Tall Ships of San Francisco
Maritime History and Model Ships by Steve Priske ~ Shipwright - Historian

The Tall Ships of San Francisco c.1859-1903


If one follows the axiom that, “the last built of a thing is generally the best built of a thing,” then the finest tall ships ever built may have been built on the west coast, and were home ported at San Francisco.

History books tell us that in 1849, when gold was at its peak in the mountains of California the epitome of tall ships were being launched from dozens of east coast ship yards, these were called Clipper ships. In fact it is said that in the 19th Century over 600 Clippers were built at East Coast & English shipyards. And while most all Clipper ships built, eventually visited San Francisco, historically it has been assumed that no Clippers were actually built on the west coast. Well that’s all about to change. A discovery made in 2003 has revealed that over 65 ‘world class’ tall ships, some Clippers, were indeed built on the west coast and some were the first of their rig anywhere while others set sailing records that stand to this day.

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The model of the Western Shore shown above was built in 2004 She measures over 4’ long and took 1,400 to scratch build. This version of the Western Shore was built for the family of John Kruse III, direct descendants of Master Shipbuilder John Kruse who in 1874 built the original ship for Captain Asa M. Simpson at the Simpson shipyard, at North Bend, on Oregon’s Coos Bay.

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Captain Asa Meade Simpson of San Francisco established the first shipyard in the State of Oregon, at the north bend of the Coos Bay in 1855. From 1859 to 1903, at this location he would have 56 ‘world class’ tall ships built for his San Francisco based lumber empire. Compare this image with the one lower right, to see how this operation grew through the years.

The tremendous & rapid growth that took place around the San Francisco Bay area in the mid 1800’s spawned several colossal industries, one being the lumber business. Of the many lumber companies that made their home in San Francisco, the Simpson Brothers Lumber Company stood out from all others not just for their many lumber mills and retail yards but for their huge fleet of ocean going tall ships. While most lumber and shipping operations were content with plying the west coast in relatively small 100 to 130 foot long two and three masted schooners, the Simpson Brothers intentionally created an international operation, with 200 foot plus long ‘blue water’ tall ships, delivering their cargos to points all over the world. Included in this unique fleet of ships of sail was the only true Clipper ship built on the west coast* and she was christened The Western Shore. This is an impressive accomplishment as there were over 300 Clippers built on the east coast and about another 300 built in England, however until now history has not recorded any Clipper’s built on the west coast.

In 2003 while working on a literary project in Coos Bay, Oregon, I came upon an astonishing 1,500 original glass negative photos most made in the mid 1800’s. This huge collection of photographs depicted what has turned out to be the largest fleet of tall ships ever built on the U.S. west coast. As a maritime historian and model shipwright, I was familiar with the extensive 19th Century lumber schooner fleets that plied the Redwood coasts and the ‘Mosquito Fleets‘ bringing lumber and coal from hard to reach outposts in Washington and Oregon to markets at San Francisco. But no history book or museum collection had taught me that a huge fleet of over 65 ‘world class‘ tall ships had been built on the west coast. However, after a year of chronicling this fantastic story, that is exactly what I’ve found. A ‘world class’ tall ship is one defined as measuring over 130’ on the keel over 150’ on the deck, registered at over 300 tons and powered solely by sail. In terms of nautical history The Oregonian newspaper in reporting on this find, described it as akin to finding another pyramid in the desert.

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The Simpson Lumber Companies shipyard at North Bend, Oregon soon grew into a company town. In this wonderful image made around 1899 we can see the majestic 200’ long four masted schooner Admiral dock side. Through the furnace smoke, up on the hill are the twin bunkhouses built for the single workers at the mill & yard. Dock side is another ship, a 3 masted schooner and the dock master is seen on the right of this truly American frontier photograph.

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Model Shipwright Steve Priske holding a model he built of the Western Shore Clipper Ship in 2003. The Western Shore was the only clipper ship ever built on the U.S. west coast, launched in 1874 at North Bend, Oregon. The model was built in approximately 1,200 hours, utilizing the actual shipyard blueprints of the Western Shore, hand drawn on onion skin and provided the artist by Michael Simpson grandson of the ships original designer/owner Captain Asa Meade Simpson.

See the link below for a detailed overview of how this magnificent tall ship was built.

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In 2006 the National Archives unearthed trunk fulls of documents relating to the 65 Simpson Tall Ships built from 1859-1903. Included were the original ships crew list of the Western Shore’s Inaugural voyage from Coos Bay/San Francisco to Ireland c.1874. The Western Shore made a record passage of 110 days from San Francisco. However, the crew must have been driven hard, as according to the document filed with the U.S. Consulate in Liverpool, the entire crew, save one cabin boy (a Mr. Whitty of Coos Bay) deserted the ship on arrival at Cork, Ireland. Above is the Desertion Document and one of the ships Crew Lists from that maiden voyage.

Western Shore Ship Model c.1874

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