Matthew Turner (shipbuilder)

Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner in later life
Born 1825
Geneva, Ohio
Died Feb. 10, 1909
Nationality American
Occupation Shipbuilder, sea captain

Matthew Turner (1825-1909) was an American sea captain, shipbuilder and designer. He constructed 228 vessels, of which 154 were built in the Matthew Turner shipyard in Benicia. He built more sailing vessels than any other single shipbuilder in America, [1] and can be considered "the 'grandaddy' of big time wooden shipbuilding on the Pacific Coast."[2]


Early life

Matthew Turner was born in Geneva, Ohio in 1825. His family lived on the shores of Lake Erie and there he learned about both fishing and shipbuilding. His first wife died in childbirth with their first child. He then sought his fortune in gold mining in California in 1850 and was quite successful.[1]

Career as ship captain

Turner later travelled to New York where he bought the schooner Toronto, sailing her back to California. There he went into business with Captain Richard Thomas Rundle and started shipping timber to San Francisco from the Mendocino coast. They were soon able to replace the Toronto with another larger schooner, the Louis Perry, and a few years later they purchased the brig Temandra. When Turner took this larger vessel to the Sea of Okhotsk he noticed the abundance of cod and so bought the Porpoise to capitalize on this, as cod were selling in San Francisco at a high price. Meanwhile Turner also set up a company to trade with Tahiti.[1]

During his career as a ship's captain he twice received recognition of his heroism and the services that he rendered to foreign governments. He was given a gold-mounted spyglass by Queen Victoria in recognition of his part in saving the lives of British sailors. The Norwegian government presented him with a silver service for his rescue of a Norwegian vessel in danger of foundering at Honolulu.[3]

Shipyard in Benicia

He designed his first ship, the brig Nautilus, in 1868, which was built at Eureka, in an attempt to get a faster ship for the Tahiti run.[3] The hull of Nautilus was exactly the reverse of what was customary in the area at that time, being "long and sharp forward, lean and full on the waterline aft."[2] Despite the predictions of sceptics that the ship would dive and pitch into the water, resulting in a very wet ride, Nautilus proved a great success. Turner decided to move into shipbuilding, setting up a yard near Hunter's Point with his brother Horatio. In 1876 he married for a second time to Captain Rundle's widow, Ashbeline. The success of his first shipyard led him to search for another location, to allow the business to expand. He went into business with his brother and John Eckley, forming the Matthew Turner Shipyard at Benicia in 1883. This yard constructed at least 154 wooden-hulled ships.[1]

Turner was greatly admired by shipbuilder Henry Hall, of the Hall Brothers shipyard in Port Blakely. He described the "Turner Model" of sailing rig, using the Bermudan sail, a "fore and aft sail without gaff, being a large triangular sail." Eliminating the gaff made it much easier to bring the sail down during sudden Pacific squalls.[2]

Prolific shipbuilder

During his career as a shipbuilder, Turner designed and built 228 sea going vessels in a period of 37 years, from 1868 to 1905, more sailing vessels than any other American shipbuilder.[1] According to Gibbs, "although many [vessels] were small in size, this record was probably never equalled by any other individual shipbuilder in the American era of sail. He further, in all probability, built more vessels for foreign account than any other American since the Revolution."[2] Turner had business interests in the South Sea Islands, and many of his ships were built for owners in that region. He also specialized in vessels for pelagic sealing. "Turner also built some of the fastest racing yachts in the world, proven out during the famous races sponsored by the San Francisco Yacht Club, of which Turner was a charter member."[1]

Later life

Turner was something of an invalid from 1904 onwards. Nonetheless, in 1906, at age 81, Turner, was still personally supervising work at his shipyard, and found himself suddenly swamped with work following the San Francisco Earthquake. He decided to retire. He died on February 10, 1909 at the age of 83 years after a short illness at his home in Oakland.[3] [1]


Gibbs reports that Turner's influence on the South Seas schooner was still evident as late as 1941, when a two-masted schooner, Benicia, built in Tahiti by a shipwright who had worked in Turner's yard, arrived in San Francisco under the French flag.[2][4]

Notable ships built by Turner

Galilee, while under charter to the Carnegie Institute of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
HMCS Karluk trapped in the ice on her final voyage
  • Anna, a schooner with a ten day run from Honolulu to San Francisco in 1886, and eight round trips, as well as a 357 day passage between San Francisco and Kahului [4]
  • Amaranth - Four-masted barquentine that broke the record for the Astoria, Oregon to Shanghai run (23 days) [4]
  • Ariel - Four-masted schooner built by Matthew Turner in 1900. She was wrecked at Inuboyesaki, Japan, in 1917.
  • Benicia, a barquentine with a fast passage from Newcastle, New South Wales to Kehei, Hawaii, of 35 days [4]
  • Equator - Schooner that was chartered by Robert Louis Stevenson and helped inspire his book The Wrecker
  • Matson Line, named for the daughter of John D. Spreckles[4]
  • Galilee - Brigantine that holds the record for the Tahiti-San Francisco run in a wooden-hulled sailing vessel (22 days), converted to magnetic observatory when under charter to the Carnegie Institute of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism for three years[5]
  • Geneva, a brigantine with a passage of 2 days between Launceston, Tasmania and Newcastle, New South Wales [4]
  • Canadian Arctic Expedition
  • brigantine made for Claus Spreckels in 1887, who sold immediately 75% to William Matson as an expansion of Matson Lines. They resold the vessel in 1896. The brig was lost in 1915. [4]
  • Shanghai to Port Townsend, Washington of 24 days in April 1902.[4] Wrecked on North Beach (the ocean side of Long Beach Peninsula, February 5, 1907.[6]
  • William G. Irwin, a sugar packet built in 1881 for J.D. Spreckels. Launched as a brigantine, later re-rigged as a three masted schooner. Fast passages from San Francisco to Kahului, Hawaii, 8 days 17 hours, 1881, Honolulu to San Francisco, 9 days [2] [4]
  • W.H. Dimond, a brigantine with a 9 day, 10 hour passage from San Francisco to Honolulu [4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bowen, Jerry (March 17, 2002). "Mathew Turner Benicia’s shipbuilder extraordinaire". Retrieved 27 February 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Gibbs, Jim (1968). West Coast Windjammers in Story and Pictures. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co. pp. 40–41. ISBN 9780517170601. 
  3. ^ a b c "Noted shipbuilder called by death". The San Francisco Call. February 11, 1909. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Gibbs, Jim (1968). West Coast Windjammers in Story and Pictures. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co. pp. 42–43. ISBN 9780517170601. 
  5. ^ Department of Terrestial Magnetism (2004). "The Galilee". Ocean Magnetic Survey Expeditions. Carnegie Instutition of Washington. Retrieved 21 February 2011. 
  6. ^ Hobbs and Lucero, The Long Beach Peninsula, at 70 (reprinting wreck site map)

External links




Further reading

  • Bussinger, Julia; Phelan, Beverly (2004), Benicia, Images of America, Charleston, SC: Arcadia, ISBN 9780738529332 . Contains a chapter on Turner.
  • Ryan, Terrence (Fall 2010). "The Development of Pacific Coast Lumber Ships". Nautical Research Journal (Cuba, New York: Nautical Research Guild Inc.) 55 (3): 141–160. ISSN 0738-7245. OCLC 664215837. 

Coordinates: 38°03′48″N 122°09′22″W / 38.06336°N 122.156158°W / 38.06336; -122.156158

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