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Tugboats, Log Rafts, Wrecks & Flames

One of the problems an historian faces is starting with a simple thought—I would like to know more about the log rafts pulled along the Mendocino Coast a century ago—and pretty soon the researcher has notes, print outs, photos and the realization that the simple idea had a complex but interesting history.

Almost one of my first questions was—If tying logs together with chains into a raft and pulling the raft to southern California was such a good idea what did they pull that raft with?

My knowledge of shipping was based on a childhood alongside the San Diego Harbor watching tugboats move vessels too big to maneuver themselves along crowded waterfront piers. So, simplistically, I thought “Oh, log rafts must have been moved by tugboats too!” Only one problem with this idea…there weren’t any tug boats on the Mendocino Coast.

San Francisco Bay had them, Humboldt Bay, the Columbia River, Puget Sound, and even small ports like Bandon Oregon had them, but there was never enough demand to have one stationed near here.

So to step in and take on log raft towing when it came time to move the locally produced rafts what was used to pull them? Steam schooners it seems. Not being a mariner I find the idea of a small steam schooner with a chain pulling a raft hundreds of miles to be mind boggling. To the folks in the shipping industry it was just another day”s work.

Back to tugboats…This researcher been a fan of tugboats since reading the Little Golden Book called “Scuffy the Tugboat.”

As a form of transportation they’ve been around since the early 1800’s.

If a vessel was disabled at sea a tug could pull it to port. If a difficult river bar had to be crossed, like the one at the mouth of the Columbia River, a tug could pull a sailing vessel across it to open waters. Barges of coal, grain, or oil could be towed along the coast. A famous towboat along the Pacific Coast was the “Hercules” which was built in 1907 with a steam engine and resides in the San Francisco Maritime Museum where it is still fully operational.

But searching museum archives there was infrequent mention of tugboats locally. Occasionally they would be sent by a salvage company in the city to pull a ship to be saved off the rocks at high tide but none were stationed locally. The Mendocino Beacon accounts of tugs would mention in September 1898”…the tug “Rescue” passed Point Arena pulling a big log raft” and in July 1938 “…the tug “Hercules” succeeded in towing an immense log raft— but reports did not say where the tugs came from.

Let’s look at the steam schooners that were adapted to do the towing.

Excuse me, but this is NOT the vessel this historian would expect to do that job. These vessels were small, carried deck loads of lumber, general merchandise for stores, and a few passengers and were NOT work horses, but they were here and available. Starting in the 1880’s and for the next 35 years they were busy hauling log rafts south.

Know how hard and unmanageable it is to pull a car behind a vehicle with a chain?. It is slip and slide with little control. Yet steam schooners were busy pulling 1,000 foot long log rafts with a chain thrown over their sterns. From Beacon archives it was noted in September of 1889 “…steamers “Emily” and “Noyo” tried to pull a raft of logs from Noyo Harbor but it went to pieces.” It was noted the chain itself cost more than $500. In September 1890 the steamer “Noyo” did make it to San Francisco in three days and did not lose a log. In 1938 the steamer “Benito Juarez” helped the tugboat “Hercules” pull the remains of a broken log raft into San Francisco Bay.

Interestingly when faced with a maritime disaster the Beacon never named the tugboats involved. The story about another broken log raft in 1938 stated “…the tug continued south and another tug was dispatched,” but no names were given.

To get back to this researchers question about log rafts let’s start with a simple question. Why assemble a raft of logs and pull it 1,000 miles to a lumber mill in Southern California? If there are perfectly good sawmills from Mendocino Country north to Canada. Why not just turn logs to lumber near shipping points and send it off to market? The simple answer is SUNSHINE! Fresh cut lumber is wet and heavy. Heavy things are expensive to ship. In some manner, like stacking fresh lumber in sunshine, or placing it in a dry kiln indoors, the boards need to season and dry out. Lighter boards are easier to ship and are ready to use. The Mendocino Headlands on the south side of Main Street, from the bridge to the shipping point was stacked high with drying lumber for decades.

Rolling logs into a river and letting the current carry the log to the sawmill saved time, energy and money and loggers had figured this out long ago. All over the world there are traditions of river drives if terrain allows. Finland, southwest Germany, Spanish Catalonia, the Netherlands, and Canada all did this, as did Michigan, Connecticut, Oregon, Maine, Idaho and areas along the Mississippi River. Here on the coast Big River log drives were famous for careful planning, removable dams, and high water to float logs 30 miles from the back country timberlands to the mill.

Log drives were handled by River Pigs. It was the term given to the trained teams of men who worked a river drive. The experienced men formed the Jam Crew that broke up log jams and kept everything moving downstream and the newcomers formed the Rear Crew that pushed straggling logs back into the flow of water.

Oregon timber baron Simon Benson hired a raft building specialist to pursue the concept and it was an idea that had been experimented with for a while. Let’s transport large quantities of timber from the Pacific Northwest and Canada to Southern California through open ocean. Hundreds of logs would be tied together in a wooden cradle-like skeleton (think of a sailing ship hull) and float it behind a tug boat to the sunny southland 1,000 miles away. The lumber was milled at a San Diego sawmill on the waterfront, a location just south of the current convention center, and dried quickly in the sunshine.

Logs in big rafts contributed to the building boom in that area in the early years of the 20th Century. Construction was said to have doubled with the arrival of cheaper lumber as a big log raft had enough lumber in it to build 450 homes and Benson sent several rafts down every summer. He also sent 100’ long logs for pilings for waterfront development.

Launched in 1906 the first Benson Raft was built on the Columbia River near Astoria and was to be pulled by a steam tugboat, and took a month to assemble. Seven hundred to 1,000’ long, 55’ wide and 35’ top to bottom it was like floating an acre of land downstream. Just the chains alone weighed 125 tons as they held the cigar-shaped raft together. Often the rafts were deck-loaded with fence posts, telephone poles and shingles atop the logs. The whole goal was saving transportation coast. Benson sent 120 rafts south over 35 years.

The Fort Bragg Lumber Company had started experimenting with the idea as far back as 1892. The first raft, with thousands of board feet of potential lumber, held together with chains as thick as a man’s wrist, was pulled out of Noyo Harbor, hit a rock, and broke in half. Clean-up followed as loose logs hindered maritime traffic.

The next attempt later that year was a new raft that was 326’ long, 34’ wide and 24’ deep was launched and made it to its destination of San Francisco, but the next raft broke up at sea. Log rafting ceased here but the lumber companies watched what Benson was doing. In 1914 Humboldt Bay timber baron A.B. Hammond decided he was going to build the biggest raft ever produced by volume. With 60’ width, 835’ long and 11 million board feet of potential lumber the raft had wood for 1,000 homes. It took six days to make the trip to San Francisco.

Log rafts were awkward to move if seas were not calm. Fort Bragg Lumber Company tried the idea in 1892 but didn’t have a lot of luck and lost more than one raft under tow, rafts would break up in rough waters, cause marine transportations disruptions and litter the shore in logs. Big timber mill operators like Hammond in Humboldt and Benson on the Columbia River perfected the design of log rafts and their shipping, but even they experienced occasional disasters.

In 1938 the lumber industries were not experiencing the brightest of times. Deep into the Great Depression the Mendocino sawmill, then owned by Union Lumber Company, had been shuttered but not dis-assembled yet to be sold as salvage. A log raft accident gave the mill one last moment of glory.

In mid-August a huge Benson log raft broke in half in rough seas at Needle Rock on the Lost Coast of northern Mendocino County. The tug operator needed a deep water harbor easy to enter with maneuvering room to try and salvage what they could save. The tug operator did not want to see a valuable log load lost or have it broken up on offshore rocks. So the tug in charge pulled half the load toward Mendocino while a second tug sent from San Francisco came to get a line on the other half of the raft.

Benson Lumber Company log raft in Mendocino Bay, 1938. $100,000 Log Raft in Mendocino Harbor. The raft of over 1,200 logs broke loose at sea and drifted into the bay. It allowed the Mendocino Lumber Company to reopen the mill and saw 3,500,000 board feet of lumber that fall. The mill ran for eight weeks on raft logs.

Into the mouth of Big River the tug pulled the broken half raft in and then an eight inch thick manila rope connected it to the shore. The second half of the load arrived a day later as two miles per hour was as fast as the tug could pull the damaged raft. Safely moored, the Benson Lumber Company began negotiations with the local mill to see if the logs could be turned to lumber in the closed Mendocino sawmill.

Two months of work was what the broken raft represented at the mill and sawmill workers would be happy to return to work. The raft had five million board feet of lumber in it being nearly 1,000’ long and 55’ wide. Wallowing in Mendocino Bay the headlands were lined with locals and tourists looking down in the disarray. The raft had been valued at $100,000 when (and if) it arrived in San Diego and was the 110th log raft Benson had assembled and shipped. It was composed of fir, red cedar and spruce logs.

The floating mass of logs had a boom barrier assembled around it and work began to break up the load and remove chains, valued themselves at $10,000 from the raft. The logs were pulled by motor launch over the river bar and up the river to the mill. Rough seas in September broke everything up and the beach was reported by old-timers to be six feet deep in logs and there were logs scattered up and down the coast that had escaped the boom.

Lumber was sawn from 1,200 logs that went to the mill and produced 150,000 board feet of lumber and by November the steamer “Noyo” was hauling deck loads of that lumber to San Francisco. The job was done, the Mendocino mill closed, and it was scrapped.

Now for the strange end to log raft traffic. Flaming log rafts? How does something already floating in the Pacific Ocean catch fire? Some true events in maritime shipping will always remain a mystery. From the Mendocino Beacon newspaper comes this history tidbit from the August 9, 1941.

“Radio on Friday morning announced a log raft en route from Puget Sound to San Diego to be burning off the Sonoma County coast about 75 miles north of San Francisco. Vessels were warned to look out for floating logs breaking away from the raft. Fire is about the last thing one would expect to destroy a log raft at sea”

The newspaper statement went on to say “Tugs hunting for the raft were unable to locate it due to heavy fog. The raft contained about eight million board feet of lumber. About three years ago a similar raft broke in two off this port and was towed into Mendocino harbor, and a good portion of the logs were run into the river and sawed into lumber at the local mill.”

In 1941 what caused this raft valued at $150,000 to catch on fire? Insurance investigators were sent to determine a cause, but were perplexed. One guess was sabotage by another lumber company. The rafts assemblers, Benson Lumber, had inspected it before departure and found no problems. The fire started in the center of the raft and it was suspected chemicals were dropped in the load sometime and were ignited by hot sun or water. The rafts had acetylene tanks and navigational running lights on board and perhaps somehow one caught on fire, but these lights were on the ends of the rafts. The inspectors declared “fire of unknown origin” and that raft was the last one ever to pass the Mendocino Coast.

The Kelley House Museum in Mendocino has a photo collection with many images of their construction and movement along the coast if readers want to see more. Contact curator Karen McGrath if readers want to see those photos on-line and she’ll provide instructions.

Big River bridge and beach in 1938 littered with broken up Benson Log Raft.

(photo credits: Kelley House Museum, Katy Rolyn)

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