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Old Ship street.

Some of its houses, ships, and characters.

by Fred. H. C. Woolley.
[Read before Medford Historical Society, May 20, 1901.]

STRETCHING southeastward from Medford square to Wellington farmhouse, shaded in part by buttonwoods, grass-edged, irregular, and rough, keeping in sight the river, in the early years of 1800 was a road known as the Town road or River road. The section of this road from the river landing opposite the foot of Cross street to Wellington was probably made to accommodate the two brick houses, then the only buildings in this part of Medford, with the exception of the Wellington farmhouse, built 1648-165 2. One of these was at the eastern end of Governor Cradock's plantation, called the ‘Old Fort,’ built in 1634, and the other about five hundred feet north of this road at a point opposite the first shipyard. In 1746 the section from the market (Medford square) to the tide-mill (near Cross street) was opened.

When Thatcher Magoun, of Pembroke, Mass., came to Medford, and in 1802 selected a portion of land between the river and this road opposite its junction with Park street, and here located the first ship-yard, an industry started that drew to Medford in the succeeding years many men and their families who located their homes along this road. These men came mainly from the Scituates, Marshfield, Hanover, and Pembroke, where for years ship-building had flourished, finding here better facilities for their chosen occupation; and so it came about that soon afterward a name [p. 88] was given to this street which seemed exactly fitting; for at a town meeting held May 4, 1829, a committee that had been appointed to recommend names for the streets reported as follows: ‘From Porter's corner southeast to Wellington farm, Ship Street.’ Unfortunately after fifty years the name ‘Ship street’ was laid aside on petition of the last ship-builder of the Ship-street yards. Perhaps it seemed to him an appropriate thing to do, as ship-building was then in its decline in Medford, and it happened that he built the last ship. On Nov. 15, 1872, it was voted at town meeting that the name of Ship street be changed to Riverside Avenue, on petition of J. T. Foster and others.

The oldest residents on Riverside avenue and many others born and brought up on the old street still cling to the familiar name ‘Ship street.’ A quotation from the Boston Transcript of several years ago may not be out of place here.

Speaking of the way in which the ship-building industry of Medford has disappeared and left hardly a trace of the once familiar ship-yards along the meadow, the writer says: ‘Even the name of the street which commemorated the industry— “Ship street,” which runs along the edge of this meadow—has been changed, with a totally Philistine indifference to the fitness of things, to “Riverside avenue.” Perhaps, with the progress of popular cultivation and the coming of a better sense of what is fit and proper, the name of Ship street may be restored to the quiet old thoroughfare which leads out past the Cradock House; and then the town will possess at least one reminder of its noblest industry.’

Some of its houses and characters.

The men who came to Medford to engage in the ship-building industry and settled along Ship street built plain, substantial houses of ample proportion varying but little in style from one another. The square [p. 89] pitch roof with one large chimney in the centre, or a chimney at each end, was the predominant type. A few gambrel-roofed are still to be seen, but none of the hip-roofed type, of which there were three, are in existence. These houses, backed by orchards, fronted by the sturdy lilacs, guarded by sentinel posts at the front gateway of the picket fence, shaded by chestnut, buttonwoods, or elms, were the pride of those ship-builders and carpenters. There many of the substantial citizens of Medford grew up.

Mr. Thatcher Magoun, the pioneer ship-builder, built his residence at the easterly corner of Park and Ship streets, a large two and a half story house, hip-roofed, with a long L; and a barn somewhat back with a curving driveway thereto. Several large elms in later days shaded the place.

Here a great many of those who afterward became ship-builders boarded while serving their apprenticeship with Mr. Magoun. His ship-yard was opposite, where from 1803, the year of the launching of his first vessel, the ‘Mt. Aetna,’ until he launched his last, the ‘Deucalion,’ in 1836, he built more than any other one builder in Medford, his list of vessels numbering eighty-four. He finally removed to the residence he built on High street (now the Public Library). On Sept. 19, 1865, his old home, then occupied by several families as a tenement house, was completely burned.

Mr. Calvin Turner, who established the second shipyard at the corner of Cross and Ship streets, in 1805, lived in a house similar in build to Mr. Magoun's. It was situated near where the present Boston & Maine freight shed stands, and moved to Court street some years ago. Mr. Turner was esteemed a faithful builder, and is to be credited with twenty-five vessels.

Another contemporary was Samuel Lapham, son of George Bryant Lapham, of Marshfield, Mass., who came here in 1800, and built his homestead on Ship street, some distance below Park street and nearly opposite [p. 90] what is now Maverick street. Here was born, on Nov. 4, 1808, Samuel Lapham (2d), who became apprenticed to Thatcher Magoun, and, after serving his time, started business on his own account. He built his first vessel, the brig Nabob, in 1830, at which time he purchased the yards and residence at the corner of Cross and Ship streets. The ship Magnet, his twenty-third vessel, launched in 1856, was the last vessel built by him or in his yards. He then retired from the business of building vessels, in most of which he was part or sole owner. He built several ships, the ‘Argonaut,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ and others, for Mr. John E. Lodge, the father of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

Mr. Lapham was the first chief engineer of the Medford Fire Department. He died at his residence May 24, 1886.

Of all the homesteads on old Ship street, that of Mr. Galen James (Deacon James) stands out clearest in memory, situated at the corner of what is now known as Foster court. It was imposing; a large brown house, a long low ell connected with shed, carriage house and barn of ample proportion shaded by large elms. West of the house, along the street, an apple orchard, and to the south the marshes and river.

Mr. James, born in Scituate in 1790, came to Medford in the early years of 1800 and learned the ship-building trade of Thatcher Magoun, in whose family he lived while so doing. He built his house in 1820. He formed a partnership with Mr. Isaac Sprague and they started a ship-yard in 1817, the third in Medford, at the foot of what is now Foster court. Their first vessel was built in 1816, named the ‘Bocca Tigris;’ the last in 1842, the bark Altorf. Several of their vessels were built for Mr. Joseph Lee, of Boston, a bachelor of eccentric character.

As was customary, Mr. James had a number of apprentices who lived with him, including his own brothers. He had a long, old-fashioned table which would seat [p. 91] seven or eight on a side, the apprentices sitting at his right hand and those who were free at his left. Grace was always said and family prayers were the custom.

Sprague & James' yard was the first to abolish the eleven o'clock drink. It had been the business of the youngest apprentice to prepare it. They thought it a bad precedent. The men were called together and offered what the drinks would cost to be added to their wages. To this all agreed, but there were many who thought a vessel would never slide off the ways without it. However, the first vessel launched, after this change in custom, slid off successfully and a great hurrah went up.

Who that lived on Ship street can forget that familiar horse and carryall, in its trips to and from the square? ‘There goes Deacon James' “gospel wagon” ’ was the expression as the Deacon, smiling all over, sat on the front seat surrounded by merry children, as many more filling the body of the carriage. Every child who lived along the street knew him, and looked for the coming of the old red horse and wagon, and he took them all in. Was not this the ‘gospel spirit’?

Mr. James died at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. Haskins, on April 14, 1879.

Mr. Isaac Sprague, the partner of Mr. James, came to Medford from Scituate and bought the house now known as the old Sprague house, situated near Spring street. This house had only two rooms in the main part, but was from time to time enlarged until it assumed goodly proportions. The barn was built by Mr. Sprague, at the raising of which many of the neighbors helped. Here he kept the oxen which he used in the ship-yard for hauling timber. Mr. William Sprague and Mr. Isaac Sprague, his sons, still live in Medford. He died Jan. 12, 1852, aged sixty-nine years.

A low one-storied house with large chimney and sloping roof, nestling amid lilacs and bright flowers, is remembered as the home of Mr. Nathan Sawyer, just [p. 92] this side of Mr. Sprague's. He came to Medford in 1827 and in 1836 bought this house of a Mrs. Hatch, living here until he died in 1873. He had charge of making all the ironwork used by Sprague & James in the building of their ships, and owned two or three shops, having many men to work for him.

Paul Curtis, a name well-known. When serving time as apprentice he was called ‘honest Paul.’ He was born in South Scituate, Dec. 26, 1800, and came to Medford at the age of eighteen, learning his trade of Thatcher Magoun. Living at first in a double house with Jotham Stetson off Ship street, on what was termed ‘the Island,’ he afterward built and lived in the house next below Thatcher Magoun's (now Mrs. Reed's). In 1839 he moved to South street and in 1852 to East Boston. Mr. Curtis built twenty-seven vessels at Magoun's yard. In partnership with J. O. Curtis he built six, and continued building at East Boston. In all, his list of vessels reached a hundred.

Waterman and Ewell succeeded Paul & J. O. Curtis at Magoun's yard. Mr. Foster Waterman was born in Barnstable, June 2, 1805. He entered the business of ship-carpenter, serving apprenticeship with the late Noah Brooks, of South Boston, from which place he came to Medford and lived in the house of Oakman Joyce. He formed a partnership with Mr. Henry Ewell. They built here fifty-one vessels. He died at Nantasket beach at his summer residence, July 22, 1870. His daughter is Mrs. R. H. Stearns, of Boston. His partner, Mr. Henry Ewell, born at Marshfield, Dec. 31, 1806, was apprenticed to Thatcher Magoun at the age of seventeen. The house at the corner of Pleasant street and Riverside avenue now occupied by Mrs. Cudworth was built for Mr. Ewell and afterward sold to Mr. William Cudworth. On giving up business in Medford Mr. Ewell went to Quincy and then to East Boston, continuing in the same business.

From 1831 to 1860 many of the houses on Ship street [p. 93] were built by Mr. Oakman Joyce, who came to Medford with his brother Samuel Joyce from Marshfield; and bought land along the street between Mr. Magoun's and Mr. Lapham's. For his brother Samuel he built the house afterward occupied by Roland Jacobs. Next below this he built his own in 1831, with timber cut from his wood-lot in Marshfield and brought here in a vessel. His reputation as a carpenter and builder is sustained by the quality of the houses he built. This may be seen in those on either corner of Pleasant street and Riverside avenue, and in many others in this vicinity. His work entered into the construction of the old Unitarian church, a Unitarian church in Chelsea, and a Methodist church in Malden. In later years he ran the saw-mill for Mr. Magoun at his ship-yard, afterward going into the coal business at what was recently Mr. Bean's wharf. He died July 21, 1869.

Mr. Roland Jacobs, born in Thomaston, Maine, in 1808, came early to Medford and learned shipcarpenter-ing of Sprague & James. His home was next above Oakman Joyce's. In 1856 he worked for Mr. Magoun, and during the Civil War, in the navy yard. In 1873 he was working in Mr. Foster's ship-yard. After ship-building ceased Deacon Jacobs might any day be found at his carpenter shop, back of his house, making wheelbarrows; a conscientious, painstaking workman, whose wheelbarrows needed no further warrant than that they were ‘made by Deacon Jacobs.’ He died March 23, 1879.

The white house with cupola, built by Mr. C. S. Jacobs, back from the street among the trees, with the long iron fence front, and opposite the old Sprague homestead, is known as the home of Mr. Joshua T. Foster, proprietor of the last ship-yard. He came to Medford from South Scituate in 1826, and served with Sprague & James. In 1852 he became partner with Mr. John Taylor, succeeding his old employers. Afterward he became sole owner of the yard, where, until he launched his last in 1873, he built some famous vessels,—forty-two [p. 94] in all. He was captain of the Medford militia in 1834; and held many offices in the town, being for eleven years a selectman, and four years assessor. In 1883-4 he represented Medford in the Legislature. He died Nov. 21, 1895.

We have now sauntered slowly down old Ship street from the home of the pioneer ship-builder at the corner of Park street; have stood in front of the homes or the sites of the homes of those men who made Medford ships famous, and in memory they have lived again. Turning now westward from Park street, other homes and persons come to mind who had their part in this important industry.

At the upper corner of Pleasant street was the house of Mr. William Cudworth, who, in partnership with Mr. Elisha Hayden, was the last to carry on shipbuilding at the old Magoun yard. Both these men came from Scituate, Mr. Cudworth being born Jan. 15, 1814, at a place now called Greenbush. His schooling was cut short at the age of thirteen, when he was sent to sea (his father being a captain) to help in support of the family. From his youth he loved ships, and it is said he used to draw and cut upon the panels of the rooms of his early home pictures of vessels in varied rig. Hayden & Cudworth built their first ship—the ‘Horsburgh,’ 577 tons—in 1846; their largest and last—the ‘Henry Hastings,’ 1,500 tons—in 1866; in all thirty-nine vessels. Mr. Cudworth served the town of Medford as one of its selectmen several times; was a representative to the Legislature for three consecutive sessions. He died at his home Feb. 2, 1877.

In the fine finish required for the interior of a ship's cabin, the workmanship of Mr. Faphet Sherman held a superior place. His trim-looking house, just below the corner of Pleasant street, was his residence from the time he built it, fifty-two years. He came from Marshfield, born there in 1818. In 1834 he apprenticed himself to Oakman Joyce, to learn carpentering and joinering, [p. 95] which trade he followed through life. His thoroughness and skill still speak in the fine work on the interiors of the houses of Gen. Samuel C. Lawrence, James W. Tufts, George L. Stearns, and Hon. Edward Brooks. He was a member of Volunteer Fire Department of General Washington, No. 3, and was instrumental in detecting the incendiaries who made the year 1855 one of terror. On his advocacy the cemetery was constituted a separate department of town government. He served six years on the first Board of Trustees. His zest for nature was keen. He knew every rare plant, and where in our woods it grew. His knowledge of shade and fruit trees was sought, and he shared his secrets with his neighbors. He passed away on Feb. 17, 1897.

Mr. Cram, the pump-maker, lived in the low house just opposite Pleasant street. He was always in demand. Judah Loring's home was next above Mr. Cudworth's. He was a ship-carpenter, having a shop located near the present railroad crossing.

Mr. Samuel Clark, who has just built a house on the site of Jonathan Sampson's homestead, came to Medford from Hanover in 1834 and was apprenticed to Edward Eells, a former ship-builder in Hanover who came to Medford in 1822 and did the joiner-work for many of the vessels built here. He died in 1838 and his son Robert L. succeeded him in business. Mr. Clark married the youngest daughter of Edward Eells in 1845 and lived many years in the old home. He is the only survivor of all the workers in the ship-yards living on this old street, and is in his eighty-fourth year.

The long tenement house known as ‘the Colleges’ still stands. How it ever came to have a name like that is not known. An old deed conveying the property from one John Cutter, of Woburn, to Samuel Cutter, of Charlestown, dated Oct. 23, 1824, describes it as ‘a large dwelling-house . . . known by the name of “the Colleges. ” ’ [p. 96]

Passing by Lapham's ship-yard, which has been noticed, just beyond on the edge of the river was the old tide-mill of the days of 1746. At first a grist mill, it was afterward used for various purposes such as grinding of seed and paint and sawing and planing of lumber. It was burned on the early morning of April 19, 1894, but has been rebuilt and still runs and hums as of old. There was Mr. Clough, who did coopering in a shop back of his house at the corner of Sables court. James Ford, who had a mould shop near his large house. Beyond this, Aaron Blanchard's, Mr. Wheeler's, and Calvin Turner's. Then you came to Gravelly creek wriggling its way over marshy land to the mill pond; it was crossed by a wooden bridge. Just above where the railroad crosses the street, on the left were Alexander Gregg's stables. Mr. Gregg was a prominent man in town affairs, having been a butcher, then a schoolmaster, then doing a large business teaming. He served in town offices and in the Legislature. The last house on the right, gambrel-roofed, is the old Blanchard house, now occupied by daughter and granddaughter of Mr. Gilbert Blanchard, who bought the place of Mr. Dudley Hall. Here for several years Mrs. Buckman kept a private school for boys and girls. Mr. Blanchard kept a grocery store in the brick building, corner of Ship and Salem streets. Many others might be mentioned who have borne an important part in the old street's history, but space forbids. Jonathan Porter's store (‘Porter's corner’) at the square has been reached. The street was named beginning at this corner.

Some of its ships.

Ship Gem of the Ocean, 730 tons, built by Hayden & Cudworth, was launched at midnight, Aug. 4, 1852, on account of the tide. Each man brought his lantern. Mr. Cudworth's mother, then seventy years of age, [p. 97] never having witnessed a launch, came up from Scituate and was present at the event—a great one for her.

Ship Electric Spark, 1,200 tons, launched at the same yard in 1855, was commanded by Capt. R. G. F. Candage (now of Brookline) and made the voyage to California in one hundred and six days.

The Boston Advertiser of Saturday, May 10, 1856, has the following advertisement:

Glidden & Williams line for San Francisco
To Sail on or before Tuesday, May 20,
the Magnificent first-Class Clipper Ship Thatcher Magoun

S. B. Bourne, Comdr.

The ‘Thatcher Magoun’ is truly an elegant ship extremely sharp and ventilated in the most thorough manner. She will sail as above.

For Freight or Passage
Apply at California Packet office
39 Lewis Wharf.

She was built by Hayden & Cudworth.

To illustrate the quality of work by a famous Medford ship-builder a lady relates this experience:

She was returning from Europe with husband and family on the ship John E. Thayer. They encountered an unusually severe gale lasting three days, with constantly increasing violence. The passengers became so alarmed that the captain was appealed to for assurances of safety. While he admitted the storm to be the worst he had ever known, he called the ladies to the cabin and asked them to notice the builder's name in golden letters on the white enamelled panel. They read this: ‘Paul Curtis, builder.’ He assured them that no ship of his had ever foundered,—no ships [p. 98] had so high a record for low insurance rates,—no timber or bolt was introduced unless free from all defect. ‘I assure you, ladies,’ he said, ‘I think she will ride this terrible storm safely.’ The ship came safely through the storm. Although this ship is not in the list of Medford-built vessels, this incident is well worth a record here on account of the builder being one of Medford's best.

In 1851 there was constructed by B. F. Delano, at Magoun's yard, the ship Dauntless, of 800 tons, faultless in every particular, the pride of the builder and owner. She was commanded by Captain Miller, who then lived in the large house at the corner of Revere place and Salem street. From the day she sailed away no tidings of her ever came to shore.

The ship Don Quixote, built at Foster's yard in 1868 (A picture of this vessel is reproduced on the invitations to this meeting. She is represented just before the launch.) has a notice in the Boston Evening Journal of Oct. 29, 1868, as follows: ‘Launched, ship “Don Quixote.” A fine vessel of about 1,000 tons was launched by Mr. Foster, at Medford, a few days since. She now lies at Long wharf and will load for San Francisco.’ Her commander was Captain Nelson, formerly of ship Golden Fleece, and she sailed for Winsor's regular line for San Francisco.

The ship Pilgrim,—long may she be remembered as the last of all the vessels built and launched on the shores of the Mystic! She was constructed at J. T. Foster's yard for Henry Hastings & Co. Of nearly a thousand tons, launched on Dec. 3, 1873, she sailed to Hong Kong Feb. 14, 1874, with a cargo of ice, and was commanded by Capt. Frank Fowle, making the passage in one hundred and twenty-one days. Afterward, in December, 1889, was sold to Daniel Bacon, of New York. She was constructed of finest material, sailed the world over, making fair passages, and was lost.

[p. 99]


In the early days of ship-building, work in the yards began with sunrise and ended at sunset, with allowance of time for meals. In later times the work hours were from 7 in the morning until 6 at night with an hour's nooning. Usually about sixty men were employed building a ship. They were the ship-carpenters, the calkers, the outboard and inboard joiners. The wages received were $2 per day, apprentices receiving $40 to $50 per year and board; many of the apprentices boarded with the proprietor of the yard. To build a 1,000 or 1,200 ton ship required about six months. In early times the timber was obtained in the neighborhood— then in New Hampshire—from where it was transported via the old Middlesex canal to Medford and drawn by ox-teams to the ship-yard. It was a sight in winter to see these teams go by—creaking, squeaking, the oxen with frosted backs and icicles hanging from their mouths.

Much might be written about the building of a ship from the laying of the first timber to the finishing touch, but that must be left for another time.

To be in the yard watching the varied processes going on in the ship's construction was the acme of delight to the interested boy. Oftentimes a few pennies were earned by some errand or by tending the steam-shed fire. ‘Looking in at the open door’ of the blacksmith shop never lacked in attraction for the children. In early days matches were unknown, and old Mr. Lapham, the blacksmith, would be seen daily coming up the street from his house with his fire-brand to light his forge fire. What a supply of ‘chewing-gum’ for the children there was in those big kettles of tar where all were permitted to help themselves without spending a cent!

The great day was the day of the launch. The neighborhood poured out—old ship captains came [p. 100] from far and near,—the ‘school-marm’ and her flock of boys and girls. It was a sight—grand, impressive, to look at the great ship that had been building so many months, now awaiting, in her dress of black and green, the incoming tide, when, the last block knocked from under, she would slide into the Mystic.

I remember while awaiting the high tide at a launch at Foster's yard that the ‘Great American Traveller,’ Daniel Pratt, located himself, with the aid of the boys, on a post at the river-end of the yard and began one of his rhapsodies on ‘that famous ship-canal from Medford to Chelsea, wherein great vessels should float to the sea,’—that about in the middle of his remarks the launch took place and the water displaced rushed inward over the yard, leaving Daniel on the post surrounded, his audience being fleeter of foot having escaped inland. The flood soon subsided, and folding up his manuscript, which he always carried, Daniel was helped down and departed.

The impressions of boyhood last. Especially indelible are the pictures of the ship-yards upon memory, although the yards are grass-grown and scarcely a timber marks the spot. The daily procession of toilers to and from the yards, and the rhythmic clank, clank—clank, clank, of the calkers, still are seen and heard.

Of all the buildings in all the yards but one stands today—an old building in Foster's yard. A slight depression near by on the edge of the river marks the spot where the last ship was launched,—the ‘Pilgrim.’ The tides come and go as they always have. Old Ship street with its ships has passed into history. No shipbuilder is now living. Their sons and daughters are still with us.

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