CA Thayer History

Lumber Schooner

In 1895, Danish-born Hans D. Bendixsen built C.A. Thayer in his Northern California shipyard (located across the narrows of Humboldt Bay from the city of Eureka). She was named for Clarence A. Thayer, a partner in the San Francisco-based E.K. Wood Lumber Company.

Between 1895 and 1912, Thayer usually sailed from E.K. Wood's mill in Grays Harbor, Washington, to San Francisco. But she also carried lumber as far south as Mexico, and occasionally even ventured offshore to Hawaii and Fiji.

Thayer is fairly typical of West Coast, three-masted lumber schooners in size (219' extreme) and cargo capacity (575,000 board feet). She carried about half of her load below; the remaining lumber was stacked ten feet high on deck, and secured with chain (as illustrated in this 1912 photo). In port, her small crew (eight or nine men) served double-duty as longshoremen; unloading 75,000 to 80,000 board feet was an average day's work.

After sustaining serious damage during a heavy, southeasterly gale, C.A. Thayer's lumber trade days ended in an Oakland shipyard, in 1912. But it was really the rise of steam power, and not the wind, that pushed her into a new career.

Salt-Salmon Trade

Early each April from 1912 to 1924, C.A. Thayer hauled 28-foot gill-net boats, bundles of barrel staves, and tons of salt from San Francisco to Western Alaska. This deck view shows her underway, in 1914. She spent the summer anchored out at Squaw Creek (see photo) or Koggiung; the fishermen worked their nets and the cannery workers packed the catch on shore. Thayer then returned each September, her hold stacked with barrels of salted salmon.

Vessels in the salt-salmon trade usually laid up during the winter months, but when World War I inflated freight rates (1915-1919), C.A. Thayer carried Northwest fir and Mendocino redwood to Australia. These off-season voyages took about two months each way. Her return cargo was usually coal, but sometimes hardwood or copra (dried coconut meat, from which coconut oil is pressed).


From 1925-1930, C.A. Thayer made yearly voyages from Poulsbo, Washington, to the Bering Sea codfishing waters (off the Alaskan coast). In addition to supplies, she carried upwards of thirty men north, including fourteen fishermen and twelve "dressers" (the men who cleaned and cured the catch).

At about 4:30am each day, the fishermen launched their Grand Banks dories over Thayer's rails, and then fished standing up, with handlines dropped over both sides of their small boats. When the fishing was good, a man might catch 300-350 cod in a five-hour period.

After a decade-long, Depression-era lay-up in Lake Union, Seattle, the U.S. Army purchased C.A. Thayer from J.E. Shields (a prominent Seattle codfisherman) for use in the war effort. In 1942, the Army removed her masts and used Thayer as an ammunition barge in British Columbia. After World War II, Shields bought his ship back from the Army, fitted her with masts once again, and returned her to codfishing. This bustling photo (ca. 1946-50, P9,8493.) illustrates her post-WWII period.

With her final voyage, in 1950, C.A. Thayer entered the history books as the last commercial sailing vessel to operate on the West Coast.


The State of California purchased C.A. Thayer in 1957. After preliminary restoration in Seattle, Washington, an intrepid volunteer crew sailed her down the coast to San Francisco. The San FranciscoMaritimeMuseum performed more extensive repairs and refitting, and opened Thayer to the public in 1963. The vessel was transferred to the National Park Service in 1978, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984. After three full careers, and over 100 hundred years, she remains -- restored and maintained for future generations -- to be experienced at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

The Lumber Trade

As late as the California Gold Rush, East Coast vessels still hauled New England lumber 13,000 miles around Cape Horn to San Francisco. But that soon changed. Captain Stephen Smith (of the bark George Henry) established the first PacificCoast lumber mill in a redwood forest near Bodega, California, in 1843. And by the mid-1880s, more than 400 mills operated in California's Humboldt forest region alone.

At first, lumbermen shipped their planks to market in old East Coast square-riggers. But these aging ships were inefficient -- they were hard to load and required a large crew to operate. The booming lumber industry needed specialized vessels, and it wasn't long before shipyards sprang up to supply them.

Hans Bendixsen opened one such yard at Fairhaven, California, in 1865. Bendixsen built many vessels for the lumber trade; in addition to C.A. Thayer he constructed ninety-two sailing vessels between 1869 and 1901 -- thirty-five of them three-masters.

Sailing 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 called "dog-holes").

Many West Coast lumber schooners shared another feature: they were rigged "baldheaded"-- without a topmast. This rig simplified tacking into the strong westerlies when bound north. They did carry topsails, set on the "pole" sections of the mast, but the sails were much smaller and easier to handle than on the standard topmast rig. Most of the work on the topsails could be done from the deck.

Even though lumber schooner crews had to load and unload their own cargo, most sailors preferred a "coastwise" berth to going "deepwater." At $30 a month ($40 for the man who ran the steam-donkey engine), the pay was good. And the coastwise ships had a reputation for being "good feeders" (serving good food, and plenty of it). Lumber schooner crews, unlike those of deepwatermen, often stayed together for many voyages.

Inevitably, progress overcame the sailing ships. Steam-powered schooners proved more dependable and cost effective. Although sailing vessels like C.A. Thayer competed with steamers (and railroad boxcars) well into the 20th-century, the last sailing schooner commissioned for the lumber trade slid down the ways in 1905.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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