The Historical Place of Matthew Turner by Associate Professor Tim Lynch


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Presentation Delivered by Tim Lynch,
Associate Professor at California Maritime Academy, CSU
Presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History 2012

In Cod: Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, author Mark Kurlansky argues that this particular species of fish made possible voyages of discovery and exploration, financed revolutions, and fueled international conflict. His work, while highly readable, is somewhat short-sighted. For all his discussions of the Atlantic codfishery, for example, he neglects its Pacific cousin. He is not alone. Traditionally, the codfishing industries have been associated almost exclusively with New England. Numerous works have been penned that speak to the development and evolution of these twin pillars of maritime history, and most speak exclusively to that locale. Despite the work of Ed Shields, whose 2001 contribution Salt of the Sea depicted the rise of the Pacific codfishery in the waning days of sail, the West Coast in general and the San Francisco Bay region in particular have received scant attention. Likewise, the shipbuilding industry that grew up to support the nations’ codfishery—and other maritime endeavors—has been overly connected with East Coast facilities, despite the presence of a major yard in nineteenth century San Francisco.

This paper attempts to place Matthew Turner of San Francisco and Benicia into his proper historical context as the founder of the Pacific codfishery and as the nation’s foremost sailing ship builder. Many of his craft were designed expressly for the Pacific codfishery, and the proceeds from that activity allowed him to further develop and refine his shipbuilding interests. During his career, his yards produced some 228 vessels, more than any other individual American shipbuilder. The results of his activities were both far-reaching and far-ranging.

Matthew Turner was born in Geneva, Ashtabula County, Ohio in 1825. In 1843, at the age of 18, he acquired his master’s certificate, and he spent some time in command of various lake vessels. As a young man he apprenticed in the shipbuilding industry that was scattered along the Great Lakes, an activity that culminated with his launching of the George Roberts, a Lake Erie schooner, in 1847. With the Gold Rush, Turner joined the mass migration to the Sierra Nevada, arriving in May of 1850 after a lengthy voyage that included an isthmian crossing.

While mining along the Calaveras River, Turner met the Englishman Richard Thomas Rundle; like our subject, Rundle was a Sea-Captain who had been attracted to the region by the promise of gold, and the two would remain close friends and business partners throughout their lives. Turner enjoyed moderate success as a miner, plugging along for three years, before returning to San Francisco, where he used the proceeds from that activity to purchase the coastal schooner Toranto. This he employed in the lumber trade between San Francisco and the Mendocino Coast, sometimes partnering with Rundle, who opened a mill along the Redwood Coast, but working primarily for Harry Meiggs, a man for whom he constructed a wharf in San Francisco. When Toranto proved insufficient to the growing demand for lumber, Turner returned briefly to the East Coast where he acquired the schooner Lewis Perry, driving her through the Straits of Magellan where his vessel rescued the crew of a disabled British steamer. After a stint as a merchant in Valparaiso and Buenos Aires, Turner returned to San Francisco, with the 120 ton brig Timandra.

For the next decade, Turner was a sailing ship captain on the Pacific, trying his hand at various exploits. Among these were far-ranging expeditions that introduced Turner to both the codfishery and the South Pacific trade, while also fueling what would be “the single most productive individual shipyard in American history.”

In 1857, while on a voyage to the Amur River region, Turner’s brig Timandra was unable to ascend through the ice-choked river and harbored at Castor Bay in the Gulf of Tartary. The crew amused themselves by fishing, and caught great quantities of cod: it was the first recorded catch of codfish by an American vessel in the Pacific. Returning in 1859, with an experienced crew of fishermen, Turner discovered additional fisheries in the Sea of Okhotsk. By 1863 he was supplying over 20 tons per annum to San Francisco, a figure that quintupled by 1864. In that year, he opened the first codfish processing facility in California, a plant that remained on Yerba Buena Island, and acquired an additional schooner, Porpoise, to fish in the waters off Alaska, thereby establishing a second successful Pacific codfishery. The 45-ton Porpoise had been built in New England and used in the Atlantic codfishery; its lengthy voyage round Cape Horn in 1864 proved that it was up to daunting conditions it would encounter in the North Pacific. While Atlantic codfishing vessels proved adequate to similar activities in the Pacific, they proved deficient in the performance of other tasks.

The proceeds from this activity allowed Turner to finance additional ventures: since the mid-1850s Turner had extensive commercial interests in the Society Islands. By 1866 he maintained a warehouse in San Francisco to handle the growing general cargo from Tahiti, as well as extensive holdings in Papeete. While Timandra and Porpoise were well-designed for the codfishery, they were ill-suited to the task of bringing tropical produce from Tahiti to San Francisco: often cargos delivered to the mainland rotted during the typical 34-day voyage. His inability to deliver tropical produce from his holdings in Papeete to San Francisco in a saleable condition irked him; in the search for speed under sail, he returned to the craft of his youth and began designing and building vessel with an innovative adaptation to the characteristics of Pacific coast sailing conditions. Undeterred, Turner set about building vessels expressly for the interisland trade that would be fast enough to save the cargo; he also began to build local codfishing vessels to replace those that had previously come via the Cape, or lumber schooners that had been pressed into service to meet the demands of the codfishery.

Turner’s experiences as a master mariner in the Pacific taught him some important lessons. The capricious wind and weather systems suggested to him that vessel designs should be modified to deal with this reality. Weather conditions and the prevailing winds are considerably different on the Pacific from those found elsewhere and this was reflected in the design of the ships. In 1868 he built the brig Nautilus at Eureka, a lumber port in northern California. Utilizing radical design elements, Turner achieved startling results. In a perhaps-apocryphal tale, it is said that Nautilus, was instrumental in bringing citrus from the South Pacific to California, and he is sometimes credited with introducing that industry to the state. Henry Hall described Turner’s genius:

“ …these were not simply copies of vessels which had proven satisfactory in other waters, but were the product of particular circumstances and conditions. He discarded the old plan of the broadest beam at two-fifths the length from the bow, made his models long and sharp forward and full aft, giving them more of a rake than is usual …by bringing the anchors, chains and weights further aft he produced a class of stiff, fast vessels. The speed was augmented by an innovative new sail design: the Bermudian sail – cited as the precursor to the modern triangular yacht sail—was used for both his brigs and the mainsail of two-masted schooners. Again, his experiences in sailing on the Pacific Ocean showed him the utility of that sail style, which could be let go in sudden and violent squalls, and brought on deck with great ease…” The boom was long but at the head the sail tapers down to a point as in Chesapeake Bay boats. The topsail was a long stretch of canvas, passing down to the outer end of the boom.. the rig has been found of value.”

By 1875, his reputation already well-established, Turner acquired property for a shipyard in San Francisco, and this facility began an impressive period of production, averaging one launching per month for the next eight years. During that period, Turner built a number of sugar ships for both Claus Spreckels and William Matson; these beautiful craft linked Hawaii to the mainland, while others catered to the South Seas packet trade. Among those he produced were Claus Spreckels, Consuelo, and Tropic Bird (all commissioned for the sugar trade): since these were registered in the Kingdom of Hawaii, it has led one historian to surmise that Turner probably built more ships for foreign registry than any individual since the Revolution. The vessels had, like his earlier creations, a reputation for speed: speed (one, Galilee, made the run from San Francisco to Papeete in 22 days, still a record, while another ran from Astoria to Shanghai in 23 days, and others reportedly made it from mainland to Hawaii in less than ten days). Other craft were intended for domestic use: these included Gracie, a San Francisco bay pilot boat, Equator—commissioned for Robert Louis Stevenson, and a number of vessels that were instrumental in establishing both offshore and Bay yachting. Among these were Lurline, built for William Matson , which won three of the first four transPac races, Wanderer, eventually owned by the actor Sterling Hayden, and others that competed regularly in matches along the West Coast. Turner himself was quite the yachtsman (a point I hope to drive home in the months leading to San Francisco’s impending America’s Cup) serving as measurer of the San Francisco Yacht club for many years.

In 1883, feeling the pinch of rising real estate prices in the city proper, Turner relocated to Benicia, a deepwater port some twenty-five miles inland, well situated on the Carquinez Straits. His activites were not affected: over the next quarter century, he built 168 vessels, and his total of 228 ranks him as the “most prolific sailing shipbuilder in American history.”

While graceful yachts, speedy sugar ships and sleek South Seas packets earned Turner praise, it was a growing number of utilitarian vessels that paid the bills. Schooner after schooner slid down his Benicia ways, joned by every imaginable craft: Turner constructed South Sea trading vessels, pilot boats, yachts, Pacific Coast trading vessels, floating drydocks, most of the United States’ pelagic sealing schooners, steam whalers, tugboats, steam schooners (one of which he operated himself to capitalize on the high freight rates to be found after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake…though it should be noted that he also donated four ships to assist in the salvage and rescue operations following from that disaster) , scows, gas auxiliary schooners, barges, barkentines and barks.

In addition to sheer volume then, Turner’s ships ranged far and wide and had an impact on maritime trade and commerce beyond California, or the Pacific coast. From the South Seas and to the Arctic Circle, from the Pacific Northwest to the Sea of Japan and from Australia to the Sacramento river, Turner’s legacy was extensive.

Though extensive, today, Turner’s legacy is all but forgotten. In his adopted hometown of Benicia, an elementary school bears his name, and some relics of his activity can be found at various Bay Area locales, but he has largely faded from popular memory.

An appreciation for the impact of Matthew Turner on American maritime history is long overdue. As founder of the Pacific codfishery and as prodigious shipbuilder, he deserves much wider respect and recognition. I hope this paper is one step in achieving those aims. Thank you.