North Coast Journal


Bankrupt on Jupiter

by Wally Graves

South of Fields Landing where Highway 101 turns inland from Humboldt Bay, lies an abandoned dredge from another era, mudbound near a grove of tall, pale eucalyptus and dark pines.

The dredge's long boom hangs useless, her cables turned to rust, her cabins atwit with barn swallows, her bottom rotting in an ancient channel where Salmon Creek flowed before it was diverted by cattlemen.

The dredge's name is Jupiter.

In the 1940s Jupiter raised dikes through the clam beds and eel grass in the south bay, transforming wetlands to pasture. Today those dikes harbor the vast Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

In the late '40s and early '50s Jupiter dredged the canals of King Salmon Resort to the north.

In the later '50s she diked a fill at Bracut between Arcata and Eureka.

In the '60s, Jupiter was courted by Arcata's city fathers, and then told to get out of town.

And invited back.

In the 1970s she returned to the south bay for more diking of wetlands, and now she lies within the refuge like a leftover from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," "available to anyone who wants her," I was told by Kevin Foerster, manager of the refuge.

Foerster, like myself, is attracted to the Jupiter as a memento of the reckless past before the word "ecosystem" had gained currency. Her huge, heavy clamshell bucket is being saved, possibly for a museum.

Many times during the past few years I've boarded the Jupiter by water, skimming at high tide through waving eel grass and past slick, whiskered harbor seals as they bobbed over the hidden mud flats.

Or, at low tide, following the Hookton Channel which cuts a deep swath in the flats meandering among spurting clams, cormorant rookeries and whelping families of the seals.

Once I made a stupid mistake with the tides and nearly got stranded on Jupiter.

That was back in the days when students from nearby College of the Redwoods took Jupiter over as a drug haven, painting her pink, and scrawling spaced-out manifestoes on her inner walls about how "happiness can spoil loneliness," and how "the end of every trail rests upon quicksand."

And, on the outside - until the Jupiter was drably covered with dun paint by the California Conservation Corps - "Eat My Shorts."

In those days a soiled mattress lay upended against a bulkhead, Jupiter's deck was charred from careless cookery, and the barn swallows had been driven by the druggies from the upper cabins to the engine room, where the yellow Cummins diesel that is Jupiter's heart lay splattered with droppings.

An osprey had built a ragged nest of sticks and twigs on the tip of Jupiter's boom.

Now, at Foerster's invitation, I visited her by land for the first time. Foerster put his white Ford Bronco in four-wheel drive across the pastures to the dike against which the Jupiter is mired.

Foerster told me he doubted if she'd ever float again. Her bottom, already the worse for wear, had been chopped open. A catwalk which once led from her deck to shore had blown away. Her bucket lay far inland.

Foerster wasn't even sure who owned her.

He gave me a lead or two, and I talked to former workers in the area like Walt Giacomini and "Bunkhouse Bill" Troegler of Loleta who knew little about her present state, and to Jack Ballard at Fields Landing who told me that the city of Eureka is desperate for a working dredge like the Jupiter, and a fellow from Ferndale who'd once had his eye on Jupiter for a floating restaurant, and to the local Sea Scouts who romanticized the Jupiter as their headquarters, and to Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum's Bill Zerlang who said the refuge had offered her to the museum. "But it'd cost $50,000 to get her floating again."

Could she be resurrected?

The Jupiter is 68 years old, built in 1927 by the Stockton Iron Works in California's Central Valley. She was towed here through the Golden Gate (when she was scarcely out of her teens, bright white with green trim) by her owner, Bob Rich, of Sausalito.

After diking in the south bay, Rich sold the Jupiter to North Coast ship builder Lamone Call, who reshaped the beds and wetlands around Buhne's Point south of Eureka into the streets and canals of King Salmon Resort.

It was May 1949. The Humboldt Times showed the Jupiter working at what Call predicted would be his "million dollar resort."

"Word is spreading all over the state about Humboldt Bay, and I think we will have a big rush this season, with more to come," one of Call's buyers at E-Z Landing predicted.

The predictions fell short.

King Salmon's Grand Canal was to become an intake for PG&E's nuclear power plant.

Call sold Jupiter to an optimist in the north bay named Helge Johnson. Under Johnson's command, Jupiter diked several hundred feet of shorebird habitat at Bracut, but the fill was never completed. Jupiter dredged Arcata's sewage oxidation pond. Then she fell idle.

It wasn't till March 1963 that Jupiter's picture appeared again, this time on page one of Arcata's The Union under the headline, THE CONTROVERSIAL JUPITER.

"Whether a sanitary landfill public dump will be built here depends largely on this old, crumbling dredge, mired for the past several years next to Arcata's sewage oxidation pond. City and county officials, who until last week were preparing to force its owner, Helge Johnson, to remove the Jupiter from city property, are now trying to set up a meeting with him."

Johnson was serious about restoring the Jupiter. In May 1961, he ordered a used Cummins diesel engine for $1,450 to replace her original power plant.

City records reveal that in February 1962, Johnson had lured the city and county officials into thinking he could dike the proposed landfill for $2,400. The job would take six weeks.

When the city got serious, Johnson's estimate doubled to $4,800, but the city was hooked. Charles T. M. Echols, director of Public Works, signed Johnson up, with the work to start in September of 1962.

But the Jupiter was rotting, and Johnson came up $1,000 shy on the rebuilt Cummins.

September came and went. Echols conveniently left town for a job in Mount Shasta. Arcata officials told Johnson to put up, or move his dredge, and when he couldn't put up, they sought new bids.

None came in.

Realistic alternatives to the Jupiter put the diking costs at over $100,000.

At that price, Arcata figured it could buy its own dredge.

On Jan. 23, 1963, City Manager Phillip J. Brown got his answer from a manufacturer's representative in Seattle: A new dredge would cost $300,000.

So much for the proposed landfill.

But wait!

On April 12, The Union announced, DREDGE MAY BE REBUILT.

"Interest in buying the sunken dredge now located near the City Oxidation Pond has been shown by Ray Graham, according to City Manager Phillip Brown.

"He explained that the dredge now owned by Helge Johnson would be bought by Graham, be raised and used to construct dikes in the area. Graham would do the diking himself." In partnership with the late Graham was Elmer Miller, a local contractor and construction man.

I found Miller, a sturdy, 80-year-old widower, living in his trim mobile home at the Royal Crest mobile park in Fortuna.

He told me that when he and Graham inspected the Jupiter she was a mess. "You could walk through the hole in the hull."

Miller and Graham proposed a loan of $15,000 from an Arcata banker who said, "You guys sound good to me."

So they paid the $1,000 owing on Johnson's engine, completely rebuilt Jupiter's hull, replaced her mechanical relay system with copper hydraulic pipes, replaced her boom, and on Oct. 11, 1963, the Union's front page pictured the restored Jupiter being pushed to sea on greased skids by the biggest Cat in the county:

"It may not be the Queen Elizabeth but the launching was impressive," The Union wrote.

I asked Miller, "Why did you and Graham take her on?"

"Just because they said it couldn't be done," he said. "We came along and said, ÔGive us the job and we'll do the job.' Shows how ornery we were. It turned out to be the hardest college course I ever took, but we sure learned a lot about tides, and losing stuff overboard in the mud. We tied a string to every tool we used."

Under Miller and Graham the Jupiter raised the dikes a few feet at a time, leaving each lift to settle and harden. Miller explained, "If you tried to get one bucket too much, the mud scooted off like a glacier, like a greased slide."

The job took two years.

Then Jupiter went to Bracut for more diking, which was eventually abandoned, and on Oct. 16, 1969, she was sold to the estate of Rex and Viola McBride for their Beatrice Ranch in the south bay - the very land which today is part of the National Wildlife Refuge where Jupiter lies.

"The McBrides got a bargain," Miller told me. "We sold the Jupiter for $13,000, because nobody else wanted her. The McBrides wanted us to contract the work, but Ray and I had gotten older, and gotten a few more brains."

What did Miller get out of it?

"More experience than money. We didn't go on a Reno trip."

He remembers with warmth the sunsets, the sanderlings flying on the bay in their coordinated swirls of black, then suddenly belly white, "a pleasure to watch, some of the darndest shows you ever saw."

And a couple of times the bucket hit sharks basking unseen in the clam laden mud.

It had been Rex McBride who - in the '40s - had originally inveigled Bob Rich's Jupiter into Humboldt Bay to extend the McBride pastures across the southern wetlands. And it was the McBride estate in the early '80s which sold the Jupiter to her last owners of record.

Happy it had been in the '40s for the McBrides' son Andy who, as a teenager, got to run the Jupiter, maintaining dikes raised earlier in the century around recovered land, including what he calls their "hundred-acre island" in the bay.

"When I was a kid I was in love with the thing," he told me.

And happy it was in 1980 for McBride when Richard Bartee, a pertinacious dredge man from Antioch, on the Sacramento Delta, spied the Jupiter one day from the highway on a family outing and proposed to buy her.

Bartee told me, "Her boom was down, and stuck through the house. Andy told me he still had work to do, but he couldn't find an operator."

So Bartee and his brother Gary agreed on Dec. 16, 1980, to buy the Jupiter for $6,000, get her up and running, and to pay off the debt with dike work. For the next seven years - far beyond the original contract - the Bartees kept the McBride dikes in repair.

They'd intended to dismantle the Jupiter and take her parts back to the Sacramento Delta, but by the mid-1980s environmentalists had cut heavily into dredging in both the Central Valley and Humboldt Bay.

McBride said he opened the newspaper one day to discover a proposal that his family's Beatrice Ranch would some day be taken over as a public game refuge.

1988 saw that day.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the Bartee brothers to remove the Jupiter.

They didn't.

So there she sits while her projects, one by one, revert to nature: The Beatrice Ranch is slowly returning to wetlands.

King Salmon has been saved from surf and tides only by a $10 million jetty appropriation which rode through Congress as a "demonstration project "pork barreled by Congressman Don Clausen in the early 1980s. (Then-County Supervisor Danny Walsh suggested that it would have been cheaper to buy the residents out and let the tides do the rest.)

The final Bracut dikes were never backfilled.

The Arcata landfill, which at various times had been considered for a moto-cross park, small-boat harbor, miniature golf course and even a Redwood Empire Logging Olympics, was returned to a marshland bird sanctuary which has become internationally famous as a model of wetlands' compatibility with urban waste.

But let me tell you what happened that day I nearly got stranded on Jupiter.

My brother and I had packed a lunch for a trip to the old dredge. The water was high. The seals were bobbing about waiting for the flats to appear so they could bask and suckle their young. Great blue herons, and white egrets, and a pair of resident dark coots, poised on the alert. Seldom these days did we see brant, or widgeons, or pintails, or teals or spoonbills.

Overhead a gull or two soared, ever ready to cry the alarm should anything resembling food appear.

We tied easily to Jupiter's blunt bow and climbed aboard. The day was fair. Jupiter's cabin protected us from the early spring breeze.

Her great boom and beached bucket seemed out of place in what was soon to be refuge. When she'd arrived in Humboldt Bay nearly half a century before she'd seen the flats alive with brown pelicans, and with 25,000 brant at a clip en route from the Aleutians to Mexico, pausing here for restorative eel grass.

In those times hunters were bagging 25 ducks a day. Clams were limitless.

Then came the near extinction of the pelicans from pesticide, and with the depletion of wetlands the devastation of migratory birds.

My brother and I recalled that our grandmother 130 years ago had feasted on wild buffalo along the Oregon Trail before the beasts all but disappeared.

Our father 30 years later had gone to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing ship dedicated to harpooning fur seals in the North Pacific. Those "pelagic sealers" were halted by international law just in time.

And now the Jupiter faced bankruptcy after wreaking her own modest, diesel-smelling havoc on the natural patterns of Humboldt Bay.

My brother and I talked too long.

The tide ebbed quicker than we imagined.

Our boat, tied to the Jupiter, lay mired far from the receding channel.

With a couple of slabs of loose plywood we slithered our way through the muck, dragging our boat to open water.

We revved the motor, anxious to get home and dry.

Ahead, we saw basking on the bare flats a great herd of mother seals and their newborn pups.

We charged ahead.

The seals panicked at our fast approach.

The cows herded their pups toward what they fancied to be their only safety, the channel itself. In they dove. The curious pups clung to their mothers' backs.

All but one pup, that is.

It was newborn. It lay abandoned far on shore, crying, "Wonk, wonk," for its mother.

We cut the motor to silence. But our damage was done. No mother returned.

A seagull, sensing promise, landed near the distant, abandoned pup. The brisk wind dampened the pup's waning cries.

The pup, as best it could on weakened flippers, waddled toward the one thing left on the flats - toward the seagull - crying, "Wonk, wonk."

The seagull waited.

The tide was taking us fast away.


Sidebar to cover story:

By the numbers

A working scale model of the Jupiter is on display at the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum in Eureka.

The model was built in 145 hours by former Arcata resident Carl Regier. It shows Jupiter painted in her original white, her name prominent on the rounded control house.

According to her last owners of record, Richard and Gary Bartee, Jupiter is a slightly smaller version of the Sacramento Delta dredges Solano II, Delta I and others recorded in a book by Ed Dutro called Tule Breakers. Three such dredges still exist - the Sacramento, the Liberty and the Alameda.

The Jupiter, launched in 1927, is 40 feet long and 28 feet wide. She displaces 250 tons. Her shallow draft allows her to work in as little as three feet of water. Once in place, three tall vertical timbers called "spuds" are lowered several feet deep into the mud so she'll stay put against the drag on her bucket.

The Jupiter's 150-horsepower Cummins diesel engine turns a bull wheel seven feet in diameter. Through a series of gears controlled by hydraulic signals, the clam-shell bucket is lowered and raised by cables from the end of the 90-foot boom, dropping open and closing on the mud as it rises.

Her unique "Stockton bucket" weighs well over a ton. Like an ice-cream scoop, it is designed to spill its contents easily.

When the dredging at a particular place is complete, the spuds are raised, and the Jupiter propels herself to a new position by pulling herself along with her bucket.

Extended trips require a tow.

Her spuds, 16x16-inch timbers, rise some 30 feet high, well above her two-story deckhouse, which at one time housed a small galley and bunk room. She is run by a single operator with a deck hand to help.

Wally Graves taught for many years in California State Universities and has resided in Humboldt County since 1979.