Our Ship That Passed in the Night
By John Bonnel
January 2017 Martinez Historical Society NewsLetter
The Forester’s new friend came forward very soon after Captain Daeweritz’ death. Trespassing, souvenir hunting and vandalism had always been a problem for the isolated old ship and its owner, but after Daeweritz died the problem quickly grew quite serious. Thus, even as he was negotiating to buy the Forester from the executrix of Daeweritz’ estate, the new friend moved aboard the ship to serve as guardian, caretaker and preserver of the isolated and now decaying old relic of the sailing era.
Unlike Captain Daeweritz, the ship’s new master was not a seafaring man. Although in an interview (on the night the ship burned in 1975) he told a reporter he came from a seafaring family, in an interview with a reporter shortly after he bought the ship in 1950 he said his only connection to things nautical was two uncles who worked as Sacramento riverboat captains and pilots. Indeed, a cursory examination of US Census data suggests that the Forester’s new owner—one Charles J. Fitzgerald—was born in San Francisco in 1902. His grandfather, John Fitzgerald, was an Irish immigrant who settled in Contra Costa County in the early 1860s and worked as a farmer near San Pablo, and later on Franklin Ridge overlooking Martinez. Charles J. Fitzgerald’s father, Charles W. Fitzgerald, was born in Martinez in 1869, but his family ran into some financial difficulties in the mid-1870s and moved to San Francisco. Both Charles W. and Charles J. Fitzgerald moved back to Martinez after World War I. (Charles W. died in Martinez in 1929).
Charles J. Fitzgerald was a very different kind of man than Otto A. Daeweritz, and—while it was clear he loved the Forester—he was inexperienced as a ship owner. During Captain Daeweritz’ final years time and nature were slowly but surely taking their toll on the Forester, and life-long maintenance work became somewhat of a hit-and-miss proposition. Thus, when Fitzgerald moved aboard in May 1948, he complained that the ship’s hull was taking in water “like a sieve…the tide was as high inside the ship as it was outside, and it doesn’t drain out as fast as it comes in.” The wooden cabin tops were cracked from summer heat, and the main mast (the second back from the bow) was nearly three-quarters eaten through by dry rot and termites (posing a danger of falling during a windstorm). But Fitzgerald did intend to guard, maintain and preserve the ship to the best of his abilities.
Charles J. Fitzgerald was a complex man who cherished his privacy. He was forty-six years old when he moved aboard the Forester, was unmarried, and had lived in a small three-room cabin on A Street near Alhambra Creek before his move. He was short with balding red hair, and had worked as a grinder of optic prisms, a maker of cutlery and silversmithing tools, and an employee of both Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the Benicia Arsenal, and was fairly well known around town as a gardener and general handyman. He was a well-read man who preferred scientific and technical literature to fiction, and brought his “good-sized private library” with him when he moved aboard the Forester. His hobby was craft work, and one of the first things he did after moving onto the ship was set up a “first class blacksmith shop.” He also was an avid gun collector, and brought his small arsenal of weapons aboardship.
Fitzerald settled into his new home by using the captain’s bedroom, sitting room and chartroom, the mates’ quarters and the officers’ messroom as his living area; it was quite an improvement over his three-room cabin on land. His days were spent doing gardening and handywork around town and maintaining (as best he could) the Forester. He purchased the Forester in August 1950 for $90. At about that time there were rumblings around town about making the old lumber schooner into a museum. Fitzgerald told a reporter, “It would cost at least $60,000 to re-rig the old boat and get her into the shape you would need to have any number of people aboard.” In addition, maintenance costs would be prohibitively expensive, so “thoughts of ever making [the Forester] into any kind of a museum are out of the question.” Nothing ever came of these rumblings.
Unlike Daeweritz (who helped design, captained, and lived aboard the Forester forty-seven years), Fitzgerald was somewhat reluctant to welcome visitors aboard the ship, and openly expressed his displeasure about having curious strangers seeking access to the ship. He told a reporter, “West of the Forester the water is free and city-owned. Any artist or camera bug who wants to put her in pictures can do so there until his heart’s delight. It’s free.”
By the early 1960s Fitzgerald was clearly losing his battle to maintain and preserve the Forester. He had zealously protected the ship from souvenir hunters and vandals. (I heard an unconfirmed story about how he marched two trespassing vandals into town under the barrel of one of his guns, but when he got to the police station he was cited for brandishing a firearm illegally.) But teredos [shipworms], termites, dry rot, time, weather and water were destroying his home. And then—in 1961-62—something nice happened.
Through Charles J. Fitzgerald’s courtesy (and love for the Forester), the San Francisco Maritime Museum was granted the opportunity to salvage and preserve the masts, rigging, cabin and deck gear, ship controls, and other artifacts that were still aboard the old vessel.
For six weeks during 1962 a crew from the SF Maritime Museum’s flagship Balclutha carried out the arduous task of saving intact and undamaged the great (102 feet tall, 28 inches in diameter) lower foremast and its topmast, complete with doubling and rigging, deck gear that controlled the ship, and the main fife rail, steering wheel and rudder head. Everything that would float was hoisted overboard at high tide and towed to a nearby wharf for loading. Everything else was carried or dragged through the mud at low tide for transport to the museum in San Francisco. There it was cleaned, reassembled and put on interpretive display. When it was over, only the hull, the cabins and a few dangling lines that went from nowhere to nowhere remained, but it was still Charles Fitzgerald’s home.
At 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 18, 1975, an apparent electrical fire began sweeping through the Forester (just as Captain Daeweritz had prophesied twenty-eight years earlier). It was a difficult fire to fight; the nearest fire hydrant was more than 3,000 feet away, so hoses had to be laid (with three pumpers along the line to maintain pressure). When firemen arrived, flames were leaping 100 to 150 feet into the night sky. Captain Frank Bruno went aboard the ship in search of Fitzgerald; he found him wandering around the stern of the ship in a dazed and confused condition. Bruno told Fitzgerald to quickly get off the ship, and he did so. Bruno said, “No sooner than he got off, a gust of wind came up and engulfed the whole ship in flames.” Eighteen firemen and reserves from Consolidated Fire Companies 12 and 14 were forced to wade into waist-deep mud in order to get close enough to the old ship to fight the flames. As the last fingers of flame were being extinguished, seventy-three-year-old Charles J. Fitzgerald watched from the shore, told firemen of his lost treasures aboard the ship, and then went off to stay with friends in town. The remains of the Forester were a smoldering hulk, burned almost to the waterline.
Despite her fiery ending, much of the Forester’s legacy still lives on. The Martinez Historical Society Museum has the breeches buoy (Lyle Gun) cannon, a mast light, oil can, portable block & tackle gear, carpenter’s tools, blow torches and ship models on display. Julius Struer gave the antique harpoon collection that Captain Daeweritz gave him to the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and of course that museum has all of the artifacts taken during the 1962 salvage expedition described earlier. Captain Daeweritz and the Forester are listed in Lumbermen’s Shipping Museum in Seattle, and several other artifacts from the Forester are on display in a San Diego maritime museum. And, almost certainly, there are several homes or attics or garages or basements around town that have dust-covered relics of the historic old ship taken during a clandestine souvenir-hunting trip to our shoreline mudflats to look and wonder at the majestic old lumber schooner.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160