As late as the California Gold Rush, New England lumber was still carried 13,000 miles around Cape Horn to San Francisco. But that started to change when Captain Stephen Smith (of the bark George Henry) established the first west coast lumber mill in a redwood forest near Bodega, California, in 1843. By the mid-1880s, more than 400 such mills operated within the forests of California's Humboldt County and along the shores of Humboldt Bay alone.
At first, the lumber was shipped in old square-riggers, but these ageing ships were inefficient as they required a large crew to operate and were hard to load. Soon local shipyards opened to supply specialist vessels. One such yard was opened in 1865 by Hans Bendixsen at Fairhaven, California. Bendixsen built many vessels for the lumber trade, including the C.A. Thayer, now preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. He constructed ninety-two sailing vessels between 1869 and 1901 including thirty-five three-masters.
The lumber schooners were built of the same Douglas fir as the planks they carried. They had shallow drafts for crossing coastal bars, uncluttered deck arrangements for ease of loading, and were especially handy for maneuvering into the tiny, Northern California ports. Many West Coast lumber schooners were also rigged without topsails, a configuration referred to as being baldheaded. This rig simplified tacking into the strong westerlies when bound north. Crews liked baldheaders because no topmast meant no climbing aloft to shift or furl the sails. If more sheet was desired then it could be set flying by being hoisted from the deck.
The demands of navigating the Redwood Coast, however, and a boom in the lumber industry in the 1860s called for the development of handy two-masted schooners able to operate in the tiny dog-hole ports that served the sawmills. These ships paid and fed well by the standards of the day. They loaded wood, tanbark and other bulk cargos. Usually the two-masters carried no fore-topmast and sailors said they had “a mast-and a-half.” They dominated the trade from the ‘50's through ‘80's and there may have been as many as three hundred. They generally ranged in size from 100 to 300 tons.
The schooner rig dominated the lumber trade since its fore-and-aft rigging permitted sailing closer to the wind, easier entry to small ports, and smaller crews than square-rigged vessels. These ships needed to return to the lumber ports without the expense of loading ballast. Shipyards built some smaller schooners with centerboards that retracted. This helped the flat-bottomed vessels to enter shallow water.
Each dog-hole was unique which was why schooner captains often sailed back and forth to the same ports to load. The mariners were often forced to load right among the rocks and cliffs in the treacherous surf. A former schooner master said, “You couldn’t use a deepwater skipper for that kind of work. He would die of fright. Sailing right up to the cliffs–you’ve got to get used to it. A deepwaterman never did.”
Soon steam schooners (wooden but powered) replaced the small two-masters in the dog-hole trade and larger schooners, such as the still existing C.A. Thayer and the Wawona, were built for longer voyages and bigger cargos. West Coast shipyards continued to build sail-rigged lumber schooners until 1905 and wooden steam schooners until 1923.
In 1907 observers noted the increase in size of schooners. The first three-masted schooner built on the Coast was launched in 1875. It was also the first lumber schooner to exceed 300 tons. Ship wrights built the first four-master in 1886 and the first five-master in 1896. The later were more generally involved in the overseas trade. Sail schooners grew from fifty to 1,100 tons during this period. More than 50 major shipbuilders operated on the Pacific Coast during the era of the coastwise schooners. Demand for coastwise lumber shipping continued until after the First World War and total lumber transported by the railroads did not exceed its seaborne competition until about 1905. Even in the 1870s mills shipped lumber directly from some dog-holes to Asia and South America.
Eventually, however, steam-powered vessels proved more dependable than sail, and railroads gained greater penetration of the coastal regions. Sailing vessels continued to compete with steam ships and railroads well into the 20th-century, but the last purpose-built lumber schooner was launched in 1905.