Sat, February 22, 2014

Bristol Bay Pioneer Shipwright Charles Herrmann

by J. Pennelope Goforth
Like many Alaskan pioneers of the Bristol Bay area, Charles Herrmann came for the salmon, married for love, and stayed to build boats. Today his work lives on in the ships and the ship models he designed for Alaska Packers Association.

Charles Hermann on the dock at Koggiung, ca. 1950.
Photo courtesy Adelheid Herrmann

Herrmann was born in 1893 in the great port city of Kiel, in the Prussian state of Schleswig-Holstein. [1] Located on the south shore of the Baltic Sea, Kiel was one of the original ports of the Hanseatic League and the homeport of the German Royal Navy. Shipyards and docks lined the miles-long Kiel fjord from which the city spread out. At an early age, Herrmann, learned the carpentry trade and worked in the shipyard, earning his master certificate as a shipwright.
Then came the siren call. So leaving his family and friends, in 1910 he sailed for the western coast of America arriving in another busy shipbuilding port, San Francisco. He began his career as a ships carpenter for the growing Associated Oil Company of California. A manufacturer of crude oil products shipped across the Pacific and throughout the Pacific Northwest, the company ran a large fleet of tankers, barges, and tugs. Companies competed for trained capable shipwrights and he moved up the employment ladder to work for Standard Oil Company. Then came an even better offer from Alaska Packers Association that would change his life.
Running a fleet of old square-rigged sailing vessels called the ‘star fleet,’ APA was the largest manufacturer and distributor of canned Alaska salmon. The seasonal sailings of the STAR OF RUSSIA, STAR OF BENGAL, and the STAR OF FINLAND, among others, marked the beginning and the end of the Bristol Bay salmon season. Herrmann signed on as carpenter for a season. When the ship reached Koggiung on the Kvichak River, Herrmann was set to work ashore. He proved so handy maintaining the great complex of wooden buildings that comprised the cannery settlement inhabited by hundreds of workers and fishermen APA encouraged him to stay on.

The QUAIL in 2008, in Anacortes, formerly with the
Fremont Tugboat Company of Seattle. Photo couresty
Fremont Tugboat Company

By his third year at the Diamond ‘J’ cannery on the Kvichak River, he remained in Alaska to become the ‘winter man’, the off season caretaker. But he mainly occupied his time over the long snowy winter designing vessels.
Herrmann’s personal life blossomed as well when he met Anna Gartelman. A local Aleut woman from the thriving port village of Nushagak. In the early 1920s they married. Anna returned with him to Koggiung.
There is no road system than connects the canneries and villages of the Bristol Bay other than the waterways of the rivers and the bay itself. Homemade boats were the norm powered by oar and sail. The ‘tall ships’ with deep drafts of the APA fleet could not always approach the shallow tide lines where the cannery docks spilled out from the river banks. Sometimes they had to anchor several hundred yards from the beach. This transportation dilemma spawned mosquito fleets of tugs, tenders, dories, lighters, barges; all manner of craft were employed in moving people and fish and supplies throughout the busy season from ship to shore and back again.
Model of the QUAIL built in 1951 by Charles Herrmann.
Photo by J. Pennelope Goforth
Herrmann happily turned his ability to design and supervise the building of these much needed vessels to the service of APA. He built skiffs, lighters and several flat-bottomed barges. He also built a great number of the legendary double-ender sailboats and a few yachts. Almost all the prominent shipbuilders on the Pacific coast tried their hand at constructing speedy sailing yachts, mostly for fun and sport. But he is best known for the utility and timeless grace of the several tugboats he built for APA.
Tugboats were critical in towing the tall sailing ships—heavily laden with thousands of pounds of canned salmon at the end of the season—out to the open bay where they could catch a breeze. The tugs also nudged the powerless barges filled with salmon from offshore to the cannery docks where they were ‘pughed’, speared by pikes and flung on a conveyor to be cooked and canned.
APA named the larger vessels of their support fleet after birds. Two of Herrmann’s tugboats were IBIS (1935) and QUAIL (1940). The QUAIL was 72 feet long, 22 foot beam, boasted a 200hp, 325rpm Atlas-Imperial diesel engine. These engines were considered one of the most serviceable diesels ever built in the U.S. They were in demand since their introduction in 1916 powering tugboats, fishing boats and coasters. With engines in a variety of sizes (2 to 8 cylinders), their diesels became common on the West coast shore. Many engines that were built in the 1920s continued to run into 1951. [2]
He spent the following forty years as APA’s premier shipwright. He and Anna raised their family of six sons in the large village community at Koggiung, later moving to Levelock. When he retired, APA presented him with a gold and diamond company pin.

Close-up of model bow showing brass fittings.
Photo by J. Pennelope Goforth

However, he continued to work building model airplanes, children’s furniture like cribs, wagons, beds, even rocking horses. Houses, more skiffs, tank towers, and numerous dog sleds also occupied his time. Later in his life he built two scale models of the tugs QUAIL and IBIS. He spent about eight months working on the models in great detail with finely crafted brass fittings and intricately woven line including a tiny monkey fist, the ball-like weight that is thrown to secure the hawsers.
The IBIS, herself still reportedly working the docks in Newport, Oregon well into the 1990s. Shown here is the QUAIL, owned by Herrmann’s grandson, Gerald, and housed with his granddaughter, Bristol Bay fisherwoman and former state representative, Adelheid Herrmann. Charles Herrmann passed away on March 8, 1959. The QUAIL is still churning up a wake through Pacific Northwest waters.
[1] Herrmann Family Papers, courtesy Adelheid Herrmann.