On September 12th 1897, master shipbuilder Hans Bendixen launched the largest three masted schooner ever built on the west coast of North America, the Wawona. Built for the Dolbeer & Carson Lumber Company of Eureka California, Wawona is 165 feet long with a 36 foot beam and a depth of 12 feet 3 inches. At the turn of the century, there were over 300 commercial schooners like Wawona in the proud Pacific sailing fleet. Today, only two of these ships still exist: Wawona, at Northwest Seaport in Seattle, and her sister ship the C.A.Thayer at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco.
Wawona is a Yosemite Indian name for the Northern Spotted Owl, which was believed to be the guardian of the forest. This belief has proved true in our own time. Paradoxically, the schooner Wawona was built to haul lumber, logged from the great primeval forests of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Wawona served her first owners well for sixteen years. She was then sold to the Robinson Fisheries Company of Anacortes, Washington, for employment in the Bering Sea codfishing trade.
Each Spring for thirty years, Wawona was loaded with salt for preserving fish, coal for cooking and heat, and a six months supply of provisions and fresh water for about 38 men. She then sailed west by northwest, some 2,000 miles, through Unimak Pass and into the Bering Sea. There she would drop anchor. Her fishermen would fan out each morning in two dozen dories, to fish for cod with handlines. From dawn til dusk, the fishermen brought in codfish by the dory full, sometimes as many as 10,000 a day. These were counted, cleaned, and salted down in the hold. The work was back-breaking and dangerous. Some years, fishermen were lost. But Wawona and her crew would remain at their labors until summer's end brought the fiercer weather. Wawona is said to have set the all-time total catch record for codfish, for any vessel in the world, at 6,830,400.
Wawona was drafted by the U.S. Army during World War II. Not being sailors, the army removed her masts and used her as a barge to haul supplies from Puget Sound to Alaska. There she was reloaded with yellow cedar for the Boeing Company's use in making airplane wings. Thus, Wawona served in all four of the largest industries of the Pacific Northwest. After the war, Wawona worked two more seasons in the codfishing trade. Her last commercial voyage was in 1947.
Today, the Wawona is being preserved and restored by Northwest Seaport in Seattle. At this writing, there is still a desperate need for additional funding in the race to save her from dry rot. You can help as a member, contributor, or volunteer, by contacting Northwest Seaport at 1002 Valley St., Seattle, WA 98101 (206) 447-9800. Wawona remains as the sole surviving tribute to the great wooden schooners of the Northwest, to their good Masters, and to the iron men and women who sailed them.