Cordova Chronicles: It’s all in the name

In 1963 Alaska Packers brought up several sardine seiners from San Francisco to serve as salmon tenders. Shown tied up to Cordova’s Ocean Dock, the Southern Explorer had almost identical lines as the City of Eureka, which gained considerable fame as a trawler in northern California. Photo courtesy of Randy Bruce

Recently I dropped by Randy Bruce’s for coffee. He and I go back to the 1950’s, and enjoy shooting the breeze about the good old days, while sometimes discovering tidbits of local history and folklore in the process.

These days one popular way of sharing such fare is Facebook. Randy couldn’t wait to tell me about an article posted there regarding a fishing boat called the City of Eureka.

The story rang many familiar bells.

Back in 1963, Jack Keitel and Randy were running the Widgeon, one of Alaska Packer’s Association (APA) power-scow type tenders.

Merle Wickett, superintendent of the Cordova’s APA cannery, had hired several big sardine seiners from San Francisco to come up and tender for the summer.

The Widgeon just happened to off-load their fish to one such boat, the City of New York.

Randy said it looked just like the City of Eureka photo that popped up on Facebook

“They all had the same lines and were about the same length”, said Bruce .

He also recalled the crews on these unusual tenders. “They were all Slovakians, and a hard-working cheerful lot.”

Maybe their happy demeanor came in part from the gallons of red wine that he remembered on their long galley tables.

“It was part of their standard fare,” Bruce said.

Meanwhile, I had a tidbit of my own to share: the boat mentioned in the Facebook post was owned and operated by none other than my uncle, Dick Young.

Dick’s brother John had come north to Alaska for herring fisheries in the mid-thirties. It was John who talked his little sister Anita into coming to Cordova fresh out of high school in Everett, Washington, to help as a nannie for their family.  

While moonlighting as a cafe waitress, she met a dashing salesman in the clothing section of the Cordova Commercial Company named Don Shellhorn, an import from Seward, Alaska who evidently had quite a reputation as a Man About the Town.

Family folklore has it that when Anita asked her brother John if she could go out on a date with Don Shellhorn, he famously replied: “There is no way you are going out with that son-of-a—————.”

Naturally, the rest, as they say, is history — including wedding bells, two sons and two daughters, as well as my middle name, Richard, in honor of mom’s favorite brother, Dick.

Recollection of all this history was triggered by the Facebook feature, which was actually a copy of an article from the Eureka Humboldt Standard, dated July 18, 1959.

It was posted by Barbara Healy Stickel on a site called “Salty History” which seeks “features about Pacific Coast commercial fishing history, with a few more odds and ends thrown in for good measure.”

The headline for the newspaper story was “Trawler christened City of Eureka”, and began with an attention-grabbing lead, “The City of Eureka floated out the mouth of Humboldt Bay this morning.”

It went on to clarify that “local residents need not be alarmed, however, as the City of Eureka is a newly christened trawler, formerly the Pearl Harbor of San Francisco.”

The feature described how the former sardine boat, built in 1941- 42 in Tacoma, Washington, had been converted to a trawler for the then significant sum of $20,000; and skipper Dick Young, along with a crew of three, was taking her out for a shakedown fishing trip to Crescent City.

It mentioned that Young owned interest in two other boats, but this 80 footer, powered by a 250 HP Atlas diesel, with a beam of 20 feet and a crow’s nest 40 feet above the deck, was by far his largest.

The article described a new series of winches and pulleys that been rigged to convert it for trawling, with sole the primary target, caught anywhere from 60 to 150 fathoms deep; and closed by saying Young hoped to fill his 200,000 pound capacity hold, making five or six trawls a day.

He did that, and more. Many successful seasons followed, and one year the City of Eureka set a record for the most valuable single fishing trip up to that time.

But increasing pressure from bigger and more modern steel boats, plus the ensuing decline of stocks, plagued the fishery. Dick’s son Richard, who had taken over the boat, operated it until 2003, when it was retired and sold to be refitted as a recreational craft.

The wooden vessel’s 70-year life was ended by a big wave, of all things. In 2011, it broke loose from its mooring and was destroyed as a result of a huge tsunami caused by a massive earthquake 5,000 miles away in Japan.

Dick’s son Richard recalled his father was proud of the fact that it was the biggest boat in the Eureka boat harbor when he bought it.

Perhaps that is why, when asked by the Eureka newspaper reporter where he came up with the name for his 80 footer, he replied: “A lot of cities have fishing boats named after them like the City of Seattle, the City of San Pedro, and Long Beach and San Diego. I thought it was about time that we had a City of Eureka.”

All four Young brothers served in WWII. Dick ended up in the Aleutian Islands as an Army caterpillar mechanic and operator.

He had a great sense of humor, and enjoyed sending letters that always including a few jokes to his sister in Alaska. For years, he also sent up several cases of incredible pure-white hand-packed albacore tuna.

My sister Sharon fondly recalled them, saying “For years, we probably ate more tuna sandwiches than anyone else in Cordova.”

Living in a fishing town like Cordova, we all know how boats and family trees are intertwined.

And it goes without saying that I’m very proud to be named after the captain of a fishing vessel that gained considerable fame, and just happened to be my uncle.