Hans Bendixsen, Shipbuilder at Fairhaven (on Humboldt Bay), CA
After we realized how vital the sailing and steam schooners were to the coastal settlements along the Mendocino Coast we were told that there was one wooden sailing schooner left from the era of sail, the C.A.Thayer. The Thayer is being refurbished by the San Francisco Maritime Museum. The Thayer was built in Fairhaven, California by a man named Bendixsen.
We visited Fairhaven where Mr Bendicksen had his shipyard. If you have been to Eureka you may well have been to the Samoa Cookhouse. The Cookhouse besides serving authentic logging cookhouse fare (including grits – ugh!!!!!) is a quasi museum. The walls of the cookhouse are covered with turn of the 20th century photographs including pictures of ships being launched at the Bendixsen yard and ships built by Bendixsen.
Just to the north we found Fairhaven and the remains of the pier used at the Bendixsen yard. So far as we could determine there were no remains of the yard itself.
At the bottom of the hill on which the Samoa Cookhouse sits is the roundhouse full of steam locomotives owned by the Timber Heritage Association. The rail line serving the roundhouse is one and the same that went to Fairhaven and, subsequent research revealed, brought 80.
If you spend more than a few minutes looking at our newly revised page on ships you will soon learn that Mr. Bendixsen built a lot of them. One account we have read said he built 115 vessels in all. We have 470 plus in our ships section. Clearly he was a man who had earned a little more space in our website.
Hans Ditlev Bendixsen was born in Thisted, Denmark in 1842. Although his parents were prosperous Hans was apprenticed to a shipbuilder in Aalborg. Clearly proficient in his trade he completed his apprenticeship and worked as a shipwright in Copenhagen for two years. He elected to go to sea as a ship’s carpenter and he arrived in San Francisco on a ship that came from Brazil around Cape Horn in 1863. He easily found work in the Bay shipyards at $4 per day.
He moved north to Eureka (where much of the timber used to build schooners around San Francisco Bay emanated) and first worked on the construction of the barkentine Eureka and the brig Nautilus on Humboldt Bay in 1868. He then played a leading role in the building of the schooners Dashing Wave and Luella. Bendixsen then formed the firm of Bendixsen and McDonald which built the two-masted, shallow-draft schooner Fairy Queen and in 1870 Bendixsen, on his own, built centerboard schooner Undine. These ships were all built in Eureka. Between 1872 and 1874 Bendixsen turned out six two-masted schooners and two small coastal steamers. Some records indicate he also built half dozen small schooners between 60 and 80 tons in this same period.
Business boomed and in 1875 Bendixsen abandoned the shipyard he had in Eureka and moved to a tract of land he had bought on the sandspit north of the entrance to Humboldt Bay. The land was across from the port of Eureka and adjacent to the Humboldt Lighthouse reservation (which is still there).
The yard grew very quickly and with it rose the town of Fairhaven. The year that Bendixsen moved he took orders for three small Tahitian schooners – La Gironde, Vini and Varao plus a brig, Palomo, and five two-masted schooners ranging in size from 69 to 224 tons.
The village of Fairhaven soon became a boomtown taking much of the “glitter” away from Eureka. In 1876 he turned out 11 two-masted schooners and his first three-masted schooner – the 345 ton Excelsior.
Bendixsen often owned shares in the ships he built —vessels plying the coast with lumber or trading out to the sugar islands. After many good years an economic crisis within the lumber industry in 1877 forced Bendixsen to sell his shipyard so that he could pay his employees and creditors. He rented the shipyard from the new owners and continued to build ships. By doing this he was able to keep his highly trained and motivated shipyard crew. Seven years later he was able to buy back the shipyard.
The recession in 1877 held shipbuilding down and Bendixsen built just one three-masted schooner and did some repair jobs. Because of the recession Bendixsen joined forces with another reputable ship-builder, Thomas Petersen who had a yard on the Mendocino coast. The partnership was short-lived and they parted company as friendly enemies.
While endeavoring to acquire new orders Bendixsen rebuilt the ill-fated paddle wheel tug Mary Ann and the schooner Albert & Edward after the two vessels were salvaged from the Humboldt Bay bar.
One of the most famous/long-lived ships that Bendixsen built was the Wawona. The story of her construction, and a lot of detail about Bendixsen can be found using this link.
From 1879 until his retirement in 1901 he continued to build what were regarded as the finest ships built along the Pacific coast. Between 1870 and 1905 a lot of the lumber that built San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego came from the forests of Douglas Fir that grew in Oregon and Washington. Bendixsen built his ships of this same Douglas fir. To accommodate their cargo efficiently West Coast schooners were designed to carry more than half of their cargo on deck, and the crew worked the vessel from atop the towering load.
Hans Bendixsen died 12 February 1902. His wife Emma took his coffin to Denmark. He was buried in South Graveyard in Thisted in one of the most grandiose tombs in Denmark. Emma Bendixsen returned to California, married again and settled in Alameda. She died in 1954, leaving her estate to charitable institutions in Hans Bendixsen's native Denmark.
The biggest Bendixsen legacy was the tutoring Bendixsen gave to the shipwrights in his employ. Most of his employees stayed on when the shipyard was sold in 1901. The die cast by Bendixsen was long-lasting as the yard continued to build outstanding schooners through World War I.