A Sea Captain’s Musings

From the January 2016 Martinez Historical Society New Letter

In the early 1890s, Europe was in an economic “slump” due to a number of factors. England, who got much of their wheat from the U.S., was greatly affected. Just before this economic depression was in full crisis, British ships left England and sailed on a six-month arduous voyage, eventually arriving in the Carquinez Strait. Although they were supposed to load wheat grown in the Alhambra Valley and then return to England, they received the message from England that the British economy was in no shape to purchase this commodity and they were told to “lay-to” in the Strait, offshore from Martinez, until further notice. This “lay-to” extended for a year. ships

Following are some excerpts of letters contained in a book called Jottings from a Cruise by Captain Alfred J. Green, Master Mariner of the Grassendale (Seattle: The Kelly Printing Co., 1944). A copy of the book was donated to the Martinez Historical Society library by Garry and Zayna Cline from La Conner, Washington. (The above photo and caption are also from the book.)

Captain Green wrote the letters to his mother back in England, describing life in Martinez and the surrounding areas. Throughout the course of that year, he would take a small boat from his ship and go ashore to visit Martinez as a way to pass the time. Through these letters, we are able to obtain an interesting “behind the scenes” glimpse, not only of Captain Green’s daily life, but of life for some of the residents of Martinez in 1892.

 

“Grassendale”— Martinez, California

April 16, 1892

My Dear Mother:

…This is a queer experience I am passing through now, an idle man with an idle ship and a lovely country to be idle in…people here are only too delighted to take up anyone presentable, hailing from anywhere beyond the 3 mile limit…I’ve met hearty hospitable souls living on lovely fruit ranches, miles up the valleys. People who knock off work at one’s visit and celebrate it as a holiday…you should just see the welcome I get at some of these places—they rush to prink up and slip on a fetching frock on the part of the gentler sex; the bustle of the good wife and mother to fix up something good to eat and drink; the down tools of the lads…then away we go over the orchards and wide spreading vineyards…

One very noticeable and very charming feature of these country homes in Martinez is the attention they pay to flowers and the way they adorn both house and surroundings with them…truly the dwellers in and around Martinez may say “my lines have fallen in pleasant places” and I can imagine no condition of existence that so nearly approaches perfection as falls to the lot of the dwellers of these sunny valleys, for they never know winter…As we are to lie idly waiting, surely this is better than doing so in San Francisco, where try as one may, there is no living without spending money; and where vice walks unblushingly in broad daylight…Here the good people are so unsophisticated and unspoiled as though the gay, giddy city lay on the other side of an ocean instead of a bay. Public opinion is here a powerful deterrent force—and an ungodly man is a marked man. The place only contains some 1500 souls, yet they have five places to worship and all seem well attended.

Your loving son,

Alfred

 

 

“Grassendale”—Martinez, California

July 23, 1892

My Dearest Mother:

I have just returned from Sonoma where I have been spending a few days with the Boyes!—finding it hard work to tear myself from their hospitable grasp even with business in San Francisco to plead as an imperative call. They are indeed pleasant people to stay with…Sonoma is a very pretty spot. It lies in the heart of a slightly winding valley which bisects the country for about 20 miles…Had I stayed a day longer, I would have seen Santa Rosa, a flourishing town of 10,000 or so inhabitants, beautiful like nearly all California towns or cities…The Captain of my nearest neighbor ship, the “Shandon,” has just sent his compliments and would I “step” across, so adieu for the present.

10 p.m. What I was wanted for was to help him entertain a party of ladies and gentlemen who are camping in the “Redwoods” some 15 or 16 miles up country. I suggested a boat sail in my schooner-rigged life boat…This was received with enthusiasm and hailing my ship we soon had the pleasure…of a fine sail all over the bay, in and out among the shipping then over to Benicia…

There is no word yet of my ship being chartered and I am feeling very much depressed about it. A month of easy going, sociable holiday-making is all very well, but when it spins out to five, it becomes monotonous!

…Tell Ernest I have made the acquaintance of a celebrated naturalist, who loves beetles among other things—his name is Muir—Prof. Muir, and he has written a good deal about Alaska.

I remain your loving son,

Alfred

 

 

“Grassendale”— Martinez, California

November 21, 1892

My Dearest Mother:

Spring has dawned into the fullness of summer and summer has given place to autumn, which is, in its turn, fast treading on the heels of winter—and all this since the “Grassendale” entered port here after a passage which in itself seemed interminable. The cruelty of such a long separation was always sufficiently in evidence as far as my own experience goes, but its sting fastens in deeper and deeper as the time passes and I think of wife and children…The all absorbing elections are at last over and the Democrats at the winning post. They haven’t been so completely in power since 1857, having this time captured the Presidency and both Houses. On Saturday evening they celebrated their victory by a monster ‘Barbecue,’ which means that Martinez folks roasted 4 oxen, 4 sheep, 6 pigs and a number of geese, etc., in the open air…afterwards a show of fireworks and an imposing procession of uniformed bandsmen, etc…They certainly make noise enough for a town three times the size of Martinez…Then about 9 p.m. came speeches and a huge bonfire in the middle of the Plaza…I have several very nice old lady friends in Martinez and they seem very pleased to have me drop in and have a chat with them. One of the brightest and kindest of them, however, holds some very shocking principles. She is a Socialist and a Theosophist—if you know what that is. She has some queer Bhuddistical ideas of passing through several states of life, so that according to her notions, she was here before and will be here again, until sufficiently purified to enter into Eternal bliss…Meanwhile all the ships up here are getting horribly foul with coral grass and barnacles—fresh for the first two months, the water has been quite salty for seven months…accretions have formed as readily as though the ships lay down in the port 35 miles away…I don’t know how the ship is going to sail home…

I remain, dearest of mothers—Your loving son, Alfred

 

 

“Grassendale”— Martinez, California

December 26, 1892

My Dearest Mother:

Your Christmas letter came to me on the day that my news arrived of the long embargo being lifted, and that such terms as home and dear ones were not just empty words, as they had mockingly seemed for so many weary months.

…We haven't moved from Martinez yet and may not for a few days to come. Meanwhile I am full of many cares and occupations…when I think of the number of good-bye calls I ought in all decency to make, I simply shiver.

Perhaps my greatest care just now is the state of the ship’s bottom—what sort of passage she is likely to make I dare not contemplate. I only know that I mean to provision for six months and leave the rest to Providence…

Your Loving Son,

Alfred

 

 

Editor’s note: Captain Green's journey home was successful, and this passage from his great-grandson Skye Moody’s book Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2006) details his subsequent retirement.

In 1898, Master Mariner Captain Alfred J. Green, for thirty-five years commander of British sailing ships, saw the inevitable demise of the magnificent masted barques and clippers, those tall ships, those seagoing gems, being rapidly replaced by steam-powered vessels…Captain Green didn't exactly abandon the sea; he decided to view it from a rocky beach. That year, with his wife and six children he departed England's port city of Liverpool aboard a steamer and crossed the Atlantic to Montreal, Canada. The family traveled by train to British Columbia, eventually sailing southward into Puget Sound, by then officially located in the United States of America. Captain Green had visited this part of the world during his many sea voyages and had determined that no place on the globe could match the natural beauty of the U.S. Northwest. Rather quickly the family settled on ten acres, including six hundred feet of shoreline, on Vashon-Maury Island at Quartermaster Harbor. They had a house built and named the family settlement Stillhaven, perhaps because this marked the location on the globe where the Green family set aside navigational charts as stillness replaced moving with the tides.

 

 

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