From San Francisco to Mendocino by Steam Schooner in 1907

The following was written by Richard Hooker in 1967

There was a time when reaching some our favorite spots [along the Mendocino Coast] required a major expedition, whether by boat, stage, train or horseback, and frequently by a combination of these. Each of these methods of travel is a story by itself, and this time we will talk about going by coastal steamer to Mendocino in [1907].

Place yourself on a Monday afternoon ….. in San Francisco. You would already have been to the ticket office a few days before …. to buy your ticket in advance and find out which pier your steamer would leave from. Usually this was the sea wall next to the coal pier at the foot of Mission Street. Departure time would be four in the afternoon, so you would get there a while before and go aboard, give your ticket to the purser and be shown to your cabin.

The cabin wouldn’t be much bigger than a rope locker, a hole-in-the-wall bunk room, opening either off the dining room blow the poop deck, or directly off the poop deck itself. The bunks were against the wall opposite the door, maybe two – maybe three, with just enough floor space for one person to stand at a time. There would be a wash station, supplied by a small tank on the wall, and a couple of coat hooks, but nothing more, since no one thought of undressing to go to bed. It used to be said on the [Mendocino] coast that anyone with clothes that looked like as though they’d been slept in, had probably just come in on a steam schooner.

What you would also notice, consciously or not, was the little green can in a holder alongside the head of each bunk. If you didn’t know by sight what it was for, because this was your first trip on a steam schooner, the faint but pervasive smell in the little room might tell you.

The Golden Gate before the Bridge

You would have been told which bunk was to be yours, and might even meet your cabin-mate at this time. One thing would be certain, you’d have to take turns with him about going to bed or getting up, since as we mentioned, only one person had room to do this at a time.

The last whistle would be blown, the gangplank taken in, the lines cast off, and out into the stream you would go. If the wind and fog weren’t bothersome, you might stay on deck to enjoy the trip through the Gate, but once clear of the Heads, and moving out into the North Channel across the bar, the chances were that you had now decided not to answer the steward’s call for dinner. The ship would be riding the north-west swell, and the pitch and roll of a steam schooner riding light in the water on its run up the coast, were well calculated to test any person’s sea legs. Some of your fellow passengers would simply have turned in for the night before the ship was through the Gate.

But, if you weren’t feeling queasy, you would enjoy supper in the dining room below, and then sit around talking with the other passengers. If the managers of the ship really tried to cater to passengers, there might even be a coin-operated mechanical piano – the ancestor of our modern juke-box, and just as noisy. But, there wasn’t really much to do so you would turn in early.

Wharf at Point Arena

At three or four in the morning, you would be rousted by a commotion that meant you had reached Point Arena. Here the ship would come in along the north side of the wharf, and drop off some passengers. Then, with another whistle blast, the ship would back out by turning around the head of the wharf and head out to sea to work around the Point.

Later in the morning, you might be up for breakfast, and wonder if you would be “on time” in Mendocino. Well, if you could get up for breakfast, you would be “on time,” but if it was too rough …… you needn’t worry about getting up, since the steamer would have to remain at sea until things calmed down enough to be able to get into port.

The Chute at Mendocino

We’ll, say that the weather was good, and that you would be out to watch the arrival in Mendocino, which was always of interest, especially to a newcomer. As the steamer headed in the bay, the crew would be getting the work boat ready. When the ship came up to the head-mooring, the boat would be dropped in the water and the crew would take the head line over to fasten it. Then the ship would swing around and get into position opposite the Point, bow headed out to sea, while the work boat ran lines to the other moorings.

Coming ashore from a Sailing Schooner. In the early days there was no “box”

Then the men would fish up a wire from the bottom of the bay on the off side. This done, the boat would go inshore, and bring a wire out from the chute house on top of the Point. The two wires would then be coupled with a large slip hook so as to ride over the side of the ship while the boat went inshore to pull out a large pulley block which handled a continuous line that worked as a traveler. The whole rig would then be tightened up.

There would then be an exchange of whistles between the ship and chute house, and out would come the traveler with a square, high sided box hanging from it. When this was set down on the deck, a door on the side would be opened, and you would join other passengers in going into the box. More whistles, and up and out you would go, riding up the wire to the Point, where you would be set down on the platform at the front of the chute house, and you got out.

Regular travelers by steamer took all this in their stride, but not every first-time visitor was happy about the system.

Coming ashore from the Sea Foam. Note that the ship is moored facing out into the ocean in case of inclement weather.

If you didn’t like the wire, you would have hoped on the way up the coast, even though you’d been more uncomfortable that the sea would be just rough enough to cause the steamship to go into the alternate port of Little River [now Van Damme State Park]. There was a wharf there, and getting ashore there didn’t involve a spectacular ride through the air.

Of course, if it was really rough, you didn’t go ashore anywhere until the sea calmed down. If the wait stretched out to two or more nights of being tossed in your cabin (as it did once in a while) you paid what attention you still could to the green can, and the whole experience would be a little of a strain.

Wharf at Little River

And so, you reached Mendocino (or Little River) at a cost of seven or eight dollars one way, meals and berth included. [$8 in 1907 would be worth $178.50 in 2011. This] should shatter any illusions you may have that travel is more expensive than it used to be. If …. you were travelling light with a bed roll and a “box lunch” you would have slept on deck or in the hold for three dollars one way.

Nonetheless, your business had been fairly incidental to the operators of the steam schooner. Once you and the others had landed and gone up town, the serious business begun of getting all the merchandise ashore for the local stores.

Steam Schooner Pomona loading in Mendocino Bay

After this began the loading of the lumber for the trip back to the City, and, if you had had enough of a visit you could leave two days after you arrived, to go back.

Otherwise, you could take the stage to Cloverdale for the train, or wait a week for the next steamer. Yes, a weekend in Mendocino is a modern invention.

Does this seem like a lot of lost time? Well, it was better that it had been a half century before, when sailing schooners were the only way, and a Monday afternoon departure would put you, if all went well, in Mendocino on Thursday morning.

Richard Tooker

Richard Tooker was born July 2, 1917 in Syracuse, New York and raised in Canajoharie. He graduated in 1938 from Syracuse University and moved to San Francisco, California in 1942 were he began working for Southern Pacific Railroad. He later worked for a travel agency and then for Social Security Administration until 1980.

In 1959, Mr. Tooker began traveling the coast of Northern California as part of his interest in scuba diving. He started accumulating photographs and researching the local history related to the lumber trade which included the various ports and dogholes for loading cargos on coastal vessels such as steam schooners. He conducted oral history interviews with locals and collected photographs especially of the Casper Lumber Company activities in Mendocino, California. He wrote and published short articles in the CenCal News, the newsletter of the Central California Council of Diving Clubs from 1963 to 1972. In 1980, Mr. Tooker began regularly volunteering at San Francisco Maritime Museum and was eventually hired to work in the Historic Documents Department where he remained until his retirement in 1995. Mr. Tooker died in San Francisco, California on August 8, 2000. His photographs are in a repository at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. The above piece was originally published in the Dec-Jan edition of the Cen-Cal news.