They are national and international legends: wooden-hulled, 180- to 215-foot coastal steamers that sailed to more than a score of Pacific Coast ports from Alaska to San Diego — including Newport Beach — from the early 1880s to the late 1940s.
They were unglamorous, desperately slow (their top speed averaged 9 knots) and they carried lumber, cattle, hogs, farm produce, passengers and, in later years, cars and trucks.
But they were safe. Seaworthy, they rode the waves well, and some of them ventured to destinations in Mexico, Central and South America, and even exotic islands in the South Pacific, where they worked as tramp steamers in Tonga, Samoa and French Polynesia.
The ships were given a variety of nicknames, such as “sea burros,” “mules” and the “Scandinavian Navy,” because many of their captains were Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.
Some old salts called them “dog-holers,” according to maritime historian Walter A. Jackson, because in addition to servicing accessible ports, such as Newport Beach, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, they could navigate small and remote anchorages “barely large enough for a dog.”
The doughy little vessels also sailed to other primitive and hazardous places, places where most ships of the era would dare not go: t
iny coves and inlets with no piers or landings, where they anchored offshore, often in heavy surf, wind and rain, their crews wrestling cargos off and onto barges and lighters or into long, wooden “gravity chutes” and massive slings attached to electrically powered overhead cables that descended to the steamers’ rolling decks from high shoreline cliffs.
About 225 of the rugged steamers were built on the Pacific Coast from 1884 to 1923, and the last surviving relic of this fleet, as well as the last American, wooden-hulled steamship to carry freight and passengers, was the grand dame of them all: The SS Wapama, one of the ships that served the 1,300-foot McFadden Pier in Newport Beach, regional ports such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, Redondo Beach and Santa Barbara and, until a few weeks ago, was perched forlornly on a barge in Northern California.
Built in an Oregon shipyard in 1915 and powered by a 950-horsepower engine, the 215-foot Wapama was a “single-ender,” meaning her engine, deckhouse, crew and passenger quarters were housed aft, leaving unobstructed space forward for cargo to be stored in her hold and lashed on deck.
Two large masts equipped with winches enabled her to onload and offload cargo without the aid of shore cranes. She also served at times as a tow ship and in 1927 hauled the 212-foot British ship Star of India, which was built in 1863, from San Francisco to San Diego, where it remains today as the showpiece of the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Despite her small size, the Wapama could carry 1 million board feet of lumber and 56 passengers and 23 crewmen. Red leather settees adorning the dining room, together with a grand stairway paneled with varnished dark oak that led to a spacious lounge, gave her a touch of class and helped alleviate the cramped sleeping accommodations, which consisted of rows of tiered bunks and only three minuscule private cabins.
While on passenger and cargo runs in Alaska and Washington in the mid-1940s, however, the aging Wapama was bedeviled by an engine room fire, leaks, escalating rot and obsolescence, and was permanently beached in Seattle in 1947 after 32 years of continuous service.
Besieged by thieves and vandals, the Wapama was purchased 10 years later from a Seattle scrapyard by the U.S. National Park Service and barged to San Francisco, where she was partially repaired and included in the National Maritime Museum’s historic ship collection at Aquatic Park near the Hyde St. Pier.
She remained there until 1979, when it was determined that brown rot and worms had attacked 80% of the ship.
Removed from the museum fleet, the decaying steamer was shuttled on barges back and forth to anchorages in Sausalito, Oakland and Richmond for nearly 40 years while Bay Area nautical enthusiasts desperately attempted to raise funds to rebuild her.
But the estimated $15 million required for the project was not forthcoming, and the Wapama was demolished by wrecking balls and sledgehammers a few weeks ago at Terminal 3 in the Port of Richmond.
The old lady, though, at least in part, will live on.
Her 10-by-30-foot pilot house, engine, railings, mirrors, capstans and other significant artifacts were removed before the dismantling and will be displayed at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, museum spokesman Lynn Cullivan said.
Built a year after the Panama Canal was completed, and two years before President Woodrow Wilson declared the United States was at war with Germany, the Wapama had a career that spanned 98 years.
“She was the last of her breed, she was a good ship, people loved her,” a Seattle maritime reporter wrote.
When he learned of her impending demolition, Richmond City Councilman Tony Butt exclaimed, “There is no alternative. She is too far gone. If it were up to me, I would torch it like Burning Man and let it go up in a blaze of glory.”
A longtime newspaperman and foreign correspondent, DAVID C. HENLEY is a member of the Chapman University Board of Trustees and a resident of Newport Beach.