“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

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 8.54.12 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 8.59.27 AM
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.)


“B” is for Breaded

If you visit the Kelley House Museum Archives and go down the short flight of stairs into the chilly vault, it’s not hard to imagine you are diving for knowledge—especially where abalone are concerned. Should you chance to don a pair of white gloves and take a look through the old, bound copies of The Beacon, the public’s concerns over the misuse of local natural resources quickly become evident. By 1913, despite prior actions by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Fish and Game, strict guidelines were laid out which covered how and when people could hunt and fish in the county.

Up until this time, abalone was still little known and hardly appreciated by most people. Though writers, such as Jack London, frequented the Carmel and Monterey area and collected abalone for use in chowder, the shellfish might have slipped back into a watery oblivion but for the efforts of a man popularly known as Chef Ernst (Pop) Doetler, the Abalone King.

Around 1908, Pop moved to Monterey and set up a restaurant offering fresh, Toke Point Oysters harvested from San Francisco Bay. Over time, quality concerns drove him to abandon the oyster and search for something unique and local which could be had fresh. He found what he was looking for just blocks away on Cannery Row in the form of the abalone.

Breaded abalone the way Pop liked it

Though abalone was starting to appear on local menus, it was generally boiled in vinegar, steam-canned, or treated with lye to break down the connective tissue. Pop determined that the abalone could be cut into a “steak,” dredged in flour, dipped in an egg wash, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried in oil. The result was a tender and flavorful dish which quickly became a sensation through Pop’s showmanship. With the advent of the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, where Monterey County displayed canned abalone as one of its county’s primary products, the shellfish reached a still wider audience.

Most of the local abalone used by Pop Ernst was supplied from Japanese divers working nearby who were happy to find a new customer within state lines. Always in search of the best and freshest product, Pop became a broker for local Japanese abalone fishermen and restaurants across the state.

Sadly, the rise in abalone’s popularity contributed to the eventual destruction of the fishery. By the late 1950s, the California abalone fishery landed 5.4 million pounds of abalone, of which only 10,000 pounds came from Monterey. Once the epicenter of the fishery, Monterey County was no longer a factor in the abalone market by 1959 and has never fully recovered. The abalone currently available in that area is farm grown.

What was gleaned from Monterey’s experience has led to still greater conservation north of the Golden Gate and strict regulations around every aspect of the recreational and commercial fishery. Had Pop wandered north to Mendocino County instead of south, would we have shared the same fate? You be the judge.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Nov. 16th, 2016 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)

Note: if you visit AllRecipes.com, you’ll find the same basic recipe for abalone first popularized by Pop Doetler. And, if you don’t fancy the risks of free diving, try ordering some legally available farmed abalone at one of these sources:

The Abalone Farm

Monterey Abalone Company

The Cultured Abalone Farm

“A” is for Abalone

Well, I haven’t shared to this blog in almost a year, and the A to Z Blog Challenge is here again, and I’m committed.

For my blog posts this month, I’ll be sharing my love of Mendocino County and of things I like to do here, such as research history, write, tinker, garden, and take pictures.

In October of 2016, I joined the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino as a volunteer where I research and write short pieces for the “Kelley House Calendar,” a column in the Beacon, our local newspaper. I’ll be sharing some previously written pieces and new subjects which come to mind.

I love comments, and promise to respond to any you leave me. If you are visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge, please leave me your url so I can visit your blog, too.

Thanks and without further ado, here is my post for the letter A.

Abalone Love Part I

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 3.31.33 PM.png
Abalone shells cover an arbor at the Kelley House

What do people and sea otters have in common? Well, for one thing, the love of a particular single-shelled mollusk more commonly known as the abalone.

What many people don’t realize is how Mendocino became a premier location for abalone fishing, nor do they realize how lucky we are that our wise predecessors conserved this resource for us—their future generation.

Delicious and desirable, abalone grew wherever kelp was available. Pomo people collected and ate it and used the iridescent shells for trade. When the Russians settled at Fort Ross in Sonoma, they inadvertently contributed to a future bounty by hunting the sea otter to the brink of local extinction. By eliminating the abalone’s main predator, the shellfish grew unchecked for several decades before Mendocino was discovered by outsiders.

With a growth rate of about one inch per year and a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, it is easy to imagine local tide pools littered with abalone the size of dinner platters, but the first settlers had no interest in the strange and oozing shellfish.

The Chinese are credited with starting the abalone fishery, recognizing a favorite delicacy from home. They began to collect this and other shellfish in massive quantities, drying and shipping them to San Francisco where they were sent on to China. Soon, fears that the area would be irreparably depleted, combined with a series of punitive laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, ended all commercial collection in the intertidal zone.

By the late 1800s, as the Chinese were being pushed out of the market, Japanese fishermen arrived, bringing with them the hard helmet and diving suit. With a continuous air supply, divers could reach the ocean floor, and it was not uncommon for them to collect up to 2300 abalone per day. Sam Ware, a student at Mendocino High School, observed the Japanese encampment at Dark Gulch and wrote that the diver “…takes down with him a net-like basket, which he sends up in about twenty minutes, another being sent down while it is emptied. This holds about all four men can lift into the boat.”

Once hoisted from the water, the abalone were cut from their shells, salted, rinsed, and dried in the sun before being packed and shipped in burlap sacks. Shells were sent to England, where they were made into buttons and other fancies, while others were used as inlay in furniture, their nacre (Mother-of-pearl) finish prized. Abalone pearls, when they were found, were made into pendants and other jewelry.

But, by the fall of 1913, in response to ongoing fears that abalone would disappear in the same manner as the sea otter, new and more stringent local laws ended commercial abalone fishing in Mendocino. While recreational fishing continued—sometimes harvesting enormous quantities—the local abalone fishery was spared the fate of Monterey and other central California coastal towns. And who gets the credit for that intervention? Well, that is the subject of Part II of this series.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Nov. 3rd, 2016 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)