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Saltcod and sail: Poulsbo Historical Society celebrates centennial of the Pacific Coast Codfish Co.

The ‘John A,’ a three-masted codfish schooner launched in Eureka, Calif., in 1893, joined the Pacific Coast Codfish Co. fleet in 1911.                                                    - Courtesy Jim Shields
The ‘John A,’ a three-masted codfish schooner launched in Eureka, Calif., in 1893, joined the Pacific Coast Codfish Co. fleet in 1911.
— image credit: Courtesy Jim Shields

POULSBO — Capt. Ed Shields of Poulsbo knew more than most about time and tides, and so there was a sense of urgency to his efforts to get his meticulous accounts of the Pacific Coast cod fishery published as a book.

“He had approached other publishers and nobody wanted it,” said author/publisher Jeremy Snapp, a family friend now living on Lopez Island. “Ed approached me. He had such great photographs, took such good notes, I thought it should be put out in print. We spent a year working on it. Boy, we got there just in time.”

The result: “Salt of the Sea: The Pacific Coast Cod Fishery and the Last Days of the Sail,” an oversized hardback book of 238 pages, containing Shields’ never-before-published photos and his accounts of the work that went into preparing the fishing fleet for five months in the high seas and ensuring that the ships came back safely with holds full of cod.

The book was published in the states by Snapp’s Pacific Heritage Press and in Canada by Heritage House. Then, on March 28, 2002 — a few weeks after the book launch at Sons of Norway and a book signing at Liberty Bay Bookstores, Shields died — or crossed the bar, in the maritime parlance he preferred.

Shields’ accounts of the cod fishery and the last days of sail will be brought to life in an exhibit and presentation Saturday, 5 p.m., at the Poulsbo Historical Museum, in City Hall. The event is open to the public.

The evening coincides with the centennial of the Shields’ Pacific Coast Cod Co., which operated from 1911-1951 on Liberty Bay. The centerpiece of the evening will be a documentary film that Shields shot in 1950, the last year a commercial sailing ship left the West Coast. The Shields family has also loaned the society numerous maritime artifacts collected from the cod fishing industry, which will be on display Saturday and for several weeks thereafter. They include navigation gear, ship equipment and scale models of the original sailing ships used by the Shields family.

Refreshments and appetizers will be provided. There is a suggested donation of $5, or $2 for Historical Society members. There will be a raffle for a copy of “Salt of the Sea,” an original photograph of the Pacific Coast Codfish Co., and original company labels.

It’s been 60 years since the Shields’ ships plied the Pacific with cargos of cod. But the Pacific Coast Codfish Co.’s influence lives on, and not just in the memories of those who worked there.

There is, of course, the book, the consummate record of the cod fishing industry.

The C.A. Thayer, the company’s wooden-hulled, three-masted schooner, is on exhibit at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

And now, the exhibit, the museum’s first.

“Our goal is three or four a year,” said docent Carly Michelson. “We thought we’d highlight the centennial of the codfish company because it was such a focal point on Liberty Bay and the lead employer in North Kitsap for a long time. We thought it was a great fit.”

Historical Society board member Dale Rudolph, a former city councilman, said an exhibit on Keyport is scheduled to open Sept. 9. Future exhibits are planned on Suquamish and Port Gamble.

The Pacific Coast Codfish Co. was established at the current site of Liberty Bay Marina in 1911. Capt. J.E. Shields was initially secretary-treasurer; over the ensuing years, he purchased enough stock to become the sole owner.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the company employed more than 40 men and women. Men fished for five months off the Aleutians and in the Bering Sea; winter months were spent processing and packing cod in Poulsbo.

If it’s a romantic scene in our imaginations today, it was hard work then. Schooners were outfitted in April, sailed to Seattle’s wharves to load hundreds of tons of salt, shipped their crews aboard, towed out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sailed to the storm-swept Bering Sea, 1,800 miles from Puget Sound, for the five-month fishing season. The C.A. Thayer voyaged to this last haunt of the West Coast schooner 12 times between 1925 and 1950.

Men fished from outboard motor-powered dories, fitted with canvas sprayhoods over the bows. While these powered dories were a great improvement over the oar‑and‑sail propelled craft which they replaced, the methods of the fishery and the life of the fisherman were much the same in 1948 as in 1878, according to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Fish were loaded into the schooner’s hold, then delivered by sail to the great brine tanks on the Pacific Coast Codfish Company dock for processing and packaging.

The younger Shields established a reputation as a mariner at the age of 17, when he went to sea to help his father crew the Sophie Christenson in the Bering Sea. During a five-month fishing trip, the 45-man vessel set the all-time American record for codfish, hauling home an astounding 455,000 cod, according to the San Juan Islands-based Saltwater People Historical Society.

Shields went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering from Harvard, but never turned his back to the sea — continuing to sail the Thayer after the age of sail had ended.

During World War II, many commercial sailing vessels were pressed into service by the U.S. government. “The thing about Ed and the Thayer — none of these vessels sailed after the Second World War. They were either converted into barges or sunk,” Snapp said. “But the Shields family was able to get their schooners back — the John A, the Sophie Christenson, the Thayer. They took the best of all the ships and put them into the Thayer. They were the only people doing it. It was amazing the Shields family kept this going.”

The reason they were able to stick with it: “Their cargo was salted, so they were not in any hurry to get to market. They could go at it at a slower pace. It was still a viable money-making venture, even after the war, when everyone else gave up.”

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, home of the Thayer, has a photograph of Archie Shields salting down cod in the hold of the C.A. Thayer on her last voyage, using the method of preserving freshly caught fish that had been used for centuries.

“The salt codfish, the age-old staple of Northern Europe’s maritime peoples, declined rapidly in popularity with the food processing revolution of our times,” according to the national park’s website.

Thus, the saltcod fishery ended in 1950 and the Shields family got into king crab fishing in Alaska. But the company and the family’s contributions to maritime history live on.

The Pacific Coast Codfish Co.’s fleet
1911: “John A,” a three-masted codfish schooner launched in Eureka, Calif., in 1893. She was 131.7 feet long with a 32-foot beam and a 9.8-foot depth of hold. The gross was 282.4 tons. “A very fine sailing vessel for her small size,” Shields wrote. “All fishing was done from one-man dories which were launched each day from the schooner and returned to her in the evening with the day’s catch.”

1913: “Charles R. Wilson,” a three-masted schooner. She was built at Hans D. Bendixsen Shipyard in Fairhaven, Humboldt Bay, Calif., in 1891 for the lumber trade. She was 150 feet long with 35-foot beam and 11-foot depth of hold. She was rated at 345-tons gross; “she could land nearly 500 tons of cured cod,” Shields wrote.

The Charles R. Wilson operated during World War II delivering cargos of saltcod every year except 1944, under the command of Captain Knute Pearson of Poulsbo.

1925: “C.A. Thayer,” a three-masted schooner built in the same yard as the Charles R. Wilson. She was listed at 452 tons gross. “She could land nearly 600 tons of saltcod, which may explain why she was the last commercial sailing vessel on the U.S. West Coast and the last to operate out of Poulsbo,” Shields wrote.

She served as a lumber schooner between Hoquiam and San Francisco, and then as a salmon packet in Alaska before joining the Pacific Coast Codfish Co. fleet.

The U.S. Army requisitioned the Thayer in 1942, removing her masts and converted her into a floating storehouse for empty shell‑cases in Prince Rupert, B. C., according to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. After the war, the Pacific Coast Codfish Co. re‑purchased the Thayer from the Army, refitted her, and sent her cod fishing in the Bering Sea for five more years.

She landed her last cargo in 1950 with Shields in command.

1931: “Sophie Christenson,” a four-masted schooner built in Port Blakely in 1901. She was built for the lumber trade and for hauling general cargo. She was 180.6 feet long with a 38.9-foot beam and a 13.4-foot depth of hold. Her first captain in Poulsbo was Captain John Grotle; her last, Captain J.E. Shields.

“She carried a crew of 22 dory-fishermen, a dressing crew, and cooks, to make a total of 44 men,” the younger Shields wrote.

— ONLINE: Take a virtual tour of the C.A. Thayer.

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