The model of the four-masted Puako sits on the dock in front of the C&H refinery in Crockett, Calif., near San Francisco. The camera's perspective makes it look as an actual "sugar ship" might have looked as it delivered raw sugar from Hawaii to this plant.
A model ship captures a little-known piece of Hawaii's sugar heritage
In my many years as a maritime historian and model-shipwright, I've built ship models of all kinds, but until last year I had never heard of the "Sugar Ships" of Hawaii and California.
Steve Priske has been a model-shipwright for more than 40 years -- this means he builds small versions of big ships.
His models have appeared in movies such as "The Body Guard" and "Hook," and he has talked about his projects on the History Channel show "Modern Marvels."
Last year, he was asked to build a model of the four-masted Puako, which represents a little-known facet of Hawaii's history: the sugar ships that hauled raw sugar to California for processing.
Early last year I was contacted by the grandson of a 19th-century ship captain, who asked me to build a scale replica of the 1902 barkentine Puako (Flower of the Sugar Cane). Researching the history of these little-known ships, I learned of a tremendous fleet of "blue water" tall ships, built to carry West Coast lumber to Australia, Australian coal to Hawaii and, finally, Hawaii raw sugar to California.
While history has extensively covered the steamships that were the backbone of the Hawaii-California sugar industry, I was surprised even the folks at C&H weren't sure how the shipping began.
The Treaty of Commercial Reciprocity between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States, fully implemented in 1898, allowed unfettered access to American markets for Hawaii's vast agricultural products -- in exchange for an exclusive Navy coaling station at Pearl Harbor.
Model shipwright Steve Priske rigs the bowsprit of the Puako. It took him four months and 1,200 hours to build the model.
A detail of the completed cockpit of the Puako shows the ship's wheel, captain's gig, grand salon skylight and stern access hatch.
Among the first entrepreneurs to jump at this potentially lucrative opportunity were George Hind and James Rolph Jr. (a future mayor and governor), both of San Francisco. Beginning in 1895, Hind and Rolph had more than 21 four-masted ships (barkentines and schooners) built for their fleet of "snow white" tall ships.
Most were given local Hawaiian names. This fleet brought tons of raw sugar from Hawaii to the town of Crockett, near San Francisco, that helped establish C&H Sugar.
It took me about 1,200 hours to build from scratch a 4-foot-long exact scale replica of the "Sugar Ship" Puako, circa 1902.
I was fortunate that dozens of vintage Puako photos and shipyard blueprints for the KoKo Head, an identical sister ship, were available as references.
After four months I was proud to present the family of Walter Bulski, grandson of Capt. Charles E. Helms, the Puako's last commander (1919 to 1926) a family heirloom that I hope will remind folks of the rich history of the sugar ships.
A painting of the Puako is dated 1902.
Capt. Charles E. Helms, his wife, Mary Catherine, and the first and second officers of the Puako prepared for a voyage in 1919. The captain's wife often sailed with him.
has built model ships for more than four decades, including several for motion pictures. To see a comprehensive history of the sugar ships and the model ship Puako, visit www.tallshipsofsanfrancisco.com