Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Loading Syndicate Wheat at Port Costa -- February 23, 2010

From the 14-June-1895 San Francisco Call. WA Coulter did many maritime drawings for the newspaper. This one shows square-rigged grain ships loading at Port Costa on the Carquinez Straits. Click on the image for a larger version. The syndicate is the sort of greedy people described in Frank Norris' The Octopus, The Pit, and "A Corner in Wheat." Senator James G (Slippery Jim) Fair was one of the Bonanza Kings. The largest ferry in the world was the Solano, which carried Southern Pacific trains across the Straits. Jack McAuliffe was a bare knuckle lightweight world champion. The administrators of his estate lacked some of his business skills. The accompanying article:

FOURTEEN big ships are lashed to the warehouse docks at Port Costa, and 200 sturdy men are loading the Fair syndicate wheat for Liverpool. It is a large lot — 180,000 tons in all — and fills the spacious warehouses to overflowing. This year's crop will begin to come in about the last week in June, and where it is to be stored is what nobody seems to know. At the rate of moving August will see only half of the present lot on shipboard, and where the harvest of the present season is to be stored is an enigma.

The combine is not at all worried. The market is theirs to play with as they choose, and the farmers of California are at their mercy. Now the mercy of a trust is not tender, and the producers arc sore afraid. With plenty of ships at their command and a thousand idle men hanging around the docks and begging for employment the warehouses might soon be cleared of this enormous block of wheat that has been used by a combination to bull the market of California. But the game is not yet over. The ultimate dollar has not yet been extracted, and it is fair to presume that the combine will hold the deal over the heads of the local producers as long as it can. They are in no hurry to ship, because when the wheat is on the Liverpool market they can no longer use it as a conjuror's rod wherewith to bring the farmer to their terms. When the last of the Fair wheat is on the water the market will probably revive. But the combine is in no hurry.

Administrators unused to subtle tricks of finance are not met with every day and forced to sell far below the market price because outgeneraled in the matter of transportation. Senator Fair in his lifetime did not do things that way. No one ever got up a corner on ships that he was likely to have use for. No combine ever forced him to sell at a loss.

One can imagine McNear, Eppinger and the others, trying to frighten the dead millionaire into selling the lot in question at $17 per ton, on the plea that all the ships had been chartered for the next six months. The weevil story would not have startled the dead financier either and at a pinch he would probably have built his own ships. But the administrators — that is another story. They sold, and Port Costa is glad that they did, because it has made things lively up there a month earlier than usual. Port Costa is a quiet town with a fluctuating population. For nine months in the year she dreams in languorous inactivity. There is little toil, and no spinning to speak of. But when the hills above the town grow bare and brown, and the long wheat trains rumble in from the valleys of the south, the town bestirs itself from a nine months' lethargy and takes on a boom aspect.

Big men with brawn and muscle to sell flock there from all parts of the State to help load the ships. Buildings along Steam Beer row, unused for months, rent readily for lodging-houses and stores, and the rusty rails that thread the principal thoroughfare grow bright under the incessant pounding of busy switch-engines. With returning activity the negro minstrel comes, the circus, the light-fingered faro dealer and the gaudily bedecked siren of the dance-hall. At Casey's place, down on the row, they run three games all night, and over in the canyon behind the hills longshoremen meet frequently to emulate the prowess of "Bloody Mike" Brennan
and Sailor Brown in a twenty-four foot ring.

Port Costa is not without real fame, though. Old settlers point with pride to the fact that it is the largest wheat depot in California. It shares with Benicia the honor of having the largest ferry-boat in the world. And then there was the Port Costa giant — Mike Brennan — who used to load wheat at 25 cents per nour. To be sure, he was not a native of Port Costa (who is ?),but he lived there for many years, waxed strong at rustling 100-pound wheat sacks, then whipped five men in Casey's one night, and finally trained on a free lunch diet and stood up for forty-nine furious rounds before the great Jack McAuliffe. The giant is living in Chicago now and has given up loading wheat, but they still boast of his mighty arms and lightning action as they stow away the grain for Liverpool.

When the wheat is all loaded and the ships have sailed away across the water the population runs rapidly from 1500 or 2000 souls down to 200 or less, and for those left there is absolutely nothing to do. The faro banks suspend, the stores close, the minstrel seeks a wider field, and those who decide to wait around for the wheat to come again occupy themselves in sleeping and catfishing around the wharves.

This year the town awoke a month earlier than usual and prepared to load the Fair wheat. In two days after the deal the population had trebled. In four days it had jumped from 200 to 1000, and they are still coming.

The big warehouses where the loading is going on stretch along the irregular shore line from Nevada dock to Stair's mills, a distance of nearly two miles. The Grangers' warehouse holds 398,903 centals, the Pacific warehouse 638,000 centals, the Port Costa warehouse 708,957 centals, the California warehouse 102,000 centals, the Nevada warehouse 760,403 centals and Starr's warehouse 811,312 centals. Some idea of the magnitude of this enormous sale may be gathered from the fact that the adininistrators received for the block the sum of $3,053,200.

George McNear got 60,050 tons, Eppinger & Co. 57,450 tons. Balfour, Guthrie & Co. 50,050 tons, and Blum, Baldwin & Girvin 12,000 tons. McNear's bill for storage alone amounted to $110,000, and the commissions on the sale to $89,000, this sum being equally divided between McGlauflin &, Co., and H. Dutard. Taxes on the lot for the year amounted to $25,961 65, which was paid by the administrators a short time before the sale.

Of course the weevil story, set on foot no doubt for a purpose which was not lacking in intended effect, was a myth pure and simple, as was also the rumor that the wheat was showing signs of decay. Now and then a rotten streak is encountered, and occasionally the work of the weevil is seen, but this would naturally follow in any lot of wheat two years old. As a matter of fact the loss from these sources will not amount to anything worth mentioning, and for grain from the crop of 1893, it may be said to be in as perfect condition as may be expected.

With the sacks it is different, and decay is everywhere. This occasions considerable difficulty in handling, but does not necessarily imply any loss further than the employment or an unusual number of men in resacking. This is said to be due to the methods used in harvesting, which are inferior to the old methods, where the grain must remain for a long time in storage. With the combined harvester the wheat is sacked and dumped from the trip board to the ground, where it is allowed to lie for four or five days on the ground exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.

This burns the sack, and the moving from the farmer's warehouse to the shipper's warehouse and then aboard the ship usually completes the havoc. Most of the Fair wheat, besides the usual exposure on the harvest-field, has been transferred so often that it is in anything but good condition for shipping.

In loading three methods are employed. As in every other department of human labor machinery has come to the aid of the owner and dispensed with the use of many hands seeking employment, thus rendering obsolete processes in former vogue.

Staging was formerly used, and had only one fault — it required too many hands. By this method fifty or sixty men could work on one ship, taking the sacks from the truckmen as they were brought alongside and passed from one stage to another, and thence over the side and down the hatchways. In some cases the ports were opened and the sacks passed through to men on the inside. At the present time hoisting is the method most in use, though the others are occasionally resorted to, the manner of loading being due, to some extent, to the position of the ship in the water.

In hoisting, a "donkey" engine is placed upon a barge, which is made fast to the opposite side of the ship. Tackle is lowered over the wharf side, and the sacks picked up and dropped into the hatchway -- eighteen in a bunch.

This is a big saving of labor, reducing the force necessary by either of the other processes by about one-half. The men are divided into gangs, ranging in number from six to twelve or fifteen, according to the needs of the situation. Gang bosses are paid $6 per day. Truckmen receive 25 cents per hour, while men who work in the hatches or over the side of the ship get 55 cents per hour. It is the duty of the gang bosses to keep the truckmen under them moving at an easy trot from 7 in the morning until 5 at night, with an hour off at noon. As the labor of the other men
depends upon the regularity with which the sacks are brought alongside, it may be inferred that the crews throughout are kept at the highest point of exertion.

The ships now at the Port Costa dock are, with a single exception, all iron bottoms of English build. In tonnage they range from 5000 tons to 1500 tons, the former being the tonnage of the Dunstaffnage, the heaviest ship in port, and the latter figures marking the burden of the Elmhurst, the smallest craft now waiting for a cargo.

Of the fourteen ships docked only six are being loaded. It is clear that the combine is in no hurry. The syndicate wheat is a heavy club for the farmers of California. The ships are there and the officers are impatient for their cargoes. The men are there and anxious to work, but the combine is not moved to action commensurate with the occasion, and the end is far away.


Paul West said...

Hi. Where on earth did you find this? It's great!

I'm a former resident of Port Costa and an amature Port Costa historian - at least I love to read about its history.

Thank you for posting this article. It's fascinating.

Joe Thompson said...

Paul: I'm glad you liked it. W. A. Coulter was a remarkable artist. I found it on Chronicling America, a site run by the Library of Congress which is digitizing a bunch of old newspapers.

Did you click on the image to see the larger version?

I like Port Costa. It must have been a swinging place in its heyday.