By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Stevenson and Turner

In 1889 Robert Louis Stevenson was world famous—not for Treasure Island—but for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was a sick man, visiting the South Seas islands for his health. He originally came on the 95 foot fore-and-aft topsail schooner Casco, named after the bay in Maine. Stevenson loved the Casco, built by the Matthew Turner Shipyard. Now in Honolulu to pick up his mail, he chartered another Turner schooner, the Equator, for four months. At 100 feet and 75 tons, the Equator took him to Samoa.

This is the Equator

At right here is a picture of Stevenson on the far right, his wife seated next to him with his mother on her right and family friends. You can see Stevenson is a small man, thin, and at this point in his life weakened by drugs taken for his constant illnesses. This is the Equator. He bought a home in Samoa. After trips to Australia and Honolulu, he came back to Samoa, his wife and house where he died of pneumonia on December 3, 1893.

On the night of his funeral the two Samoan chiefs stood guard and prayed all night. Then in the morning 200 Samoans carried his body as they hacked a path up the mountain of Samoa, for Stevenson’s burial. His coffin was laid to rest on the top of the mountain so the birds might sing on his coffin undisturbed. No guns were allowed on the mountain from that day forward. The Samoans didn’t know he was world famous for his books, they knew him as their friend.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a thin, restless man with a boisterous imagination, a mind often allayed with drugs. Mrs. Stevenson had come from a conservative back-bay Boston family. She wore long Victorian dresses and fully-dressed hair no matter how hot the climate. Her class and gentility impressed the women of the island for the rest of her life. With their differences, still, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson loved the life they lived.

The Casco and the Equator were built by the Matthew Turner Shipyard. I had never heard of Matthew Turner, but I discovered a fascinating man.

Turner came from Ohio, born in 1825. Lake Erie was full of shipping. The lake stretched from the Midwest to New York. Rivers came off of the lake, with hundreds of coves and inlets and tiny bays. In a newly settling country, trade through the lake and the rivers was brisk. The ships were built for cargo, not speed or leisure. They had the hull of barges, squared at the bottom with modest sail area. As a result young Matthew saw huge ships.

A boy could watch the men build these huge ships, understanding their simple building methods taken to a huge scale. Railroads were approaching. Covered wagons carried goods out west, across an untouched land. To Matthew’s generation the times seemed to beg for empires, fortunes, big men with big ideas. Matthew Turner had no fear of success.

His father taught him fishing and ship-building. In Ashtabula County, Matthew could have seen the Salem Packet, 1818, a schooner at 27 tons. He could have seen the North America, a steamer at 300 tons. He could have seen the Troy, 1840, at 130 tons. The steamers in the 1850s could range from 300-500 tons.

The yard employed 30 men who built 228 ships in 33 years. Every ship was designed for speed. No slowpokes for Matthew Turner. In 1901 the four masted Amaranth set a record sailing 23 days from Shanghai to Astoria. The William C. Irwin sailed from San Francisco to Kahalui, Maui, in only 8 days. Turner had somehow made himself into a master of ship design and shipbuilding. One wonders what innovations he had in the yard to put out such huge ships, so often, without wearying the men. On the east coast, Herreshoff had a type of assembly line, with each man specializing in a certain task; possibly Turner did the same thing.

These ships were huge, over 150 feet with some around 200 feet. Turner probably thought the Casco and Equator were mere squirts by comparison. Here below is the Equator in Washington, undergoing restoration.

Equator in Washington, undergoing restoration

You can see the sharp forefoot. This was his great innovation at a time when ships on the Pacific coast were not built this way.

His second innovation was a triangular foreand- aft sail on the mizzen mast. No one had ever done this on the west coast before.

Turner’s most famous ship is probably the Galilee, built in 1891. Galilee set a record of 22 days from California to the South Seas island of Papeete, with its average run being 28 days. In 1905 Galilee was chosen to be the Carnegie Oceanic Magnetic Survey ship.

While all of this momentous activity was going on, Turner also designed racing yachts for the San Francisco Yacht Club where Turner was a charter member.

At the age of 81 Matthew Turner retired from his own yard, dying three years later in 1909. The town of Benicia, California has kept his name alive. An elementary school is named after him and a plaque stands on the beach where the Turner Shipyard made history.


By the way, when Joshua Slocum sailed across the Pacific, he came to Samoa. He says he came to the island on July 16, after some hard sailing into a stiff breeze. When he anchored, three Samoans came out in a canoe, asking if he was alone. When Slocum said he was, they thought he’d eaten another man to get this far by himself.

The next morning Mrs. Stevenson came down to the dock to meet Slocum. This is what Slocum wrote:

I was of course thrilled when I found myself, after so many days of adventure, face to face with this bright woman, so lately the companion of the author who had delighted me on the voyage. The kindly eyes that looked me through and through sparkled when we compared notes of adventure. I marveled at some of her experiences and escapes. She told me that, along with her husband, she had voyaged in al manner of rickety craft among the islands of the Pacific, reflectively adding, 'Our tastes were similar.'

Matthew Turner Shipyard Site

He married but his wife and child died in childbirth. That may have driven him away from the lake, as in 1850 he yielded to California gold fever. He rushed east toward New York to board a ship for the Promised Land of Pacific gold. At the time the work in the mines was back-breaking, but Matthew gained a small fortune. Still he was not satisfied with life in the dark, chilling mines. He took the gamble of traveling across the entire country, through Indian territory on stagecoach and horseback, carrying the money he’d exchanged for gold. Not the journey for a pencil pusher. When he arrived at New York he bought a schooner, the Toronto. This is just one of the times he showed the ability to be one step ahead of the times in which he lived. The ports were full of men with wild pasts and stuffed pockets, gambling on their own future.

Stevenson describes Bristol in Treasure Island like this:

..our way to my great delight lay along the quays and beside the great multitude of ships of all sizes and rigs and nations. In one, sailors were singing at their work, in another there were men aloft high over my head, hanging to threads that seemed no thicker than a spider’s...The smell of tar and salt was something new. I saw the most wonderful figureheads that had all been far over the ocean. I saw many old sailors with rings in their ears and whiskers curled in ringlets and tarry pigtails and their swaggering, clumsy sea-walk; and if I had seen as many kings or archbishops I could not have been more delighted.

So Matthew gambled on the skills his Dad taught him. He sailed the Toronto back to California, where he joined with another captain to bring lumber from Mendocino to San Francisco. The business struck the new edge of the times, a new state, new construction, a new optimism in California. Men thought settling California was like settling the colonies all over. A new place in which decent men could do things better than they’d been done before. Turner thrived to the point that he could buy a larger schooner, the Louis Perry. As the waterline lengthened, profits grew.

And then four years later, he struck it rich. After purchasing the brig Temandra, he sailed her up the coast of Alaska where few men had ever sailed. He came across thousands of codfish. There were so many, it seemed like all he had to was yell and they’d flop on the deck. Codfish sold for a high price in San Francisco.

Then he made a momentous decision. He had an insight to the future again. He bought another ship to do the fishing along the Alaskan coast while he sailed for Tahiti. Now his life turned. The desire to purchase a faster ship for the Tahiti trade made him dissatisfied with the ships he’d seen in San Francisco. So, being Turner, he designed his own.

In 1868 Turner designed his first big ship, which he named Nautilus. He had it built in a California yard. The Nautilus was big and fast, enriching the Tahiti trade immensely. At this point he made another forward-thinking decision, to move his entire operation to Benicia, California. He had his own yard, his own ships, and in 1876 he married his partner’s widow. (Sam Spade, another San Franciscan, wouldn’t have done that.)

All of this was accomplished with the boatbuilding techniques of the day—which means by hand and by eye. Just consider the opportunity to screw 10,000 screws by hand. Lumber had to come from far away, and then there was finding Tahiti with a sextant in leaping seas.

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