery workers packed the catch on shore. Thayer then returned each September, her hold stacked with barrels of salted salmon.
Vessels in the salt-salmon trade usually laid up during the winter months, but when World War I inflated freight rates (1915-1919), C.A. Thayer carried Northwest fir and Mendocino redwood to Australia. These off-season voyages took about two months each way. Her return cargo was usually coal, but sometimes hardwood or copra (dried coconut meat, from which coconut oil is pressed).

From 1925-1930, C.A. Thayer made yearly voyages from Poulsbo, Washington, to the Bering Sea codfishing waters (off the Alaskan coast). In addition to supplies, she carried upwards of thirty men north, including fourteen fishermen and twelve “dressers” (the men who cleaned and cured the catch).
At about 4:30am each day, the fishermen launched their Grand Banks dories over Thayer’s rails, and then fished standing up, with handlines dropped over both sides of their small boats. When the fishing was good, a man might catch 300-350 cod in a five-hour period.

After a decade-long, Depression-era lay-up in Lake Union, Seattle, the U.S. Army purchased C.A. Thayer from J.E. Shields (a prominent Seattle codfisherman) for use in the war effort. In 1942, the Army removed her masts and used Thayer as an ammunition barge in British Columbia. After World War II, Shields bought his ship back from the Army, fitted her with masts once again, and returned her to codfishing. With her final voyage, in 1950, C.A. Thayer entered the history books as the last commercial sailing vessel to operate on the West Coast.

The State of California purchased C.A. Thayer in 1957. After preliminary restoration in Seattle, Washington, an intrepid volunteer crew sailed her down the coast to San Francisco. The San Francisco Maritime Museum performed more extensive repairs and refitting, and opened Thayer to the public in 1963. The vessel was transferred to the National Park Service in 1978, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984.

San Francisco National Parks Service