Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coal and Stones on Christmas

This being Christmas Eve I deem it to be an appropriate time for this subject. As all of you know, the supercargoes on the sailing vessels of yesteryear had the difficult task of insuring that their vessels would not keel over and sink due to an uneven, or overly light cargo. So, should there be no other cargo weighty enough to stabilize the vessel at the port, they would take on paving materials, or, if it was available, coal.

I was once told by an Old Portlander named Alice that the paving stones in the garden of our church were brought to Portland as ship's ballast. She had dreamy blue eyes hiding in her wrinkled smile, eyes that inspired thoughts of the romance of Jack Tar unloading stones quarried on the banks of the Mersey River and loaded at Liverpool. Alas! I have punctured my own dream on this cheery Christmas Eve.

It is well known that Portland's biggest trading partner back in "the day" was San Francisco. I have discovered that the streets of that city were paved with ballast from up the Sacramento river. Hundreds of ships each year went up the river laden with supplies, and returning with what is known as "Folsom Potatoes", or ballast stones beaten into shape with sledge hammers by the prisoners at Folsom Prison. The vessels leaving Portland for San Francisco were heavy laden with sacks of grain. It is inconceivable that they would return with anything of equal weight--except for the possibility of the "Folsom Potatoes" and coal.

If you read the Marine Report in nineteenth century Oregonians (as I do, being someone who obviously needs a life) you will see that the vessels coming into Portland first went to a place called Sand Dock to unload ballast. I am yet to identify where this dock was located, so I am open to suggestions. Merry Christmas!

Here is an photo of the prison quarry. Oy!
Image courtesy of: 

For more info on "Folsom Potatoes" see:

History of the Sacramento Valley, Volume 1
Joseph A. McGowan
Lewis Historical Pub. Co., 1961