SS Wapama was 'last of her breed'

December 06, 2013|By David C. Henley, Special to the Daily Pilot
  • Author David C. Henley stands in front of the SS Wapaha, a 99-year-old coastal cargo and passenger steamer that called into Newport Beach from 1916 to the early 1930s.
Author David C. Henley stands in front of the SS Wapaha,… (Courtesy Ludie…)

They are national and international legends: wooden-hulled, 180- to 215-foot coastal steamers that sailed to more than a score of Pacific Coast ports from Alaska to San Diego — including Newport Beach — from the early 1880s to the late 1940s.

They were unglamorous, desperately slow (their top speed averaged 9 knots) and they carried lumber, cattle, hogs, farm produce, passengers and, in later years, cars and trucks.

But they were safe. Seaworthy, they rode the waves well, and some of them ventured to destinations in Mexico, Central and South America, and even exotic islands in the South Pacific, where they worked as tramp steamers in Tonga, Samoa and French Polynesia.

The ships were given a variety of nicknames, such as "sea burros," "mules" and the "Scandinavian Navy," because many of their captains were Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.

Some old salts called them "dog-holers," according to maritime historian Walter A. Jackson, because in addition to servicing accessible ports, such as Newport Beach, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, they could navigate small and remote anchorages "barely large enough for a dog."


The doughy little vessels also sailed to other primitive and hazardous places, places where most ships of the era would dare not go: t

iny coves and inlets with no piers or landings, where they anchored offshore, often in heavy surf, wind and rain, their crews wrestling cargos off and onto barges and lighters or into long, wooden "gravity chutes" and massive slings attached to electrically powered overhead cables that descended to the steamers' rolling decks from high shoreline cliffs.

About 225 of the rugged steamers were built on the Pacific Coast from 1884 to 1923, and the last surviving relic of this fleet, as well as the last American, wooden-hulled steamship to carry freight and passengers, was the grand dame of them all: The SS Wapama, one of the ships that served the 1,300-foot McFadden Pier in Newport Beach, regional ports such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, Redondo Beach and Santa Barbara and, until a few weeks ago, was perched forlornly on a barge in Northern California.

Built in an Oregon shipyard in 1915 and powered by a 950-horsepower engine, the 215-foot Wapama was a "single-ender," meaning her engine, deckhouse, crew and passenger quarters were housed aft, leaving unobstructed space forward for cargo to be stored in her hold and lashed on deck.

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