“C” is for Cigar Rafts

If you haven’t heard of a cigar rafts, that’s not a surprise. I hadn’t heard of them either when I happened upon a reference to a “cigar raft” in the notes of Nannie Escola, former school teacher and Mendocino’s most prolific early historian. I relish the sense of sisterhood I share with her when I go to the archives and stumble across something as yet unnoticed in her notes. Anyway, here we go: Cigar Rafts.

Part I

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Cigar raft at Fort Bragg

One of the strangest ocean-going crafts to grace the seas was built locally in Fort Bragg. Hundreds of feet long, brown, tapered at each end, it was sometimes mistaken for a whale or described as a giant “Perfecto” cigar.

Invented to bypass high shipping costs, the cigar raft was cheaper and safer transportation—at least in theory. Developed in the 1880s by Captain Hugh Roderick Robertson of New Brunswick, it took years of trial and error to perfect its design, during which time one raft drifted to West Africa, while another ruptured and became an East Coast maritime hazard. Undaunted, Robertson persisted, and the first cigar raft was towed safely to New York in 1888. It was given a hero’s welcome, having transported the equivalent of 40 schooners of timber.

In 1892, the Fort Bragg Lumber Company hired Robertson to build the first Pacific Coast cigar raft, causing considerable excitement for profit-hungry area mill owners. If successful, the raft could reduce shipping costs by 80%. Once processed at its destination, each thousand board feet of finished lumber would yield enough saleable waste to cover the bulk of the towing cost. Newspapers all along the Pacific waited eagerly for news from Fort Bragg, relayed to them by the Mendocino Beacon staff.

The first redwood raft was built in a hull-shaped “crib” of Robertson’s own design. Gradually, a wooden behemoth took shape under the capable hands of local men as a hoisting engine and boom placed whole logs around a central, stud-link towing chain. Using additional chains as thick as a man’s wrist, 1,200,000 board feet of logs, pilings, and railroad ties were cinched together every 12 feet of the raft’s 365 foot length. Red and green lights, rudders, a steering mechanism, and a pilothouse were added for safety.

In May of 1892, with a crowd in eager anticipation, the steamer Noyo began to tow the raft out to sea. “The raft started all right,” a Beacon reporter wrote. “The sea was very rough outside. The raft struck a rock when it was being towed out, and it broke in two in the middle. Part of it drifted on the rocks below Noyo [the town], and the other part was towed into the Noyo River.”

This account belies the public disappointment and tireless brute force it took to gather the broken pieces. For weeks after, logs were gathered up and towed back to Noyo, though some drifted far south and washed up on the beach below the Cliff House in San Francisco.

In July, 1892, Robertson was replaced by Fort Bragg local James Brett, who immediately began to build a new raft. As the San Francisco Callreported, “The success or failure of this raft is held to mean a boom or a killer for lumber rafting on the Pacific Coast.” With everything riding on the success of their efforts, Brett and his team aimed to triumph where the expert had failed. Were they successful? Well, that is the subject of next week’s Kelley House Calendar.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Jan. 5th, 2017 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)

Part II

If you read Part I of this topic last week, you know that Fort Bragg is the home of the first Pacific Coast cigar raft. As early as 1889, coastal lumber companies experimented with smaller oceangoing rafts on Big River, and had successfully pulled a 700-foot articulated raft to San Francisco. Eager to increase capacity and further drive down shipping costs, local lumber companies hired leading expert H. R. Robertson, and after a year of activity and anticipation during which local and national newspapers picked up the story, the first Pacific Coast cigar raft was launched.

It broke in two almost immediately.

Robertson was replaced by a Fort Bragg local, James Brett, who was made superintendent of the project. Brett made key design changes. He shortened the raft’s length by 40 feet, tightened its tapered ends, and reinforced the interior with three large, semi-rigid cables. Further, he built the raft in deeper water to aid its launch. The final version was 326 feet long, 34 feet wide and 24 feet deep.

In late August of 1892, the Beacon reported, “At 8:30 Saturday evening, in the presence of a large crowd of people from up and down the coast, the blocking was knocked out from under the raft, and the huge mass of logs started on its downward journey.” Like its predecessor, Brett’s raft slid part of the way into the water and stuck, pinned by its own weight. It wasn’t until the advent of high September tides that the raft actually floated when pulled out to sea by the steamer Noyo.

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Towing a raft out to sea

Upon its arrival in the City, the raft drew crowds who came to see it along the San Francisco waterfront before it was delivered and broken up for milling. Riding high on success, Brett immediately was told to build another raft and the Beacon declared, “Jas. Brett, the builder, is now the master of this new enterprise, and will continue building them for the Union Lumber Company Fort Bragg.”

Possibly jinxed, Brett’s next raft broke up at sea.

In the meantime, Robertson moved to the Pacific Northwest where his rafts were plagued by problems, from marine borers to a succession of structural failures. For a few years, only Fort Bragg locals had succeeded where others failed, causing speculation on the secret of their good fortune. In reality, they planned extensively, employed skilled seamen, and respected the inherent dangers, such as the fact that in rough seas, a raft could overtake and even crush the towing vessel.

Eventually, Pacific Northwest lumber companies succeeded in towing large rafts to San Diego on a routine basis, sending more than one hundred rafts south between the late 1890s and 1941. In that time, only four rafts were lost. As if to come full circle, one of these (a Benson raft) broke up off the Mendocino Coast in 1938 and drifted into Big River, piling the beach with lumber ten feet high. The mill, which had just closed permanently, was reopened and sustained for another eight weeks on this unexpected gift from the sea.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Jan. 12th, 2017 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)


7 Replies to ““C” is for Cigar Rafts”

    1. Well, you don’t have to read all of it. I hadn’t shared most of these posts before and figured I should. The new ones I write (coming up soon) will be shorter. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  1. I love these articles, because they make me fascinated by something I never would have thought to care about. And the photos are GREAT. I simply cannot imagine riding on one of those things. How exhilarating…and terrifying.

    1. Thanks for reading. I would have done it in a heartbeat. When they came apart, I happened slowly enough that they seemed to be able to get away from the collapsing structure. I can only imagine the swearing that would have occurred when all hell literally broke loose!

      1. Thanks for this. I’m so unsavvy, I’ve only just discovered these comments threads in my Google thingie.

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