Last updated: June 1, 2018
The Sailing Ship Balclutha, a 1,689 ton, three-masted, steel-hulled, square-rigged ship, is located in San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California. The Balclutha played an active role in the development of maritime trade and commerce in the United States including the grain trade between California and England, the Pacific Coast lumber trade, and the Alaskan salmon trade. With the exception of several name changes and a few alterations made during the course of her long career she is essentially the same vessel that was launched in the 1880s. The Balclutha is the last square-rigged vessel afloat on San Francisco Bay and is one of only two American-owned square riggers afloat on the West Coast.
The Balclutha was launched in 1886, by the Charles Connell and Company shipyard near Glasgow, Scotland, and was designed to carry a variety of cargo all over the world. The Balclutha spent her first few years working the grain trade between California and England. In 1899 she was transferred to Hawaiian registry, and for three years sailed to Puget Sound, Washington, and then to Australia. The Balclutha was the last ship to sail under the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai'i and in 1901, a special act of Congress admitted her to American registry. This allowed The Balclutha to operate up and down the West Coast. In 1903, the Alaska Packers Association, a San Francisco-based firm which harvested and canned salmon, chartered the Balclutha to carry men and supplies north to the salmon canneries in Alaska.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Alaskan salmon canning industry experienced a period of rapid expansion. Between 1878 and 1949, 134 U.S.-owned salmon canneries were built along the coast of southeastern Alaska. In the 1920s this growth propelled the U.S. to its position as the largest producer of canned salmon in the world. As production increased, many Pacific Northwest canneries became dependent on labor from outside of Alaska. Chinese laborers, many of whom had experience fishing for salmon off the California coast, made up the bulk of the early cannery workforce. Chinese workers participated in every step of the canning process and were employed in a variety of positions from butchering fish to manufacturing and labeling metal cans.
The enactment of various Chinese Exclusion laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries stopped Chinese immigration to the U.S. and cannery contractors began hiring Japanese and Filipino workers to meet labor demands. Anti-immigration laws passed in the early 1920s limited Japanese and other Asian immigration and the cannery industry saw an influx of Filipino workers due to their status as U.S. nationals. The division of labor in most canneries was largely based on race, rather than ability, and as a result Chinese laborers often worked in less-skilled, lower-paying positions than their Caucasian counterparts.
Because of the salmon canning industry's largely seasonal nature, most canneries experienced a high turnover rate and often hired foreign labor through contractors. Contractors provided canneries with workers, transported them, and provided them with food in exchange for a set amount of money from the canneries. This system was open to abuse, and numerous accounts exist of contractors taking advantage of non-English speaking Asian workers – from skimping on food to charging exorbitant prices for low-quality gear to running off with pay at the end of the season.
Under the Alaska Packers Association (APA), the Balclutha and other ships served as the primary means for transporting contracted laborers from San Francisco, California to Karluk, a port town on Kodiak Island in southern Alaska. Following a 1904 wreck along the Alaskan coast, the APA purchased full ownership rights to the Balclutha and funded salvage repairs to refloat the ship. The APA also renamed the her the Star of Alaska, part of a policy requiring the use of "Star" as a prefix for the names of APA vessels. Under this new name, the former Balclutha sailed for almost three decades as a member of the APA's "Star Fleet."
Between 1906 and 1930, a typical fishing season for the Star of Alaska would begin with the ship sailing up the coast from San Francisco and anchoring in Chignik Bay in southern Alaska. The salmon season covered seven months of the year, with most ships departing San Francisco in April and returning in October or November. The 2,400 mile journey from California to Alaska typically took around three weeks to complete. During this time, and on the subsequent fall return voyage, several hundred men – fishermen, contract laborers, and the ship's crew – lived together on board the ships.
In 1925, the APA purchased its first large steamship, marking the beginning of the end for the sailing vessels of the Star Fleet. The Star of Alaska was one of only five wooden ships that made the journey to Alaska in1928. She made her final Alaskan voyage during the 1930 canning season – the only sailing ship to do so that year – before being retired upon returning to San Francisco in the fall.
After the end of her career with the canning industry, the Balclutha was purchased by Frank and Rose Kissinger and renamed the Pacific Queen. The Kissingers took the ship south to Catalina Island, California, where she appeared as an "extra" in the 1933 film Mutiny on the Bounty featuring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. For a time the Kissingers toured up and down the West Coast, exhibiting the Pacific Queen as a "pirate ship." She was eventually moved to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and opened to the public, remaining there until 1941, when she was towed to South San Francisco and then to Sausalito to provide space for cargo vessels during World War II. Rusting and slowly deteriorating, the Pacific Queen narrowly escaped being salvaged for scrap metal during the war.
In 1952, the Kissingers brought the Pacific Queen back to San Francisco and in 1954, the San Francisco Maritime Museum purchased the deteriorating ship for $25,000. With donations of cash, materials, and lumber from the surrounding community, the Museum restored the vessel and returned her original name, the Balclutha. The National Park Service acquired the Balclutha in 1978, when the San Francisco Maritime Museum became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (NRA). The Balclutha was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and the ship and museum were administered by Golden Gate NRA until the establishment of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in 1988.
Today, visitors to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park may explore the Balclutha, which is moored at the Hyde Street Pier near Fisherman's Wharf in downtown San Francisco. The ship's 'tween deck holds an award-winning multimedia exhibit on the important cargoes the Balclutha carried around the world and the stories of the people who depended on them for their livelihood. In addition, the Park offers ranger-led guided tours of the Balclutha and seven other historic sailing ships and vessels including the C.S. Thayer, a three-masted wooden schooner built in 1895, which carried lumber for the West Coast lumber trade and fishing crews to Alaska for salmon and cod.
The Sailing Ship Balclutha, a National Historic Landmark, is a part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park Service, located at 499 Jefferson St. (at Hyde), San Francisco, CA. For more information, visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park website or call 415-447-5000.