The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 10, 2011

Success born of grief

Grief drove Geneva’s Matthew Turner to California, where he became prolific ship builder

Star Beacon

— Grief is a stalker. It lurks in every idle moment, in every familiar corner, always ready to pierce  the heart bruised by loss.

It drives some men crazy. It motivates others to seek refuge in work and diversions that eventually triumph over this enemy and pen the elusive happy ending.

This is a story about the latter.

As with most stories about Ashtabula County’s early years, ours begins in Connecticut, with the birth of George Turner, Aug. 12, 1794. At the age of 26, Turner headed to the Western Reserve, the “New Connecticut,” and became a deputy director for the Ashtabula County Auditor, Q.F. Atkins (see the Dec. 4 Odd Tales).

Atkins and his wife had at least 10 children, the oldest of which was Emily. George and Emily fell in love, and although George Turner was about a decade older than his boss’ daughter, permission was given to marry. Indeed, Atkins sold his Geneva Township farm to the couple, who were married Jan. 20, 1822.

Four children were born to this union: Horatio, the oldest; two girls, Phedora and Stella: and Matthew, who came along June 17, 1825 (Emily had a very productive 3 1/2 years).

George became a colonel when he was appointed to the First Regiment of State Militia by Governor Duncan McArthur. His living came from the land. The parcel he purchased from his father-in-law included Indian Creek, which George Turner dammed and erected a sawmill upon in the same year that Matthew was born. It was perfect timing. The township was growing, log cabins were giving way to frame houses and Turner’s sawmill was perfectly situated to meet the demand. Many of the old homes of Geneva-on-the-Lake and eastern Geneva Township were built with lumber sawed at Turner’s mill.

This boom in construction also created a local demand for stone and limestone, abundant at the western end of the lake. Stone in, lumber out provided an ideal opportunity for an entrepreneur who owned a boat, sawmill and landing, poor as it was, on Lake Erie.

The Geneva

And so it was that Turner and a partner, Makepeace Fitch, began construction a sloop, The Geneva, near the sawmill in the fall of 1838. The simple boat had a burden of just 30 tons, but launching it proved to be quite challenge. It appears to have been the first boat built in Geneva, excluding a couple of efforts in the Madison area.

When spring 1839 arrived, the little boat was moved into the stream with teams of oxen to take advantage of a freshet, or burst of high water from heavy rain. A bridge across  Indian Creek stood between the launch site and the lake. Some sources say the bridge was removed; others say scuttle holes were drilled in The Geneva so she would ride low enough to squeeze under the bridge. The holes were plugged, the water pumped out, once she cleared the bridge.

A sand bar was across the stream where it entered the lake, and to remove it, the gates of the dam were opened to create a powerful rush of water. The Geneva  thus floated into the lake and was equipped for service.

As was often the case with these small wooden boats pitted against treacherous Lake Erie, The Geneva was destined for trouble and eventual destruction. Described as a “mulish craft to steer before the wind,” The Geneva was responsible for at least two deaths.

First was the loss of a Capt. Woodward, who was caught in a sudden squall while in charge of The Geneva off Madison. Woodward was knocked overboard by the boom and killed. The other two occupants of the boat, a man by the name of Monroe Darling and a boy named Sol Snell, had no way of taking control of the craft because the tiller was broken. The Geneva drifted across the lake and nearly made it to the Canadian shore when the wind shifted and blew her back to Madison, where it was driven ashore.

The sloop had a number of owners, and in 1845 it was sold to Martin Watrous, of Ashtabula, who put her into the limestone trade between Ashtabula Harbor and the western islands. A few years later, as The Geneva was entering Ashtabula  Harbor with a load of block stone, she struck a pier and sank. A young man from Conneaut drowned in the incident.

For a few years, a piece of the wreck stuck out of the water and served as a diving stand for youth of the mid-19th century. Sand gradually filled up around the wreck until it was buried some 200 feet from the new shoreline.

The wreck was uncovered in 1903 during a dredging operation undertaken by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The old sloop was found to be “well preserved and retarded the progress of the dredge greatly,” reported the Beacon Record.

Philena Mills

Buoyed by the success of his first shipbuilding venture, George Turner in 1845 built a new sawmill with an eye toward supplying lumber for ship construction. He removed the mill from the direct route of the creek and powered the new one with a raceway from the impounded water. The carriage of the new mill was large enough to handle a log 60 feet in length.

That fall Turner and two investors from Unionville, James Mills and Eliakim Roberts, hired James Lockwood, a Geneva resident, to construct  their second boat, the Philena Mills. It was about 100 feet long but relatively narrow and fairly deep, which led to instability. With a burden between 270 and 300 tons, it was one of the largest vessels on Lake Erie at that time.

The Philena Mills was built of oak harvested in Saybrook and hauled to the construction site by teams of oxen. No suitable trees for the two masts could be found locally, and they came from trees cut near Sorrel Hill, Pa., and hauled some 40 miles by oxen.

Built on the shore east of Indian Creek, the Philena Mills was launched in early April 1846. The launch failed — the massive, unstable boat got stuck on the bottom, and laborers struggled for three weeks in the cold water to work the behemoth into the open lake. When that task was finally accomplished, a powerful northerly wind blew a vast field of ice onto the shore, further delaying the maiden voyage.

Capt. Charles Shepard of Ashtabula was the first master of the Philena Mills. Shepard supervised construction of the ship and was provided a room at the sawmill during that period so he could oversee every aspect. Horatio Turner sailed as his mate, and after several months of sailing under Shepard, Horatio took over command.

George Turner sold the Philena Mills after the 1847 shipping season. It served other owners for about 20 years before it was driven ashore and wrecked at Madison, near the place of its nativity.

G.R. Roberts

Matthew, George Turner’s younger son, paid close attention to the construction of The Geneva and Philena Mills, and designed a ship of his own. He revealed his design to his father, and George was so impressed with the concept that he swept his arm past the long rows of lumber sawed at his mill and said, “Son, there is the lumber, so go ahead and build her.”

George Turner and Lem Barber of Chicago entered into an agreement to build this  vessel, which would carry lumber from the upper Great Lakes to Chicago. The vessel, whose dimensions were not recorded, was of 130 tons burden. George Turner was to build and launch her, at which time his share in the boat would be 48 percent.

Once again, the forests of Saybrook provided the oak, and the men of Geneva Township the labor as the keel took form on the shore of Lake Erie that fall. One of the masts came from the “pine swamp” of Saybrook, an area of the township that provided the sparring for many of the boats harbored at Ashtabula. The other mast came by oxen from Sorrel Hill.

Named the G.R. Roberts in honor of one of George’s business associates, the vessel was launched in the spring of 1848. The Roberts was broad of beam and well suited for the lumber trade. Under the very capable command of Matthew Turner, the vessel proved herself to be one of the fastest, safest sailing ships on the Great Lakes.

Matthew ended his maiden season triumphantly, with his marriage to Amanda Jackson, Sept. 16, 1848. Matthew and Amanda were married at her home in Richland County, about 125 miles from Geneva. As to how they met when such great distance separated their homes, no record has made.


Their wedded bliss was short lived. “Almost before they could become adjusted, she contracted the fever and died,” notes an unattributed biography of Matthew Turner. A different story is presented by other biographers, who claim Amanda died giving birth.

The grief that Matthew felt was no stranger. In 1841, his mother, Emily, died at the age of 36, which may explain George Turner’s passionate turn toward ship building. Whatever grief’s effect was on the father, this much is certain, the sorrow that Matthew felt was profound and motivating.

The following spring, Matthew boarded the G.R. Roberts and sailed toward Lake Michigan, where he spent the season in the lumber trade. Still grieving for Amanda, he gave cause for worry to those back home in Geneva when he slipped away at the end of the season.

The following notice appeared in an Ashtabula County newspaper::

$500 Reward — Mysterious Disappearance:

Captain Matthew Turner of the schooner G.R. Roberts left the city of Geneva, Ashtabula County, on the 6th of December last.

On the following day, his name was registered upon the book at the Commercial Hotel in Detroit, since which, no tidings of him have been received. Although inquiry and search has been unremitted, no trace of Captain Turner has been discovered.

He is known to have with him a considerable sum of money, and also the books of the schooner, and fears are entertained that he might have met with violent death.

His father and brother, Colonel George and Captain H.N. Turner offer a reward of five hundred dollars for the discovery and arrest of the perpetrators of the deed, and proportionately for any intelligence which may lead to a knowledge of the fate of the son and brother. Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo papers will confer a favor upon his distressed family and friends by publishing this notice, and communications relating to it may be addressed to this office, or Captain H.N. Turner of this city.

Unaware of the anxiety he had caused his family, Matthew eventually returned to Geneva, unharmed, but his life about to take a new course. That winter, he booked a steamer for a trip down the Mississippi. At some point on that journey, Matthew heard the glowing stories of the riches to be harvested in the golden hills of California.

Feverish escape

Thus infected with gold rush fever, in 1850 Matthew took the Panama Route from New Orleans to the West Coast, arriving May 3. Unlike many of the thousands of hopefuls who poured into California that year, Matthew Turner was quite successful. He mined in Calaveras County for 3 1/2 years, then took his earnings to New York, where he purchased a schooner, Toronto, and sailed her back to California.

Matthew Turner thus had come to the realization that there was more gold to be made in California from the booming economy than from panning and digging. Drawing upon the experience he gained in Geneva Township, Matthew formed a business partnership with Capt. Thomas Rundle and began shipping lumber from the Mendocino Coast in northern California to San Francisco.

The gold rush had brought an explosion of construction in San Francisco, and the demand for lumber soon gave Rundle and Turner justification for even larger vessels, the schooner Louis Perry and the brig Temandra.

Turner set his sights beyond the coast and began trading with Tahiti. He was a hands-on captain, and a very capable one at that. He also was a very astute businessman. While sailing the Temandra to the Amoor River (Siberia), on the Sea of Okhotsk, Turner took note of the abundant cod. The fish were selling at a high price in San Francisco, so Turner purchased another ship, the Porpoise, and got into the cod trade. His observation opened up a whole new Pacific cod industry that eventually spread as far as the Aleutian Island.

His seafaring adventures and skills placed Turner in situations where he had opportunity to save the lives of other sailors. Queen Victoria sent a gold-mounted spyglass to Turner for his part in saving the lives of British sailors. Likewise, the Norwegian government presented him with a silver service for rescuing a Norwegian vessel that got into trouble at Honolulu.

Prolific builder

While Matthew Turner would have gone down in California history on the merits of his seafaring abilities alone, his greatest contribution was to the shipbuilding industry. In 1868 Turner did what he had done some 20 years earlier and designed his own ship. The vessels he used for his Tahiti business were too slow, and Turner set about to build a ship with a radically new design. Skeptics scoffed at Turner’s ship, the Nautilus, which was built at Eureka, Calif.  But Nautilus made the voyage in 20 days, a great success that convinced Turner to turn his attention to designing and building ships.

He and his brother, Horatio, set up a yard at Hunter’s Point, which soon became inadequate for the volume of business they were doing. In 1883, the brothers joined John Eckley to form the Matthew Turner Shipyard at Benicia Calif.

The shipyard turned out at least 154 wooden-hulled ships; overall, during Turner’s 37-year career as a shipbuilder, he designed and built 228 sea-going vessels, more than any other American shipbuilder.

The vessels included the Anna, a schooner that could make it from Honolulu to San Francisco in just 10 days. His Amaranth, a four-masted barquentine broke the record for the Oregon to Shanghai run, just 23 days. Another barquentine, Benica, made it from New South Wales to Hawaii in 35 days.

His Galilee, built in 1891, set a sailing record of 22 days from California to Papeete. The Galilee was later selected to carry out the Carnegie Oceanic Magnetic Survey. The stern of this ship is on the grounds of Fort Mason Center, San Francisco; its bow section is at the Camel Barn Museum, Benicia, Calif.

His schooner Equator was chartered by Robert Louis Stevenson and inspired the book “The Wrecker.” Many other Turner ships set speed records or were purchased by governments as flagships. He built some of the fastest racing yachts in the world and was a charter member of the San Francisco Yacht Club.

Back in Geneva, Matthew’s father sold the Roberts when his son gave up its command. George Turner continued in the lumber business for several more years, then sold the farm and mill and moved to Geneva. Fascinated by the work of his sons in California, George visited them, and when he was 80 years old, made a voyage to Honolulu with Horatio.

San Francisco did not suit George Turner, however. George returned to Geneva, a refreshed man, but old age finally caught up with him on June 18, 1884. Harriet Taylor Upton and Harry Gardner Cutler, in their “History of the Western Reserve, Volume 3,” noted that George Turner’s genial disposition endeared him to all who knew him. He sought no notoriety, but was of all men most modest in his pretentions. In this respect his sons were like him. (George Turner) was also distinguished by some oddities of speech and manner, which became memorable reminiscences of his character, but he was never known to do an unkind act to any person.”

Final days

Horatio Turner eventually retired from the sea and ended up in the “Old People’s Home” in the San Francisco area. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in September 1907 a fire broke out in the nursing home where Horatio was a resident. The veteran captain, who had battled many fires at sea, led the charge and with two other men in their 80s, retrieved the emergency hoses and crawled under the smoke to reach the engine room, where the fire originated. When the firefighters arrived, they found Horatio Turner pouring water on the blaze.

Matthew remarried in 1876, to the widow of his former business partner, Capt. Rundle. Although Matthew put Ashtabula County and his sorrow behind in California, he gave a nod to his native city with the construction of the Geneva, an impressive brigantine that made the passage between Tasmania and New South Wales in two days.

As late as 1906, when Turner was 81, he was still supervising the construction of ships in his yard. He died at his home in Oakland, Calif., Feb. 10, 1909, at the age of 83.

The following year, Turner’s shipyard was purchased by James Robertson, who operated it until 1918. By that time, wooden ships were on their way out, victims of steel-hulled vessels. It was the end of an era, but one dominated on the West Coast by a man who learned his trade on the shores of Lake Erie.

With his life’s greatest work far removed from his nativity, and with no offspring to carry on his legacy, Matthew Turner has been largely forgotten in the annals of Ashtabula County, and even California, history.  

Survivors listed in his obituary were his widow, Ashbeline; two sisters, Phedora T. Jones of Geneva and Stella P. Riordan of Chicago; and two nephews, Capt Louis H. Turner (Horatio’s son) and H.P. Gray of San Francisco.

There is a Matthew Turner Foundation, at least on paper, but its tax exempt status was revoked by the IRS because of failure to file 990s. Thomas J. Le Vell headed up the foundation in the 1990s, when Le Vell was working on Turner’s biography and attempting to raise money to build a replica of Turner’s Geneva. There is no record of either the replica or the biography materializing, and Le Vell died in 2006.

An elementary school named after Matthew Turner is in Benicia.

The former Matthew Turner Shipyard is the site of a 30-acre park named in his honor. There is virtually nothing left of the yard, which is marked by a historical plaque.

 Locally, Indian Creek still flows into Lake Erie as it did 170 years ago when the Turners were launching their little sailing ships on the spring freshets. But there is no hint of the industries that once flourished there.

Given the magnitude of Turner’s contributions, the site begs for historical marker and due recognition.