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Wawona -- Pacific Lumber and Codfishing Schooner

HistoryLink.org Essay 2072 : Printer-Friendly Format

The schooner Wawona, launched at Fairhaven, California, in 1897, was the largest three-masted sailing schooner ever built in North America. For 17 years, the Wawona hauled lumber up and down the Pacific Coast. In 1914, she was sold to the Robinson Fisheries Company of Anacortes, Washington, and for the next 30 years was employed in the Bering Sea codfishing trade. In 1964, a group of concerned citizens from King County, Washington, purchased her in an effort to preserve her as a maritime museum. The Wawona became a National Historic Site in 1970, the first ship in the nation to be listed on the National Register. Stricken with water intrusion and a beetle infestation, the Wawona was reluctantly deemed too expensive to restore and was demolished in 2009.

The Age of Wood

Wawona was launched on September 12, 1897, at the H. D. Bendixen Shipyard in Fairhaven, California. Wawona was built to haul lumber for the Dolbeer & Carson Lumber Company of Eureka, California, and originally cost $29,075.

For 17 years, she carried sawn lumber, harvested from the primeval forests of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, up and down the Pacific Coast. Wawona is a Yosemite Indian name for the Northern Spotted Owl, believed to be the guardian of the forest.

At 166 feet in length and with a beam of 36 feet, she was the largest three-masted sailing schooner ever built in North America. Designed for easy handling by her crew, she was built as a baldheaded (no topmasts) schooner -- a schooner is a fore-and-aft rigged sailing vessel (the sails lie in the direction of the ship's length), frequently with one or more sails gaff-rigged (having an upper spar), as all three of the Wawona's large sails were. Her builder, Hans Bendixen, was a Danish shipwright who arrived in San Francisco in 1863. His shipyard, established in 1879, eventually built more than 75 schooners  and four square-rigged ships.

From Lumber to Fish

In 1914, Wawona was sold to the Robinson Fisheries Company of Anacortes, Washington, for employment in the Bering Sea codfishing trade. Each spring for the next 30 years, Wawona was loaded with salt for preserving fish, coal for cooking and heat, and a six-month supply of provisions and fresh water.

She then sailed west by northwest, some 2,000 miles, through Unimak Pass and into the Bering Sea. She was crewed by 36 men. Commercial cod fishing was then done from small dories with handlines. From dawn until dusk, the fishermen brought in codfish by the dory-full, sometimes as many as 10,000 fish a day. They counted, cleaned, and salted the catch down in the hold. The work was backbreaking and dangerous.

Wawona would stay on the fishing grounds until the beginning of winter storms before returning to homeport. By 1940, Wawona is said to have set the all-time total catch record by a single vessel at 6,830,400 codfish.

The United States government conscripted Wawona during World War II. Her masts were removed and she was put to work as a barge to haul supplies from Puget Sound to Alaska. In Alaska she was reloaded with yellow cedar for the aircraft industry. She was re-rigged in 1946, and had two last seasons of codfishing. Her sister ship, C. A. Thayer, now located at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco, was the last sailing schooner to make the trip to the grounds in 1950.

Wawona sat unused in port for nine years. In 1953, a partnership headed by cattle rancher William Studdart purchased her to carry cattle to the Soviet Union, but this venture quickly failed when the Soviets declined to give the company permission to trade.

Wawona Is Saved -- and Lost

In 1964, "Save Our Ships," a group of concerned citizens from King County, purchased Wawona in an effort to preserve her as a maritime museum. They moored the ship in Kirkland, Washington, from 1964 until 1981. It was then moved to the south end of Lake Union in Seattle. Save our Ships later changed its name to Northwest Seaport.

Wawona became a National Historic Site in 1970, the first ship in the nation to be listed on the National Register and  a reminder of an industry that shaped the growth and history of the Northwest.  In 1977 the Wawona was designated a Seattle landmark. After her listing on the National Register, the Wawona spent nearly three decades educating visitors and serving as a very visual example of the region's history.  But even as the schooner's role in the historical community grew increasingly prominent, time and the water were taking their inevitable toll.

In 2005, water intrusion followed by a beetle infestation highlighted the vessel's deteriorating condition.

Faced with an estimated $15 million bill to repair her severe decay, Northwest Seaport made the difficult decision to demolish the Wawona. Portions of the ship were salvaged during the 2009 demolition process. Artist John Grade used some 20 to 30 huge slabs of Douglas fir from the ship to create massive a 56-foot-tall tree-trunk-shaped sculpture -- named Wawona -- which was installed in a prominent location in the former Naval Reserve Armory, located on the South Lake Union shore near where the schooner Wawona had been moored for decades, when that building became the new home of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in 2012.

Harriet Tracey DeLong, Pacific Schooner Wawona (Bellevue: Documentary Book Publishers Corp., 1985); Eric Lacitis, "Lake Union Voyage Last For Wawona," The Seattle Times, March 5, 2009, p. B-1; Wayne Palsson, Richard and Anna Linzer, and Shannon Fitzgerald, "Final Report: The Wawona Summit, December 7-9, 2005, Seattle, Washington," Northwest Seaport website accessed October 21, 2015 (http://nwseaport.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/wawona_summit.pdf); Jon Silver, "MOHAI's 'Wawona': 11,000 pounds of wood and steel moves with a gentle push," Daily Journal of Commerce, February 14, 2013 (https://www.djc.com/news/co/cis.html?id=12050014).  
Note: This essay was updated on March 5, 2009, and updated and revised on October 21, 2015.

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Courtesy Joe Williamson

Wawona on the Duwamish River, 1972
Courtesy Northwest Seaport

Courtesy Joe Williamson

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