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The old ship-building days.

[Excerpts from a talk given before the Medford Historical Society by Elisha B. Curtis, December 18, 1911, on ‘Scenes Along the Mystic in the Early Fifties.’]

IN 1850 the population of Medford exceeded that of Maiden. Maiden then included both Melrose and Everett, known as North and South Maiden, respectively. Medford's population was then also larger than Somerville's, which now outnumbers us three or four to one. At that time Medford was in her palmiest days, having a great prestige through her ship-building industry following the discovery of gold, in 1849, on the Pacific coast. A few years later, however, it became evident that wooden vessels were passing, and this fact, together with other circumstances (such as the withholding of lands from the market, and our location on a spur track instead of a main line) will account for being outstripped in growth by these neighboring communities.

There were three ship-yards on the south side of the river and three on the north side, extending from the since established Winthrop bridge at intervals to Foster's court, off Ship street, now Riverside avenue. In each of these yards there could be seen one, two, or three vessels in various stages of construction. All this heavy work required nearly five hundred strong and robust workmen. Besides some natives, these men came from the South Shore towns of Scituate, Hanover, Pembroke, Marshfield and Duxbury. There were also some from the coast of Maine and the Provinces.

All along the river there was a great and constant hum of business. The streets were filled with long tandem teams of horses, hauling timber which had come down over the railroad from the northern hills to a sidetrack at West Medford. [p. 78]

The noises of the ship-yards were many. The swinging of broadaxes, the resounding mauls that were sending home spikes, bolts and trunnels, the ring of the anvils and caulking irons, the various calls for help from one locality to another, such as ‘hot plank here,’ all had a certain charm, even if they were not harmonious.

Then the smells of a ship-yard were also of interest to acute nostrils. The white oak that had been absorbing from nature for many decades, in being worked into shape for use, gave forth its own peculiar aroma, as did also the yellow pine from Georgia, the hackmatack and other woods. Then the bales of oakum, the great melting kettles of pitch, tar and tallow, and the atmosphere around the saw-pits, the steam box and sizzling forges, all made up a variety of strong and positive odors.

In the yard at foot of Cross street Mr. Samuel Lapham (who lived in the large house by the Cross street railroad bridge) built several first-class merchantmen for Mr. John E. Lodge, father of Senator Cabot Lodge. The Argonaut was a '49er, and such was the demand for freight and passenger accommodation that she was paid for before ever casting off her lines for her maiden voyage around ‘The Horn’ to San Francisco. Curiosity as to the name of this ship is satisfied by history, which says that the Argonauts were famous Greek heroes, who according to tradition lived before the Trojan War and made adventurous voyages in the ship Argo into unknown seas to recover ‘The Golden Fleece.’

The launching days were the culmination of interest. School sessions were frequently varied to meet the general desire to be present. Being known all through the town, a large company assembled in delightful anticipation. It was, however, a time of anxiety for the builders and owners, as well as for such of the workmen as were splitting away blocks of wood from under the keel, to allow the ship to settle slightly and take a bearing on the tallowed track. No escape for these; they were imprisoned and simply had to wait while the immense body [p. 79] slid over them and down the ways into water. Strong nerves were necessary there.

In the Thatcher Magoun yard (at foot of Park street) a vessel had been built by Hayden & Cudworth, and was given an unusual pitch toward the river. This was to insure that once started she should keep moving. This method was open to the objection of moving so swiftly as to wedge into the opposite bank hard and fast. To prevent this a heavy anchor was embedded in the solid ground alongside. To it, from on shipboard, there was run a very large new Manila hawser with a good deal of slack, the idea being to check her great momentum when once afloat. Thereby hangs a sad tale.

In the old burying-ground on Cross street, over on the northerly line, there is a slate headstone with this inscription: ‘Walter S. Hathaway, son of Noah and Hannah Hathaway. Sept. 30, 1850. 14 yrs. 6 mos.’ The family home was on the corner of Salem and Cross streets, and there these parents reared a family of eighteen children. The head of the family was a pillar in the Methodist Church. The oldest son was a powerful man and much liked in a ship-yard gang on this account. Later in life he became attached to Boston police force and was known as ‘Big George.’

Walter, a younger brother, was like him in muscle. In those days, if you bought goods at a grocery you had to get them home yourself, they were not sent. Henry H. Jaquith kept a store (now a dwelling-house) adjoining the Cross street cemetery. Some one had bought a barrel of flour and a two-bushel bag of corn, and engaged Walter to wheel them home. Boys gathered around, curious to know how much for the job, and eager to try a hand at it. After proving their inability, a proud moment came to Walter, when he took two boys on top the load and went right along with it. There came a day, however, when all his superior strength counted for nothing. It was at the launching above referred to. Amid the cheering of the great company as the ship [p. 80] entered the water a tragedy was being enacted. Just as the hawser tautened by the tremendous strain, Walter was jumping over it. It parted, and caught him in its recoil. He was drawn into the river out of sight. When after an hour or two his body was recovered it was found that one of his legs had been broken.

There was built in this same yard, in 1854, a beautiful barque. She pursued for a number of years a peaceful commerce around the world until overtaken by Captain Semmes in the Alabama, becoming one of his sixty-five victims.

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