The “Grain Fleet” 1900

wheat fleet 1900

I have always considered this photograph of the 1900 “Grain Fleet” at anchor in Portland the most beautiful scene at the Portland waterfront. The following is an article from the November 4, 1900 Oregonian that echoes the romance and poetry I see in this photo. Although not about Clackamas County, a large portion of the wheat being shipped out through the “Grain Fleet” grew in our county.

Warm broke the breeze against the brow,

   Dry sang the tackle, sang the sail;

The broad seas swell’d to meet the keel,

   And swept behind; so quick the run,

We felt the good ship shake and real,

   We seemed to sail into the sun!

Leading with Grain.

Few people, perhaps, when they mention it realize the magnitude of a shipload of grain. The capacity of the graceful three and four-masted vessels that yearly visit this port is something to surprise and unreflecting person. Ten freight trains of 25 cars each, or one train over a mile and a half long, would be required to carry the wheat that goes into the hold of a single ship. The manner in which the cargo is taken on depends upon the stage of the water. When the river is at its lowest point, or somewhere near it, the grain (in sacks) is sent from the warehouse down a zigzag chute, into the hold. In its descent, the sack turns over at each angle of the chute, and when it reaches the bottom is seized and securely stowed where it is to remain during the long voyage around the Horn. As the sacks are piled in place, the interstices between them are filled with loose grain, in order to prevent any slightest shifting about of the cargo. The loose grain is packed in, trampled by the feet of the laborers.

When the water is so high that there is not sufficient fall from the dock to the hold for the grain to move by gravity, elevators, operated by electricity, are employed, and the work proceeds uninterruptedly until the ship has received her full cargo. The facilities for loading are constantly being improved, and keep pace with the increase of tonnage. It is by no means unusual for a ship to begin discharging ballast Monday morning and have her cargo stowed by Saturday night of the same week. The discharging of hundreds of tons of ballast is in itself a task that involved no small amount of labor.

But to go back: The British ship Lady Wentworth recently took on 25,900 sacks of wheat during a period of nine hours, and in the same length of time, the Dumeraig, as was reported in the Oregonian of Tuesday last, received 23,525 sacks. The Conway, also English, and of 1776 tons register, which cleared from Portland October 30, was only 12 days in the Willamette River, while the Osterbeck, a German, was ready for sea exactly 15 days after crossing the bar. The last-mentioned craft loaded over 3,000 tons of wheat and was in Portland not quite 12 days.

The grain for shipment is delivered at the vessel’s rail by the exporters who supply the laborers or “dockmen” to handle it. The longshoremen then take charge of it and put it aboard.

While nature has done much for this inland harbor, making it one of the safest in the world, man has not neglected to add improvements that have contributed to make it one of the most accessible as well. Systematic and combined effort on the part of the Commission of the Port of Portland has within the past few years so deepened the channel from the city to the sea that it is now not only possible, but perfectly safe, for laden vessels drawing 22 feet of water to pass out at any stage of the tide and with the river at zero.

The Incoming Fleet.

In addition to the vessels already cleared since the opening of the season and those now loading, no less than 62 sailing craft are on the way to this port to receive cargoes of wheat. These, of course, do not include the steamships that are here, or due soon to arrive from the other side of the Pacific and which will, in many instances, load with wheat and flour.

Taking all things into consideration, Portland may well be proud of her grain fleet. There are but four ports in the United States that, in the nine months closing with October 1, exceeded this on the Willamette in the amount and value of wheat shipments. And for this last month, Portland has led both San Francisco and Puget Sound.

Commerce is not without its aesthetic features, in spite of Ruskin’s notion to the contrary. And its commercial utility in no way detracts from the romance and the poetry that are the inalienable characteristics of the grain fleet of the Willamette. Any ship that sails the high seas embodies this romance, this poetry. In every mast and spar and straining timber she is thrilled with the hidden meaning of the deep.

The kisses of the Summer wind,

   The typhoon’s deadly breath;

The frozen passions of the north,

   And calms, another name for death,

That lurk in southern seas –

   She knows them all – aye, loves and knows!

The wildest, maddest wind that blows,

   For fate hath fashioned her for these.