Sailors, Ships & Seatowns

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Here is a bit of the old West nobody knows—or almost nobody—the West generally overlooked by both the fastdraw myth-makers and the scholars from the Land of Ivy. The cowpoke and the cardsharp, the sodbuster, the gunslinger, the prospector, the men who went down in the mines or up in the trees, ladies of the night and gentlemen of the road have all been popularized and exploited, analyzed and monographed. But scarce a word about poor Jack, who kept it all together out where the dust stopped short.

This is too bad, for there was both color and substance to his life. More men risked death at sea in the West than ever stood off Indian attacks; there was quite as much danger in reefing sail during a nor’wester as there was in descending the pit of a hard-rock mine; there was as much violence in a seaman’s strike as there was in any range war; and the smell of salt spray makes for better romance than the taste of dust at the back end of a herd of cows.

And more wealth spilled out of the holds of Western sailing ships than was ever carved off the bones of Western cattle. Billions of board feet of lumber cut from dark, crowded forests and hauled out of Puget Sound and the tiny ports of California’s northern coast. Fish, shimmering seas of fish, from the salmon and cod of the Alaska Banks to the sardines of Monterey Bay, cooked, canned, cartoned, and consumed throughout the world. Gold, silver, and copper going out; iron, steel, and coal coming in. Millions upon millions of tons of wheat loaded in the great grain ships out of San Francisco in the days when the monster farms of California fed much of the Western World. Millions of dollars invested in the vessels themselves, big and little—brigs, barkentines, lumber schooners, scow schooners, the tiny feluccas that harvested table fish, and the huge Yankee clippers that tied the West Coast to everyplace else. The industry that won the Far West did it to the beat of luffing sails.

Color and substance, but don’t look to the television tube to find it; the myth machine rusted up when it hit salt air. Look here, instead, at these images, a handful drawn from thousands. They were made by amateurs and professionals, seagoing men and rank landlubbers, men known and unknown. They have been gathered and captioned by historian and former curator of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, Roger R. Olmsted, who has spent more than twenty-five years researching Western maritime photography. They are some of the finest documents that survive of a neglected glory—the golden era of the sea trades that served as the life lines of the farthest West in the days between the Gold Rush of 1849 and the end of the last and greatest age of sail.