North Coast Journal

by Deborah Upshaw

Bay ambassador turns 85

Catching a "launch" home after a hard day's work, millworkers on the Samoa peninsula waited for the ferry boat to take them back to Eureka. The year was 1970, and it was the last trip for many of these men. Looking to the north, they could see the spans of the newly constucted Samoa Bridge ready for traffic.

The trip to work and back would be quicker now. A glance through the car window would suffice for sunrise and sunset viewing. The birds on the bay would be in the distance, smaller, less noisy. There'd be no more waiting in line for one of the passenger boats in Capt. Henry H. Cousins' fleet of six.

But the pace of that time still floats in the minds of old timers and in the form of a boat - the M.V. Madaket - the oldest passenger vessel in the United States.

The only launch in Cousins' fleet to survive in North Coast waters, the Madaket has been remodeled, refitted and reborn since the bridge came to be. She turns 85 this month, still plying the waters of the bay, now as a touring craft rather than a working stiff.

Famous for her age, the boat also holds title as having the smallest licensed bar in the state, according to her captain, Leroy Zerlang.

Zerlang plans to observe the June 6 occasion with birthday cruises around the bay. The day's passengers will be among the tens of thousands who have traveled aboard the historic boat.

Many who rode the ferry to work and back didn't know her as the Madaket. When she began serving this community in 1910, she was called Nellie C., after a member of Cousins' family.

Later, Walter Coggeshall bought Cousins' fleet, six wooden ferry boats. When Coggeshall renamed the boats, the Nellie C. became the Madaket - a name taken from an Indian tribe in Nantucket, Mass. The others also took on Indian names.

"The boats carried about 1,200 people a day to the plywood mills, pulp mills and a stud mill on the Samoa peninsula," said Art Christensen, a former captain of the Madaket. "The first one would leave the F Street docks at 6 a.m. and run continuously until 2:30 a.m. the next day."

Now 81, Christensen remembers piloting the Madaket as a teenager. "Henry Cousins let me operate the boat when I was still in high school, though I didn't get my official license until 1937," he said. "Later, I worked for Walter Coggeshall."

Christensen's late brother, Carl, also piloted the Madaket. He was known as a "Coggeshall Pirate," a nickname for skippers of the ferry fleet.

Evelyn McCormick, a historian, recounted how important the passenger vessels were. "The boats were on the bay all the time, but people didn't call them 'ferry boats.' They called them 'launches.' People would say, 'I'm going to catch the launch to Eureka.'"

McCormick, who grew up in Samoa, recalled the launches carrying more than passengers. "They carried all kinds of freight around the bay. The bigger boats carried logs and livestock - horses, cows and sheep. But the Madaket carried items like tires, equipment and small packages."

In 1971 the Madaket faced an uncertain future. With the completion of the Eureka-Samoa Bridge, the era of ferry boating had come to an end. By now all but two of the original Cousins' fleet had been burned, sunk or abandoned. Besides the Madaket, the only other survivor is the Sallie C. (renamed Quidnet). The boat is believed to be on the water near San Francisco.

Businessman Bob Imperial, who saw a potential in the tourism trade, bought the Madaket in 1971. He hired a crew of carpenters and shipwrights to overhaul the vessel. They stripped, sanded and painted the hull, refurbished the wheelhouse and gave her a new diesel engine.

By the summer of 1972 she had changed from a work boat to a harbor cruise boat. And she made her new home at the C Street docks in Old Town, Eureka. Walter Schafran became the captain of the cruise boat at this time, creating a narrated tour that's lasted nearly 25 years.

"Walter was a retired commander from the U.S. Coast Guard and a bona fide seaman," Zerlang said. "It is his spirit and storytelling that has remained with her. We still use a good part of his original narration on the cruises."

One thing that hasn't changed is the number of passengers that can board the Madaket. As in yesteryear, the capacity is 49.

In 1975, a non-profit organization, Humboldt's Future, took over her guardianship. In 1983 the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum was founded and its members purchased the ship. At that time, a passenger boarded the ferry and became almost as famous as the boat she rode on. That passenger was a friendly and remarkable dog.

"Mia was always the first one to board the Madaket when we left the dock," Zerlang said. The Labrador/Chesapeake retriever mix was named after Miacomet - another of Coggeshall's boats.

Zerlang lived on Indian Island for a few years and Mia was with him during those years. "She would hang out on the island, or chase cormorants around the bay. Sometimes we would be on the Madaket and she'd jump off and swim home. But she always knew when to show up, when it was time to go back to work.

"Everybody knew Mia. People still ask me, 'Where's the old black dog?' She was with the Madaket 11 years, until the day she died on Jan. 26, 1994. Everybody misses her," he said with tears in his eyes.

While Mia was the one and only mascot of the Madaket, there were many skippers through the years. However, only one woman ever piloted the Madaket - Cathy Webber.

Webber started out as a deckhand and bartender - serving drinks from the tiny bar. She never imagined herself as captain, but other skippers urged her to get a license.

Webber remembers her first training session, out in the bay in thick fog. They called it "a shake-down cruise."

"Leroy was down below with Carl Christensen," Webber said. "I was in the wheelhouse with Art Christensen and Les Hoffman. Before I knew it, they had the Madaket in the mouth, at the bar (harbor entrance), and they told me to take over the wheel.

"Things were rocking and rolling all over. They were holding onto things in the wheelhouse, and I hung onto the wheel. Leroy came running up and asked what was going on. They just told him to go below."

Of course, Webber passed the "test," grateful for the encouragement she received. "I got my license in 1986 and I operated the Madaket for three summers, doing several cruises a day.

"I fell in love with her," Webber said, "and I never got tired of seeing all the wildlife - the harbor seals, the pelicans and waterfowl on the bay."

By the late '80s, the Madaket was in dire need of refurbishing. Zerlang, his father, Bill, and others, banded together with the goal of preserving the historic vessel. They raised about $270,000 for the restoration project.

Beginning in 1989, the project lasted about nine months, under the direction of master shipwright Ed Frey of Fortuna. Frey and his crew worked long hours at the Fields Landing shipyard, laboriously tearing apart the Madaket.

The work was monumental. They completely rebuilt the vessel of Douglas fir except the keel shoe and rubs rails which they made from iron bark.

"We chose Douglas fir because it was the same material used on the boat by master shipwright W. F. McDonald in 1909," Frey explained. "Also, it was readily available on the West Coast."

The men tore apart the stern and the stem, rebuilding them with new timbers.

"We used large, sound timbers taken from salvage docks and warehouses around Eureka," Frey said. "For example, we cut the stem post at the front end from a solid 8-inch by 14-inch, 10-foot-long timber!"

Frey held fast to the traditional shipwrights' methods of work. "Ninety-eight percent of the woodwork was done with hand tools. Some of my tools are over 50 years old, but as sharp and good as new.

"I used adzes, slicks and chisels for framing joinery, and my collection of caulking irons when I worked on the hull and the deck."

The men reshaped the ends of the hull, bolting it together. In addition, they used carriage bolts, lag screws, boat clews and dock spikes. They replaced the frames, using the original frames and old planking as a pattern for new ones.

"We were able to lock each frame into place in succession, holding closely to the hull's original shape," Frey said.

In 1934 the top deck wheelhouse was cut off and lowered into the main cabin for easy engine access. More than 50 years later, Frey's team restored the wheelhouse to its original location above deck.

Replacing the planking was one of the most difficult tasks.

"It was a tedious job," Frey admitted, "and we replaced almost all of the original planks, since many were badly deteriorated. We built a steam box on location, which we used to soften and bend the fantail planks."

With the hot boards coming out of the steam box, Frey and crew twisted hard, holding the boards into place with a clamp until they cooled. Not surprisingly, a snapping plank was cause for many groans.

Since neither blueprints nor any early drawings were available, Frey and his crew could only work from old photos of the Madaket. Throughout the project, assistant Bill Hole kept a detailed photo journal.

"The systematic note taking and step-by-step photography proved to be invaluable during every rebuilding stage," Hole said. "I took hundreds of photos - many which we used for fund raising and advertising."

They also made drawings on site as they removed the rotted wood and made patterns for the new lumber that would replace the old. Later, they turned the drawings over to the U.S. Coast Guard for its records.

After nine months of hard work, Frey and his crew restored the 47.5-foot fantailed ferry to her original glory.

Ready to sail again, the Madaket was ceremoniously relaunched on Dec. 16, 1989, in Fields Landing.

The '90s have been a tranquil time for the Madaket as she continues to take boatloads of sightseers around Humboldt Bay.

Traversing the water by day and night, the Madaket provides an unusual setting for many occasions.

"I remember when two couples got married on the Madaket on the Fourth of July," Zerlang recalled. "They signed their names on eight-inch pyros that were shot off during the fireworks display in the harbor."

School teachers and countless groups of children have memories of field trips upon the water.

Others recall somber burials at sea. Riding out in the vessel, shrouded in black, many families have scattered the ashes of a loved one upon the water.

She's also proudly served the City of Eureka by escorting famous and foreign vessels, including "tall ships" into the bay.

For example, she was the lead boat for the cruise ship S. S. Monterey in 1977 and in 1994 when the cruise ship Sun Viking visited the North Coast.

When the Maritime Museum opened in 1983, she ushered the Pride of Baltimore into the Bay.

She also welcomed three unusual Russian ships, St. Peter, St. Michael and St. Gabriel. The three traveled from port to port, looking for a place to dock.

She escorted others, like the Golden Hinde, the Lady Washington and the H.M.S. Bounty into Humboldt Bay.

"The Madaket is the City of Eureka's 'waterborne ambassador,'" Zerlang said. "It's very traditional for a city's home port vessel to greet the ships that come into the harbor."

In 1993, members of the Native Sons of the Golden West started making plans to have the Madaket dedicated as a historic vessel.

Over 11,000 members belong to the group statewide. And, for nearly 200 years, they have honored boats, buildings and places of historical merit in California.

Phil Jurick, former president of the local branch, said the social group has met in Humboldt County for over 112 years. "We're interested in preserving history. Since the Madaket is the oldest registered passenger vessel in the U.S., we felt that she was worthy of a formal dedication.

"We decided that the Madaket represented a bygone era of transportation."

The plans became a reality June 19, 1994. A large crowd gathered at the Adorni Center docks to see the historic dedication.

After many speeches, members of the Native Sons of the Golden West stepped forward to "seal the plaque" with native cement (water, sand and gravel gathered from all the counties in California.)

Humboldt County natives, as well as tourists, can now ride in a boat that's truly made her mark in history.

Deborah Upshaw is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Eureka. She writes for a variety of regional and national publications, and is a contributing editor for Woodwork Magazine.


"Madaket milestones"

1909 - Under construction on the sandy beaches of Fairhaven, Calif.

1910 - Christened and certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Launched on June 6. Part of a fleet of six ships owned by Capt. Henry H. Cousins.

1931 - Purchased by Walter Coggeshall, the owner of Coggeshall Launch & Towboat Co.

1936-1945 - Ownership changes hands a few times during this period.

1945 - Hoffman brothers purchase the Madaket and several of the remaining boats from the Coggeshall fleet.

1971-1972 - Minor refurbishing during this period. June 1972 marks date the last load of passengers taken to Georgia-Pacific Lumber Co.

1972 - Businessman Bob Imperial purchases the Madaket and turns it into a cruise boat in July of this year.

1975 - Bought by non-profit group, Humboldt's Future, and served as her guardian for nearly a decade.

1983 - Members of the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum purchase the Madaket. Currently own boat.

1989 - Madaket comes out of the water in March and major refurbishing begins at Fields Landing. Madaket is relaunched in a formal ceremony on Dec. 16.

1990 - Madaket returns to service on Humboldt Bay.

1994 - Dedicated by the Native Sons of the Golden West as a historic vessel in June at the Adorni Docks.

1995 - Madaket celebrates her 85th birthday on June 6.

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