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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ship with cargo of sugar meets bitter end

Jerry Bowen

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Brigantine built by Benicia man wrecks on reef

I’ve done a couple of stories in the past on Matthew Turner, but for some of the new arrivals in Solano County he probably is unknown even though he built more sailing ships than any other man in America.

In all, he built 228 ships of which 154 of them were constructed at the Mathew Turner shipyard in Benicia. Hardly anything is left at this once very busy shipyard that was located at the foot of West K Street, other than a plaque and small park. His ships were known throughout the world for their beauty and speed.

For this story, another well-known industrialist is remembered. Claus Spreckels was a major industrialist in California and Hawaii and became known as the Sugar King.

Claus was a shrewd German immigrant who turned from the grocery business to sugar refining, gradually controlling San Francisco’s sugar refineries and establishing California’s sugar-beet industry. Spreckels expanded his interests to Hawaii, where he is said to have had much to do with the financing the Hawaiian Kingdom and controlled much of its can production and shipping.

In 1879, John D. Spreckels, Claus’ son, commissioned Matthew Turner to build a 246-ton brigantine to be named the Claus Spreckels in honor of his father. Construction took place at the Matthew Turner Shipyard, then located at San Francisco.

The Claus Spreckels was the thirty-sixth vessel built by Turner and was one of the largest two-masted vessels built on the Pacific Coast at 122.5 feet long, with a 31.8-foot beam.

The Claus Spreckels was launched only 70 days after her keel was laid. According to the June 10, 1879, San Francisco Daily Alta California the ship was, ” both well-built and good-looking and on her trial trip, Spreckels handled quite well, with her builder, Matthew Turner, at the helm.”

Turner was quite pleased with the ship during the initial trial, as he put it through its various maneuvers in San Francisco Bay; but the day that started out well was to end somewhat disagreeably.

At the same time, several yacht owners were out for the day enjoying a day’s sailing in the Raccoon Straits and Turner had to pass through a through a number of the yachts on his way back to the dock.

The yacht owner of the Fleur de Lis decided to try to race the speedy Spreckels and as it turned out, it was not a very wise choice. The Spreckels was much larger and obviously not as easily maneuvered as the smaller yacht.

At some point the Fleur de Lis recklessly crossed the Spreckels bow. Turner managed to avoid a collision, but Claus Spreckels’ jibboom swung out and carried away the Fleur de Lis mainsail.

In a letter to the editors of the Daily Alta California on June 10, 1879, angry yachtsmen wrote, “If Captain Turner possesses the preemption right to the waters of San Francisco Bay, and therewith the right to run over people, with impunity, we desire to know it, that we may govern ourselves accordingly ...”

There’s nothing like pointing the finger of blame for their own foolishness, but nothing further came of the incident.

After her maiden voyage and squabble, the Claus Spreckels left San Francisco for Honolulu. She had been built to carry cargo and that’s exactly what she did for the next nine years. Cargos usually included mostly lumber as well as general cargo to Hawaii and on the return trips she brought back sugar to market in San Francisco.

The Weekly Humboldt Times of July 22, 1882, noted that “Captain Cousins is very proud of his vessel and counts her as one of the best sailors on the coast. She has logged 13 knots on many trips, and one trip ran the score up to 14.”

The abrupt end of the Claus Spreckels came while en route to San Francisco with a sugar cargo valued at $40,000. As she approached the coast she encountered thick fog. Without warning, she wrecked on Duxbury Reef on Jan. 22, 1888. The Claus Spreckels struck the reef at 4 a.m. as the watch was changing.

According to the Los Angeles Tribune of Jan. 23, 1888, one of the crew later stated, “The Captain immediately ordered out the boats and ran out the kedge with the intention of pulling her off, but the sea was too heavy and the anchor would not hold and finally between 6 and 8 o’clock we left the vessel, it being impossible to do anything with her. At the time we left her she was keeled over about 15 degrees and was full of water ... none of us saved anything except the clothes we had on and some few valuables we placed in our pockets.”

The crew of the Spreckels was rescued by the steamer Emily, and the tugboat Relief was sent to the wrecked ship in an attempt to salvage her, but the Spreckels and her cargo were a total loss.