Graveyard for Old Ships

by C.J. Walker

Sunday Olympian – Sunday, August 15, 1959

 

A pair of once proud sailing ships, which plied the Pacific Trade routes at the tum of the century, now lie dead and half buried in mud at the mouth of the Nisqually River.

 

People in the know say they still serve a useful purpose – grounded firmly, they keep raft-wrecking storm waves away from logs stored in sheltered water behind. But sight of the battered hulks would make an old bearded bosun weep and blow taps on his pipe.

 

Take the William Nottingham the big, former four master pictured above. She's visited enough foreign ports to make her log read like an international gazetteer. She was born in Ballard in 1902.  Foss Launch and Tug Company buried her in Thurston County in 1950.

 

The trim-lined vessel shown on the right once answered to the name of John A. – a three-masted schooner of 235 tons. She was built in 1893 in Eureka, California, for the coastal lumber trade. Later, she fished in the Bering Sea and made several summer voyages to the South Seas.

 

A third vessel, all but submerged is visible alongside the Nottingham. Captain Carl M. Hansen identifies it as the Vandrer, a powerful steam tug that has seen better days.  Hansen was John A.'s last skipper under sail in the days before World War Two.

 

The Sunday Olympian photos were taken by Bill Conser during a low aerial pass over the Nisqually flats one recent sunny day.

 

*****

 

An official log in the National Archives and Records Service in Seattle discloses that the Nottingham, a 1,062-ton top sail schooner, departed Tacoma June 3,1902 on a maiden voyage bound for Sidney Australia. She was commanded by Captain G.C. Taylor. Subsequent entries for the next seven years show the 211-foot wooden ship sailed several times at Taku, China: Guaymas, Mexico; Callao, Peru and New York.

 

Captain Hansen, now working a ship in Alaskan waters, writes that the Nottingham was owned by the C. M. Hansen Company along about 1912, sailing around the world with “lumber, coal and what have you". A friend of his Captain Christian Larsen, skippered the big ship for a time and called, on one occasion, at lonely Pitcairn Island to deliver supplies and mail to the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers.

 

It's the John A., however, that lies closest to the heart of Captain Hansen. Recalls he:

 

"The Chatham Fish Company bought her in 1936. We used her in the fishing business in Alaska. I was her last master under sail. The John A. was a wonderful little ship, sailed like a yacht, and maneuvered likewise."

 

During the war old John A., like so many other sailing ships, were dismasted by the government and used as a barge to haul military cargo along the Pacific Coast. John A. was squelched into the Nisqually mud about ten years ago," a bad ending for a wonderful little ship," according to Skipper Hansen.

 

Hansen once worked for E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company hauling explosives to Alaska from DuPont in motor launches. He retired a couple of years ago at the age of 65. Now he skippers a wartime landing ship called Mr. Bill for the Colorado Oil and Gas Corporation in Alaska.

 

"It is quite an experience," he writes, "for a man with over fifty years at sea, who has done his best to stay off the beach, now to run full speed on the beach (cargo is unloaded through the bow after the vessel has grounded her snout ashore.) Oh well, I guess a man is not too old to learn new tricks."

 

The "tricks" Hansen is learning is the "drilling and exploring for oil in this Yakutat area."

 

Meanwhile, time and tide are taking their toll from Thurston County's remnants of the age of sail.  Each year a few more planks wash away into Puget Sound as the ships of wood, made as strong as men could make them, lose a little more shape. It likely won't be many more years before all that's left is an unrecognizable pile of wormy wood, sinking beneath shifting river sands.

 

Note: No record has been found for a steam tug called the Vandrer, the information provided above does match the description of a steam tug named the Wanderer and it is now believed to be the vessel in Nisqually Reach.

—DuPont Historical Museum

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