"The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down." A. Whitney Brown.

About Us

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San Juan Archipelago, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 650, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

11 October 2019


Master & pilot Ralph W. Newcomb
Looking back with photographs 
of his career in the north.

Photo dated 1955.
Low res scan of an original photo from
the Saltwater People Historical Society© 
"Fabulous gold strikes...dog-team runs across the Arctic...inch-by-inch navigation of treacherous river channels...hard times...and gay, unforgettable times, too. 
      These were the memories of Captain Ralph Newcomb, one of the last of the pioneer ‘paddleboat’ skippers of the Northland who helped shape Alaska’s colorful history.
      Newcomb was a youth in Wisconsin when reports of gold strikes in the Klondike lured prospectors from every corner of the nation.
      Steamboat veterans of the Mississippi River were needed to man the ‘paddle-boats' pressed into service to carry gold seekers and their supplies into the booming North Country.
      Among those who cast their lot with the Klondike were Newcomb’s father, Capt. Orrin J. Newcomb, and his brother, Capt. Bertram Newcomb. They went north in 1898 and young Ralph Newcomb followed a year later.
      Steamers built 'outside' were dismantled and shipped to Captain’s Bay near Unalaska. There they were reassembled and towed to St. Michael, the former Russian community at the mouth of the mighty Yukon.
      These early vessels carried both passengers and freight. Most were about 225-feet long and were fired with spruce cordwood. Barges were shoved ahead or lashed alongside.
      Newcomb’s first assignment was as purser aboard the HANNAH, an Alaska Commercial Co. ship. 
His father was the captain and his brother was the pilot. Later Newcomb served on the BELLA and the SUSIE, two other fabled sternwheelers.
      The HANNAH took out more than $1,000,000 in gold dust in Newcomb’s year aboard her. The gold was kept in the purser’s office, with guards posted nearby.
      Newcomb, not taking any risks, placed a sheet of steel on the floor so thieves could not bore up through the floor and tap the bags.
      'Good thing, too,' he said. 'Later we found some shavings and judged they drilled until they hit metal.'
Newcomb made his first trips as a purser in 1901. The next year he became a “flat pilot,” using the knowledge of the river he was able to gain the year before.
      'My job was to take the boats over the Yukon Flats—the worst part of the river,' Newcomb explained.
      'It was so shallow there were times we couldn’t run. We needed at least 4 1/2 of water.'
      'I learned my way by just by making the trip several times. There were no charts, only what you made yourself.'

Sternwheeler SUSIE
Built 1898 Unalaska, 223' /1,130 G.t.
Getting ready for a 1,600-mile run to Dawson.
Last used in 1917;
abandoned at St. Michael in 1942.
Here, alongside her bud SARAH.
      In 1904 Newcomb became a full-fledged pilot on the SUSIE between St. Michael and Dawson, the rip-roaring frontier town.
      Newcomb remembers the turn of the century when more than 150 steamers, big and little, plied the Yukon.
      The St. Michael-Dawson run covered 1,600 miles. The upriver journey requires 12 days and the boats returned in half that time. 
      'I was a pilot for a long time,' Newcomb said. 'It took a while to become a captain with all of the experienced men around.'
      In 1921 Newcomb received his first post as master of a sternwheeler, hauling freight between Fairbanks and Tanana on the Tanana River. The boat, too, was named the Tanana, owned by the American Yukon Navigation Co.
      The river-shipping industry took a stiff jolt in 1923 when the long-sought Alaska Railroad was completed to Fairbanks.
      'That knocked out a lot of our business.' Newcomb said. 'Then they bridged the Tanana at Nenana and the big boats couldn't get through to Fairbanks.'
      Newcomb returned to piloting. He served with Capt. John S. McCann on the steamer YUKON until the famed skipper retired in 1938. The Newcomb became master of the YUKON.
      This was the era of tourist travel on the scenic canyon-walled Yukon River.
      The outbreak of the Second World War snuffed out the tourist trade. Newcomb was sent to the lower Yukon to haul military cargoes between Nenana and Galena. It was riverboats to the rescue as the Alaska Railroad was swamped with emergency shipments.
      The severe winter of 1946 spelled the end of the 'grand old lady of the river,' the YUKON. Ice damaged her hull, but Newcomb built cofferdams and made enough repairs to float the vessel into Nenana.
      The company then decided the YUKON was too old (built in 1913 and 1914 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory) and pulled her from the river. She was stripped and left to decay.
      Newcomb 'retired' for the first time in 1947. But the river was his life. The Black Navigation Co. hired him to pilot small diesel boats on the Tanana. Later he went with the British-Yukon Navigation Co., tugging barges from Mayo to Whitehorse.
      I'd sailed this area in 1922 and I knew the river,' Newcomb said. 'They needed experienced people.'
      In this period Newcomb served aboard the AKSALA –– formerly the ALASKA, the YUKON's sister ship, renamed by juggling a few letters.
      The boatman's last seasons were 1951 and 1952, with the black firm. He hauled freight again on the Tanana. Since then he has been a full-time resident of Seattle's Ballard District. 
      Even Newcomb, who had seen scores of bitter disappointed men leave the goldfields as paupers was not immune to the lure of the gold trails. He spent several winters prospecting, 'but always a hundred yards off the paystreak.'
      The veteran steamboat man recalls one venture into the Yellow River in 1900, 'when I nearly starved to death.' He gave this account:
'It was a phony story about a gold strike. But we didn't know it then. To make matters worse, the last supply ship didn't get in in the fall and the few stores and missions there were mighty short of food.
      'Many turned back, including my father. But I had my neck bowed and kept going to see for my self what it was all about.'
       Newcomb's partner, a plucky Michigan man name Fred Bosworth, froze one foot and the men were forced to turn into an Indian village.
      The only shelter available was a crude shack with a 51/2-ft ceiling.
Eskimo residence 
Photograph by the well-known photographer
John E. Thwaites
Scan from an original in the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©
      Six feet of new snow sifted down and the would-be prospectors had to remain in the village. Their only food was fish the natives had caught nearly three months before and stacked on the ice like pieces of firewood.
      A few weeks later the trail improved and Newcomb and Bosworth made it to a trading village 100-miles down the Kuskokwim River.
      By good fortune, an army contract doctor returning from a prospecting trip arrived in the village. Bosworth was stretched out on a table. Newcomb chloroformed him and the doctor amputated a piece of a toe.
      Then Newcomb returned his partner to St. Michael by sled. Newcomb walked the entire distance because there wasn't room for two on the sled.
      'But he was a wonderful partner.' Newcomb said. 'I never heard a whimper or whine out of him the whole time with all the pain.
      'It was rough, all right. But I wouldn't have missed it for a million dollars.'
Text by Stanton Patty for the Seattle Times March 1955.

08 October 2019


November 1979 with columnist Jo Ann Morse

Reefnet fishermen
Off Squaw Bay,
Shaw Island,
San Juan County, WA.
Photo courtesy of gear owners,
Ed and Kathy Hopkins.
click image to enlarge.
"Summertime travelers on ferries going between Lopez and Shaw Islands via Upright Channel often are intrigued by an array of open wooden boats, each with a tower at one end, anchored in an apparently deliberate pattern offshore of both islands. Lone figures stand motionless on each tower, staring intently at the water through Polaroid goggles.
      Few onlookers, if they don't live here, are aware they are watching one of the oldest methods of catching salmon known to man, a method said to have originated with the Lummi Native Americans just north of the San Juan Islands in Whatcom County.
      This is the only place in the world you'll see reefnet fishing. Here in the San Juans it's done by the white man who adopted the technique from the Native Americans. Around Lummi Island, both Indian and white fishermen set reefnet gear. Their boats and barges with outside towers are connected by nets with floats punctuating the rippled surface. 
      Most of the local reefnet gear has been brought in for the winter now, and we shall miss the 'set' that stood off the point a short distance from our waterfront deck. On a couple of occasions, we have managed to wheedle a salmon from the fishermen who spent daylight hours atop those towers watching for a run of fish headed north to spawn. We were close enough to hear the jubilant shouts ' Here they come!' and to watch the nimble tower-riders swoop down to hoist nets aboard, a couple of dozen salmon dancing shimmering silver in the sunlight.
      Some of the young people on our island have chosen to fish in this relatively primitive fashion and we silently cheered them on with each 'pull.' the season is short. This year they were not allowed to fish as often as usual. We suspect they may not have had enough to pay for the expensive nets, but these are the same people who push for conservation.
      Reefnetting carries with it an aura of native mystique. Reefnetters traditionally do not talk about what they do and discourage people from coming along to observe or photograph the operations. For one thing, there isn't much room in the narrow boats with their flared gunwales. Extra bodies are in the way and not at all welcome.
      Until this summer nobody had put this strangely intriguing harvest on film. But now comes an extremely determined graduate of Evergreen State College in Olympia who earned his degree by producing an extraordinary half-hour documentary entitled Salt Water People.
      Scott Miller, who never had written a grant proposal in his young life, spent four months at it. After observing that it was the best grant writing they'd seen, the Youth Grants program of the National Endowments for the Humanities awarded Miller nearly $10,000 to record this oldest of fishing arts in Northwest waters.
      That was three years ago. With Sid White of Evergreen art department as his faculty sponsor, Miller and his friend Peter Alkins produced a film that earned Miller full credit on a two-year individual contract. In the process, he spent all of the grant money plus $2,000 of his own money, lived on crunchy granola,  bartered salmon in the county park campground on Shaw, and wore out his old station wagon. Evergreen supplied the technical equipment and local islanders cooperated in several ways. Miller's wife, Lisa, is an accomplished professional potter and Miller tells you frequently about the pottery sales and encouragement that kept him going.
      Salt Water People was a difficult film to make, partly because of the salt water people themselves. But Miller had good credentials. Several years ago he had fished with a well known Shaw Island reefnetter. That friendship was invaluable in overcoming innate suspicion and talking himself aboard some of the reefnet boats. He also spent arduous months making quiet contacts among the Lummi, finally persuading one venerable tribal elder to talk about the legend and lore of reefnetting among her people. It was only a few days before the final editing that he even got permission to use some color stills of the Native woman. 
      The film is a head-on confrontation with the state of art as practiced today. Miller wisely eschewed the obvious, and probably tempting, archeological dig in favor of quiet narrative; the elderly Native woman, white reefnetters on Lummi, Shaw, and Lopez, who have run gear for many years, and finally a young Shaw Island couple who set gear within sight of their beachfront home.
L-R: Ed Hopkins, Doug Fawcett,
Kathi Melville, Doug Baier, Roger Melville,
Shaw Island reefnet fishermen waiting for the tide.
Photo courtesy of Ed & Kathy Hopkins. 

       It may look romantic from the deck of a ferry, but reefnetting is hard labor, complicated by strong currents that constantly foul gear which must be kept clear of kelp and flotsam. Reefnetters stand atop their towers in the blazing sun and in summer storms that can build up waves steep enough to toss the towers in sweeping arcs nearly down to the water. They can't quit on a fishing day, regardless of weather. Those days are too few.
      There is considerable footage of the competing fishing fleets that pave the Strait of Juan de Juca during the fishing season. Yet there is little bitterness in the voices and wonderfully weatherbeaten faces of the reefnetters. It's an art, a way of life, a love affair with a tough lady. They fish the hard way because they want to. One of the reefnet fishermen feels so intensely about it that he has turned some of the farmland into a final resting place for the years-old reefnet boats he finds about the country and up north near Lummi.
      Right now Miller is working and trying to find some more money for prints of the film. He is a softspoken, deceptively gentle 26-year-old who began his college career on a football scholarship at Colorado State. He bagged it, soon after, and if you want to know why, 'My next film may be about the insanity of college football...'
Winter Storage
Lineo cut block print, 1977
by Rex Brandt, N.A.(1914-2000)
former summer resident of Shaw Island, WA.

      Like its producer, Salt Water People is low-keyed and gentle, but it's full of throat-catching qualities that make me think it's an important one. The reefnet fisher may not be among endangered species––yet––but neither is it proliferating. The film tells you about the people who fish and how they do it. These are not the taciturn, grunting deckhands of a corporate commercial fishing vessel, pouring tons of salmon into cavernous holds. These are happy gamblers with nature because reefnetting is a kind of gamble and the reefnet fisherman admires his prey.
      Nets are set, lines strung to make the fish think they are approaching a reef. They swerve to avoid it and theoretically will swim right over and into the net. It's a critical moment that requires good timing. Sometimes they get away. In this film, they do get away. A young couple wearily resumes posts on the towers, and the gal excitedly calls across to her husband. 'Wow! I wonder if they feel like I'd feel if I got away!"

Photo postcard,
nicely composed of a
winter haulout scene.
Blind Bay, Shaw Island, WA.
by Rod Peterson©

Text by Jo Ann Morse Ridley, for Enetai. 7 Nov. 1979

The earliest known reference, to date, of reefnetting by non-native fishermen at Shaw Island is recorded by Mr. Errett Graham who moved to the island in 1941 with his wife Helena. Here are two excerpts from his daily diary collection, now archived in the Shaw Island Historical Museum:
13 September 1941.
The two fishing boats with their lookouts like posts at the end –– were at their station off the mouth of Squaw Bay –– where they have been for weeks."

And one more quote verbatim from Mr. Graham's diary listing names of the early fishermen:
1 August 1949:
"I canoed out to the first line of reefnet boats shortly before noon this morning and purchased $5 worth of salmon –– 3 Sockeye, 3 Humpies, and 1 Silver. While I was out there some salmon came over the net and I saw for the first time, the process of drawing in the net between two boats, the boats being drawn closer together in the process and flapping fish being finally spilled out into one boat. John Mathisen, Mort Totten, George Clark, some boy, and the boss, Kimple, were manning the nets."

29 September 2019

❖ Leschi to Madison Park Race Course for the MINNEAPOLIS crew ❖ 1939

A "retention ceremony" for the US Navy crew of
the winning MINNEAPOLIS
at the Seattle Yacht Club.

Standing by the Battenberg trophy are:
Rear Admiral R.E. Ingersoll,
commanding Cruiser Div. 6, Scouting Force,
M.C. Riddle, victorious coxswain, is at the right.
Dated 16 July 1939.
click image to enlarge.
Original photo from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©
Thomas M. Henry of Pasadena, seaman first class aboard the cruiser MINNEAPOLIS, leaned over the table in an East Madison Street tavern and said, amiably: "O.K. British. Shell out, we win."
      Four seamen from His Majesty's light cruiser, the ORION, dug ruefully into their pockets. They came up with five-pound notes and sundry shillings and tuppences.
      "To a great crew," said Seaman First Class Henry. "Had all my dough on it."
      The MINNEAPOLIS in the fifty-first Battenberg Cup race had won again.
      So had Thomas M. Henry and sundry other inveterate gamblers of the American fleet. It has been twenty-two years since a British whaleboat succeeded in defeating a crew of the US Navy.
      But an hour later, on the porch of the Seattle Yacht Club, Capt. H.R.G. Kinahan, commander of the ORION, which had challenged for a cup a countryman of his put up in the interests of British-American goodwill in 1906, said:
      "We are particularly thankful for the opportunity the Battenberg Cup race presents...the opportunity for ships crews and officers getting together.
      "If we could have a bit more of that sort of thing these days, everything would be much more peaceful."
      The Battenberg Cup race needs explantation, to a Seattle audience which had never seen, and seldom heard of it before. The cup was first given the American Navy to Prince Louis of Battenberg, commanding the British Second Cruiser Squadron, in 1906. It was received aboard the MAINE, then flagship of the fleet; and it has been contested for innumerable times. The American fleet competes for it annually. Whenever a British fighting ship comes within shouting distance of the American possessor of the cup, it may be challenged for again. This was one of those times. The ORION was visiting on a mission of goodwill. The goodwill still continues...but the MINNEAPOLIS continues to keep the cup.
      The race was for a mile and a quarter, on the Leschi-to-Madison Park course that has been the scene of seventeen Times Cup Races. The MINNEAPOLIS won it hands down in 14 minutes, 35.4 seconds. The WEST VIRGINIA was second, the SALT LAKE CITY was third. The challenging ORION was a long-last fourth.
      (Don't blame the ORION. British ships don't use whaleboats. They use "five hundredweight" cutters utterly unlike the US whaleboats, and the 3,000-pound boat the ten-man ORION crew rowed in the race had been borrowed from the cruiser ASTORIA. The men had only borrowed it for practice three days ago.)
      The MINNEAPOLIS crew, coached, and coxed by M.C. Riddle, a lanky, stern-looking youth, took the lead at the start and never headed. The SALT LAKE CITY fought it out for the first half of the course with the WEST VIRGINIA, but the VIRGINIA pulled away.
      The distance was so great between each crew at the finish that a Times photographer, 'shooting' from the top of the bathhouse at the foot of East Madison St with a telephoto lens, barely got the winner and the second-place boat on one negative; and then with plenty of time to reload he barely got the third and fourth place whaleboats in the second negative.
      The crews were towed to the Seattle Yacht Club, where Rear Admiral R. E. Ingersoll, commanding Cruiser Division No. 6, 'restored' the trophy to coxswain Ridder and his crew with the acknowledgment:
      "We wish to thank the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Yacht Club, the Coast Guard, and others; but most of all, Captain Kinahan and his ORION. Without them there could have been no race; the SALT LAKE CITY and the WEST VIRGINIA could not have challenged, at this time."
      Then, turning to Captain Kinahan:
      "But you did have us worried when we heard your boys were practicing so hard they were breaking their oars in training."
      This, however, was far away from Seaman First Class Thomas M. Henry of Pasadena. When last seen he was setting up bottles of beer for the house and admitting, calmly; 
      "That MINNEAPOLIS crew...Hell, mister, they can't be beaten!"
Text by Ken Binns. For the Seattle Times. July 1939.


23 September 2019


Mrs. P. A. Brant admiring the
mermaid art painted on the bow
of a beached reefnet boat, perhaps 
ashore for the winter season.
The boats belonging to this reefnet gear
had been anchored to fish for salmon
off Point Roberts, Whatcom County, WA.
Photo dated 26 October 1952.
The Lummi, Saanich, and Cowichan peoples 
made nets of willow bark to fish here for hundreds of
years until pushed aside by non-native fishermen
working for Alaska Packers Association in 1895.
Click image to enlarge.
from the collection of
the Saltwater People Historical Society©
For E.H.
"A fabled creature, half-woman and half fish, which appears in the folklore of all lands, and which is firmly believed in by sailors at least until the 19th C. The mermaid legend has been ascribed by some to observations by early explorers of the manatee, a small cetacean found in Caribbean waters, which has the curious habit of rearing itself on end partway out of the water. The probability is, however, that the legend is as old as that of the siren, a mythological creature, half woman and half bird, who was believed to haunt certain rocky isles in the Mediterranean and, by her sweet singing, lure mariners to destruction on the rocks." 
Source; Johanna Carver Colcord. Sea Language Comes Ashore. Cornell Maritime Press, New York. 1945.

16 September 2019

❖ A Bout with Surf ❖

One Hundred Days in the San Juans
Day 57 with June Burn

Inside this published map of the
Resorts in San Juan County,
most of the mentioned are situated on Orcas Island.
Locals began advertising their waterside cabins
and hotel rooms in the local newspapers beginning
in the late 1800s as restful retreats for tourists.
From this cropped detail of the double-sided
9" x 15" map we can trace the wake of the Burns,
in the essay below, as they rowed along the north shore.
Click image to enlarge.
Publishing date unknown,
suspected to be the 1950s.
Original from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historial Society©
"North Shore, Orcas Island. How different are the islands! How like the different countries even the different shores of the same island. This northeast shore of Orcas is a strange land, steep, high, with dark, forbidding beaches. Along the part that is the waterline of Mount Constitution, the trees seem to lie flat, they look as if one bank of them grew out of those below. The kelp beds are close against the bank which means deep water very close to shore.
The view from the water as mariners,
June and Farrar were rowing west to Harnden's beach.
From the archives of the Saltwater People Log©

As we near Buckhorn Lodge, a sleek, new mahogany boat upholstered in blue leather comes flashing out to meet us. Ten seconds ago it was at its moorings, now it is alongside us and Mr. Payson from Tacoma, the owner of these 115 leashed horses, offers us a tow to wherever we are going. We accept. The wind failed some time ago. We've been rowing a long way. A tow for five minutes behind this boat will take us nearer to our night's camp-spot than we could walk with our arms in two or three hours.
      The Harndens live somewhere along this north shore. We have an invitation to camp on their beach. It is past six o'clock, time to camp.
      People all along here are picnicking down on their beaches, fishing, or sitting on porches, talking dreamily. Houses sit on bluffs, hidden, secret. Or they cluster together low on the beach, friendly, gregarious––but which house is the Harndens'––they who used to live on Sucia Island? 'About a mile down the shore,' a girl shouts out to us. We have let our horses go back too soon.
      Slowly, we ease along this shore, looking for a comfortable beach. Underwater boulders left here by the glaciers are strewn over the low tidelands. We'd go aground, or a-rock, on one of those and never get off! On and on.
      This is low land, now––the isthmus at the head of East Sound. Just a mile down there is the village. We'll go over there tomorrow and spend the day talking to some of the most interesting old-timers in all the islands.
      Sand dollars! My stars, look at them all over the bottom of this bay! Black, standing up on edge, they look even stranger than when we find them on beaches, white and dead, mere skeletons, their star-shaped centers cut out with holes like the doors of an old kitchen safe.
      This tall white house with the luscious garden and the flowers, all with such a ship-shape look––this must be the Harndens. I'll just go ashore to say we're camping on their beach tonight––and they are not home.
      We camped anyway, not far away, on a shallow beach below the old salt marshes which are now fertile fields. It had the feel of prairie there––a new feel in the islands. We got a sudden sense of homesickness for the prairies of Oklahoma which we both have known. Home! How many places turn out to be home. How many places are wonderful and dear for some sudden sharp likeness to a little spot on which you stood to watch a meadowlark on a fence post, maybe.
      But that night another north wind came up. We had awakened to a sunrise clear and pure, the old ball rolling up over Lummi Island and shining straight across to us, still comfortably abed. Then all at once, without the slightest warning, there was the wind and in two minutes flat, surf rolling in over this flat beach.
      'We'll be aground in 10 minutes,' Farrer shouted as he ran down the beach, throwing off pajamas and grabbing on garments as he ran. I follow only one button behind him. At the water's edge, we were fully dressed, but we shouldn't have been, for in two more minutes we were fully wet pushing off the boat. But we managed to load it before it could quite come ashore.
      And so, away again, breakfastless, tickled at our first brush with surf in our lives.
      We'd row on around Point Doughty to Orkila, the YMCA boys' camp, we said. They had invited us. We could dry out there and ––maybe!––they might ask us to breakfast.
      But if it had been any later than five o'clock in the morning, we'd never have made it. It took us nearly three hours to row those few miles, for the wind wasn't going our way and, for once, we didn't propose to go its way. Finally, we rounded the point, slide down the bay to Orkila.
      And, sure enough, a man came down the beach to meet us. It was Mr. Emory, director of the Queen Anne 'Y' in Seattle. 'You'll have breakfast with us?' he said and we said you bet and in no time at all, boys had secured our boat in the lesser surf on this beach. Boys had built a fire in the big dining room and a day at Orkila had begun.
      We met 125 boys and 30 staff members. 
Beach Haven Resort
Click to enlarge.
Original photos from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©

We went down the beach to see Mr. Kimple's and his two partners' Beach Haven resort, where Dr. Turner of the University's new medical college caught five salmon the first time he ever fished in our waters, met Mrs. Fleming, wife of Seattle's superintendent of schools, sitting on a log knitting, had some cookies made by Mrs. Kimple. That's all for today! See you tomorrow. June."
      If you have been following along with this Log there are many more excerpts from the newspaper articles by June Burn entitled One Hundred Days in the San Juans. She had a contract with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1946. In the 1980s editors with the Longhouse Printcrafters in Friday Harbor, published them in a book format, under the same title. Now a collector's item.

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