Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s

Pioneer Captains

January 18, 1885, The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, Oregon


My article on pioneer stage drivers last week was so well received that I have been tempted into a sketch of some of the pioneer coast navigators, which I shall follow up with recollections of some of the early river men on the San Joaquin and Sacramento.

San Francisco. 1850.

First and foremost of all the coast navigators of my day, I place Captain W. Dall, who commanded the little steamer Columbia in the trade between Portland and San Francisco from 1860 to 1861. The Columbia had been originally built to ply between New York and Charleston, S.C., as an Opposition boat to the Spofford & Tileston line. But as the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had the contract to carry the Oregon mails as well as those for California, they found they must either use her or buy a new boat. That route consisted of six or seven stops along the road, to Mendocino Mills, Humboldt Bay, Trinidad, Crescent City, Port Orford and Port Umpqua with occasional stops at Coos Bay and Shelter Cove. This required a good bar boat and, as the Columbia had been built with special reference to crossing Charleston bar, which is always dangerous in winter, the ship was purchased and sent out around the Horn, arriving in San Francisco late in 1860.

It took several months to fit her for the new and perilous route, and in the meantime Captain Knight, who was the agent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company at San Francisco, began to cast about him for a commander for her. San Francisco was full of men who had been to Oregon and knew all about the Columbia river bar, but Captain Knight did not see fit to lure any of them. He knew very well that a man who was really a competent handler of steam vessels could learn the bar and forget it again in half the time that any of these alleged pilots could learn to handle a boat. Moreover, it would be rank injustice to ambitious subordinate officers to hire an outsider for captain while so many deserving young mates were working hard in the hope of speedy promotion.

The glorious old steamship Oregon, long since made into a sailing vessel, and sunk by a collision with the ship Germania, was the favorite vessel of the San Francisco people because she was the one that had brought the welcome news of the admission of California into the Union. Her sister ship, the California, was commanded by Carlisle P. Patterson, a navy man and a martinet of the worst stamp. The Oregon was commanded by Captain R. H. Pearson, first officer, Richard L. Whiting second officer, W.I. Dall boatswain, E.S. Farnsworth chief engineer, James Pollock.

All these men subsequently rose to distinction in the company's service, Whiting being the best liked in California, while Dall had his legion of loyal friends in this state. Before the Columbia was ready for sea, Captain Knight called Messrs. Whiting and Dall into the office and told them that Captain Patterson would go east in about sixty days to take charge of the new steamer Golden Gate and bring her around the Horn, which would create a vacancy in the command of the California and that Captain Whiting could either have command of the Columbia at once, or wait for the California sixty days. As the captains on the Panama route then got a primage of 2-1/2 per cent on all the gold dust shipped to New York, amounting to over $2,000,000 every trip, Whiting concluded to wait for the California and Dall took the Columbia to open out the Oregon trade. As he left the office, Captain Knight called him back and told him that as there was no gold dust primage on this route, he would be allowed to carry forty tons of Oregon produce to San Francisco free of charge for three years to make his compensation equal to that of the Panama captains, and that for these reasons he should expect first class service. Dall pledged his word to give him no cause for complaint, and how he kept his word every pioneer resident of Oregon will testify more abundantly than myself.

During the time that the Columbia served this route and prior to the time that the growing trade of Portland and its tributaries demanded a larger vessel she had a toilsome trip of it, for she had so many way landings that the voyage was seldom made in less than six days. She called at Mendocino Mills, which has had a separate steamer calling there for the past sixteen years, stopped in at Humboldt Bay, which now employs three steamers all larger than the Columbia, called in at Trinidad and Crescent City, which now maintain a special line of their own, and also at Port Orford, where the Coos Bay steamers land for eight months in the rear. She laid the foundation of all this trade. She has two side-lever marine engines, long since displaced by the walking beam, while it in turn has given way tot he upright compound. She was of about 600 tons burthen, and one of the most buoyant wooden vessels ever built. When Hall would get to the bar he would call up his pilot -- either Wass or Hustler -- and they would lash themselves to the bridge. Then the gallant little ship would head for the breakers, and, fair or foul, always came through. I do not write these word sin praise of Dall with any idea of belittling Captains Holles, Debney, Alexander or Polsman, with all of whom I am on friendly terms. But it cannot be denied that all these gentlemen, who are commanding vessels three times as large as Dalls' was, are profiting largely by his experience and this is more specifically true from the fact that half the reefs now well known to the veriest tyre in coastwise navigation were not then laid down on any chart whatever.

He had also to cross eight bars on every round trip, to their two bars, and besides there were the dangerous roadsteads of Crescent City, Port Orford and Trinidad, all of which have long since been put into other routes. So I fail to see where he suffers by comparison with any other man who ever commanded steamers between here and San Francisco -- even poor old Frank Conner, for whom I entertained an almost filial degree of affection. Dall's perilous voyages up and down this coast would fill a book, but owing to his extreme modesty they are long since lost to the world.

In General Keyes book about his life on this coast and elsewhere, he tells about crossing the bar in the old steamer California in 1838 (unsure of date), under command of Captain Dall. He says that the steamer collapsed a flue off Chinook spit, which is true, and he says the ship took fire under her boilers from the coal being blown out of the furnaces, which is also true. But his story about the pilot deserting his post when he saw the steam going down and the ship drifting stern into the breakers, is evidently something on which the narrator did not expect a contradiction. Captain Jackson G. Hustler of Astoria was pilot of the ship and now resides in that city. He said to me, the other day,

"What an infernal liar that Keyes is, to be sure. He knew that Bill Dall is dead and not here to contradict him or he would never dare to say such a word as that. I have piloted thousands of vessels over this bar and I have yet to hear the first word of complaint from any master who ship I have handled, and if a man were ever so big a coward by nature, the presence of such a man as Bill Dall would encourage him and hold him up to duty. Then there is the cock-and-bull story about him and his soldiers taking the hose down stairs into the fire-room and helping the firemen and coal-passers to put out the fire. You know enough about ship discipline to know that the hose is always under charge of the deck officers and no passengers would be allowed to touch it. Now I don't remember this Keyes, nor any other officer in that lot except old General Wool, and he was calm and marble itself."

The rest of them were all huddled up to windward and as badly panicked as a lot of sheep in a fence-corner with a panther a watchin' 'em. Then he says we finally got more steam and made our way up to Astoria in an hour. Why the Good Lord bless your soul, we were nearly four hours a getting here from the bar for wind, tide and everything else was against us. I suppose he thought that because Captain Dall and General Wool were dead, everybody else was dead too, and he could write what he liked." This perilous affair was only one of a thousand in which Call's superior seamanship and dauntless courage saved not only his ship but scores of valuable lives.

Dell had his brother, Christopher C. Dall, with him as first officer part of the time; also Charles Taylor, who was drowned on the Central America, M. R. French, who perished at the wreck of the Northerner on Blunt's Reef, W. Burch, who lost his life at the burning of the Golden Gate, as others.

An Underground Drinking Cellar San Francisco, 1884

Underground Drinking Cellar.

I have dealt at greater length upon Dall than I otherwise should have done for the reason that he was the architect of this magnificent freight and passenger traffic . . . His loss of the Northerner was something for which he was not to blame. He had an old ship, with bad boilers and a small engine; hence he had to keep in sore and take his chances to get smooth water. In doing so he encountered heavy fog, during which he got his ship ashore.

In person, Captain Dall was short and wiry, with . . . quick and restless eyes. He died some years ago, leaving a neat fortune to his wife and one child. Shortly after his leaving the line, the Pacific Mail Company sold this route, together with the steamships Orizaba, Sierra Nevada, J. J. Stephens and one or two others to Ben Holladay. About the same time, the California Steam Navigation company purchased from C. K. Garrison the steamers ?? and Brother Jonathan. The former was placed on this route in charge of Captain George W. Staples, energetic Yankee sailor of great personal magnetism. He commanded one or the other of these ships alternately until early in 18?? when he got into a quarrel with a southern gambler named Patterson at Arragonis Hotel and while following him upstairs was shot dead. Loud threats of lynching Patterson were mute that night, but the movement wanted a leader as Patterson was not only a desperate man, but a good shot and able to kill two or three of them before they got him. So the thing was abandoned and the law left to take its course; a verdict of self-defense was rendered by the jury. Samuel J. DeWolf was the first officer of the ship and took her back to San Francisco, where he was made captain of her. He was lost on the Brother Jonathan in 186?. Patterson was afterwards shot dead in a bather's chair at Walla Walla . . .

Captain James H. Blethen should fill a larger space in these memories than I am able to give him. His debut in steamship life was as commander of the unlucky North America. She was a walking-beam ship, of lighter frame than the Brother Jonathan, if such a thing were possible, with a second-hand engine, taken from the old steamer Niagara, which formerly had run to Albany. She made one transatlantic voyage to Galway during the great London exposition and returned to New York so badly strained that a certificate was refused her for any trade crossing the western ocean. They hauled her out and put in extra timbers into hull and about forty tons of scrims, bolts, after which they sent her around the Horn to California. By having good weather all the way she reached Panama and took passengers that had come from New York in that smart little steamer, The United States, which whom she reached San Francisco in safety. On her return trip, she was stranded on . . . forty odd lives lost. Blethen has been at times seriously censured for this, but I doubt if there was any justice in such censures. He had a weak ship and knew that there was a heavy gale them blowing off California and had his ship . . . (quite a bit of unreadable text . . . search ongoing).

Blethen was taken into the Nicaragua line and given command of the Sierra Nevada upon the death of Captain J. Payton Wilson. When he left "the dear old Sally," as Ben Holladay called her up to the very hour he was succeeded in command by Thomas Huntington, who is still living and in command of the Mexico, by long odds the fastest and best steamship ever built on these Pacific shores.

Blethen subsequently was captain of the Orizaba, Moses Taylor and a number of other vessels. Huntington subsequently made a great many trips in the Sierra Nevada and gave up his command to Captain Francis Conner.

San Francsico 1800s.

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Robert Stanley Bates, George Marsh (Editor), John F. Whiteley (Forward) (Batek Marine Publishing, 2011; Nominated in 2012 for a Pulitzer Prize)
This book depicts important aspects of our maritime history as a result of original research done by the author, Commodore Bates, the holder of an unlimited master's license who has enjoyed a distinguished fifty-year career in both the Coast Guard and the American Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Coast Guard issues all Captain Licenses for U.S. Ports.
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The Sea Chart
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The Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.
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The sea chart was one of the key tools by which ships of trade, transport and conquest navigated their course across the oceans. Herein is a history and development of the chart and the related nautical map, in both scientific and aesthetic terms, as a means of safe and accurate seaborne navigation. 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by 13th-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as 18th-century charts that became strategic naval and commercial requirements and led to Cook's voyages in the Pacific, the search for the Northwest Passage, and races to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition. Charlie  Wing.
Charlie Wing
Considered the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to prepare for the U.S. Coast Guard captain's ratings exams required for anyone who takes paying passengers on a boat, and useful for serious boaters who want to save money on insurance. 350 pages of seamanship and navigation tutorials. More than 1,500 questions and answers from the Coast Guard exams. Includes an interactive CD-ROM with all 14,000 questions and answers in the USCG database, so you can take an unlimited number of practice exams

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Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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