Matthew Turner (shipbuilder)

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Matthew Turner
Matthew Turner (shipbuilder).jpg
Born(1825-06-17)June 17, 1825
DiedFebruary 10, 1909(1909-02-10) (aged 83)
OccupationShipbuilder, sea captain
The barquentine Benicia at sea

Matthew Turner (June 17, 1825 – February 10, 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[edit]

Matthew Turner was born in Geneva, Ohio on June 17, 1825, the fourth child of George Turner and Emily Atkins. George Turner owned a sawmill on the shores of Lake Erie and later launched his first ship, the sloop Geneva, in 1839, to ship lumber and building stone. Matthew, after watching the construction of the Geneva and a later vessel the Philena Mills, designed his first ship, the schooner G.R. Roberts. His father was sufficiently impressed with the design to build the boat, which was launched in 1848. Matthew took on the command of the boat and later that year married Amanda Jackson.[3] Amanda died in childbirth with their first child. On a trip down the Mississippi river in late 1849 he heard about gold mining in California and set off for the West Coast in 1850. He spent 3½ years mining gold in Calaveras County and was quite successful.[1][3]

Career as ship captain[edit]

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.[4]

Shipyard in Benicia[edit]

He designed his first ocean-going ship, the brig Nautilus, in 1868, which was built at Eureka, in an attempt to get a faster ship for the Tahiti run.[4] 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[edit]

The Amaranth was built at Benicia in 1901 and later shipwrecked at Jarvis Island in 1913.

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[edit]

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.[1][4]


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][5]

History in the Making: The legacy of Matthew Turner is being honored with the construction of a new wooden tall ship bearing his name. The 132-foot Brigantine Schooner, set to launch in 2016 is inspired by Matthew Turner’s classic vessel, "Galilee"

Call of the Sea: When complete the "Matthew Turner" will join the fleet of "Call of the Sea" a non-profit organization started by Captain Alan Olson. "Call of the Sea" based in Sausalito, California is dedicated to preserving maritime traditions and teaching the skills of seamanship and teamwork through its experiential sailing programs.

Bypassing the petroleum era and embracing new technologies: No fossil fuels will be used for normal operations of the new "Matthew Turner”. Wind Power will provide basic propulsion. Wind Power will also generate power for the DC electric motors to be used when winds are insufficient. The new "Matthew Turner" will be the "greenest" wooden tall ship ever built. Every aspect of construction, from the FSC certified lumber to the latest non-toxic paints, has been scrutinized to minimize negative environmental impacts.

The Matthew Turner was completed in March 2017, built entirely by volunteer workers and funded by private donations. It will be used primarily as an educational aid.[6][7]

The Matthew Turner was launched April 1, 2017 in Sausalito

Notable ships built by Turner[edit]

Galilee, while under charter to the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
The four-masted schooner Ariel in dock
HMCS Karluk trapped in the ice on her final voyage


  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 978-0-517-17060-1.
  3. ^ a b Feather C.E. "Success born of grief: Grief drove Geneva's Matthew Turner to California, where he became prolific ship builder". Star Beacon. Ashtabula, Ohio. Retrieved 8 June 2014.
  4. ^ a b c "Noted shipbuilder called by death". The San Francisco Call. February 11, 1909. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
  5. ^ 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 978-0-517-17060-1.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (2004). "The Galilee". Ocean Magnetic Survey Expeditions. Carnegie Institution of Washington. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  9. ^ Hobbs and Lucero, The Long Beach Peninsula, at 70 (reprinting wreck site map)

External links[edit]




Further reading[edit]

  • Bussinger, Julia; Phelan, Beverly (2004), Benicia, Images of America, Charleston, SC: Arcadia, ISBN 978-0-7385-2933-2. 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