In age of steam, rare sailing ship hauled 2 million board feet of lumber
Photo by Boyd Ellis #1994.66.1, Whatcom Museum of History & Art
Few ships in Bellingham’s maritime past are more fondly remembered than the Vigilant, a five-masted lumber schooner that frequented Bellingham Bay sawmills during the 1920s and ’30s.
The Vigilant invoked the romance of tall ships at a time when mundane steam freighters had all but replaced West Coast sailing vessels.
Built in 1920 by the Gordon F. Matthews yard in Hoquiam for the E. K. Wood Lumber Co., the Vigilant was 241 feet long and 44 feet in breadth. She could carry 2 million board feet of lumber.
The E. K. Wood Lumber Co. had purchased the former Eldridge-Bartlett Mill on the Fairhaven waterfront in 1900. Under the management of Fred Wood, son of company-founder Edwin Kleber Wood, the mill grew to an annual output of more than 60 million feet of finished lumber and 9 million feet of lath. To carry this amazing output to West Coast and Pacific island markets, the company had a flotilla of vessels known as the “Diamond W” fleet.
Christened by Marian Wood, Fred Wood’s daughter, the Vigilant left Grays Harbor in April 1920 on her maiden voyage, destined for Sydney, Australia, with Capt. Ralph E. Peasley at the helm.
Capt. Peasley’s nautical prowess was legendary. His sea-going experiences served as inspiration for the fictional Capt. Matt Peasley, rugged hero in Peter B. Kyne’s adventure book “Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley,” published in 1916. Mrs. Peasley accompanied her husband on the Vigilant, often taking over as ship’s cook. The meals she prepared for the crew were known to be “very good and plentiful.”
The Vigilant returned from Sydney, via Newcastle and Honolulu, to Puget Sound and was loaded with lumber at Port Angeles. She sailed to Adelaide and returned with coal for San Francisco. In 1922 and 1923, the Vigilant made two voyages from Bellingham, where she took on lumber at the E. K. Wood mill, bound for Callao, Peru.
The Vigilant did not have an engine and, like other windjammers, could not maneuver or tack within the confined waters of Puget Sound. Met at Cape Flattery by a large tug, the tall ship was towed up the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Sound to her appointment at a mill. Once loaded, the Vigilant was towed back to Cape Flattery and set loose on the Pacific, where she could again travel with the wind.
Disaster struck the E. K. Wood Lumber Co. on Sept. 22, 1925, when its large Bellingham sawmill was destroyed by fire. A $300,000 loss that put 180 men out of work, the mill was not rebuilt. Today the former mill site is part of Boulevard Park.
The Vigilant returned to Bellingham late in 1925 and took on lumber at Bloedel Donovan’s Cargo mill, departing for Honolulu the first week of 1926. Omer Foisie, president of Seattle Grocery, was Capt. Peasley’s guest aboard the Vigilant during that voyage to Hawaii. Foisie later described how “the timbers and fastenings in the vessel were grinding and groaning and making strange noises, and the waves were beating against the side of the vessel and throwing the spray across the portlight.” Smitten by the adventure, Foisie pitied “those poor devils, who must remain on shore, chained to a desk, confined to the sordid life of the landlubber.”
In the late 1920s, the Vigilant was sold to Chung Kun Ai’s City Mill Co. of Honolulu. Capt. Peasley “retired ashore” to Grays Harbor, where he became a port commissioner, and Capt. Charles Mellberg, “a six-foot four-inch giant,” became the Vigilant’s new master.
Making regular trips between Bellingham and Hawaii, the Vigilant was often in port with another lumber schooner, the four-masted Commodore. The two picturesque sailing vessels never failed to draw camera-toting fans upon their arrival at the Bellingham waterfront.
The Commodore was built in 1919 at the J. H. Price shipyard, at Houghton, on Lake Washington. She was purchased in 1923 by Lewers & Cooke of Honolulu and placed, under Capt. B.N.A. Krantz, on the Puget Sound-Hawaii lumber route.
Photo by Jones Studio #1959.50.2, Whatcom Museum of History & Art
Rumors of race make the paper
On Nov. 20, 1931, the Commodore cast off from Honolulu for a return trip to the Sound. The Vigilant did the same on Nov. 26. A Seattle newspaper got wind of the two schooners’ nearly-concurrent voyages and reported that they were locked in a neck-and-neck race on the open Pacific! It made for great headlines, but it wasn’t true.
Slammed by winter storms, the Commodore arrived 10 miles off Cape Flattery with two days to spare before Christmas. John Wahlberg, the Commodore’s first mate, recalled that the crew was “happy in the anticipation of spending the holidays at home.” But, among heavy seas and gale-force winds, the tug Goliah was unable to secure a line and bring the ship in.
To keep the Commodore “off the rocks” of Vancouver Island, the crew was forced to wrestle the windjammer back out to sea and ended up 200 miles northwest of the Cape. First Christmas, then New Year’s, came and went, as the Commodore rode out the storm.
The Vigilant had been a thousand miles behind the Commodore, but with the fierce gale in her sails she came “up from the southwest at a good clip.” Reaching the Cape, the Vigilant was met by the tug Roosevelt, which towed her into the Strait 39 days out of Honolulu. At Eagle Harbor, on Bainbridge Island, the Vigilant was declared “the winner” though Capt. Mellberg, like the crews on both schooners, had no idea they’d been racing.
The weary Commodore finally came within a hundred miles of Cape Flattery and, this time, the Goliah successfully took her in tow. She arrived at Bellingham 46 days from Honolulu and after two weeks of treading water in the North Pacific.
Photo by Fred Jukes #2004.17.6, Whatcom Museum of History & Art
As the 1930s came to a close, the Vigilant was laid up in Bellingham for lack of work. Yet, with the beginning of World War II, steam-powered merchant vessels were transferred in droves to the North Atlantic and the old five-masted schooner was again pressed into service.
The Vigilant was bought and renamed City of Alberni by the Canadian Transport Co., a subsidiary of the H. R. MacMillan Export Co., headquartered in Vancouver, B.C. The ship was placed under the command of Capt. “Honest John D.” Vosper in early 1940 and carried B.C. lumber to Sydney, Australia.
On a return voyage, full of Samoan copra, City of Alberni was west of Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Capt. Vosper later estimated that her course passed within a few miles of the Japanese fleet on its way to attack Pearl Harbor.
In November 1942, City of Alberni left Vancouver loaded with lumber for Durban, South Africa. The voyage would require the vessel to navigate the perilous Cape Horn and enter the Atlantic with its threat of German submarines.
Battered by storms, severely leaking and low on supplies, the City of Alberni was unable to round the Horn. Capt. Vosper decided to turn back for Valparaiso, Chile, telling his exhausted crew, “We have pumped the Pacific through her, damned if I’ll pump the Atlantic!”
Finally arriving at Valparaiso on March 12, 1943, City of Alberni and her load of lumber were sold to Chilean interests, who renamed her Condor. She remained in port the duration of the war.
In December 1945, Condor was loaded with rice bound for Greece. She made it around Cape Horn under Capt. Raul Bennewitz, a famed Chilean mariner, but was severely damaged and had to turn into Montevideo, Uruguay, where her cargo was sold. Dispatched to Bahia Blanca, Argentina, to take on a load of wheat, the Condor burned at sea after a fire broke out in the ship’s radio room.