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Egbert Bull Smith and East Setauket Shipbuilding

By Beverly C. Tyler

1949 aerial photo - East Setauket looking southeast. Setauket School on the hill is center. Setauket Methodist Church at crossroad. Farms still dominated the area until the 1960s.

“The thoroughfare east and west of us was lined on either side with hedgerows, which we children had occasion to explore frequently in search of balls, arrows, and other

things belonging to a boy's and girl's stock of playthings; also for hens' nests. Back of these hedgerows were grain fields, gardens or pasture lands ...”

The description of North Country Road (now 25A) between East Setauket and Port Jefferson in 1857, was written by Egbert Bull Smith in his book Voyage of the Two Sisters. Egbert was born on February 8, 1846. His family consisted of his father, Vincent Jones Smith who was in California, his mother Angeline (Jayne) Smith, a brother Charles who was three years older, a sister Georgiana born in 1848, and a sister Josephine born two days before Christmas of 1849.

Egbert Bull Smith and his mother

Every school day, Egbert Smith, his brother and sisters would walk about a mile east along North Country Road to the one-story red East Setauket schoolhouse. Along the way they were joined by other classmates. The walk often became a small parade of children talking, laughing, and occasionally stopping at a special place along the dirt road to shoot for a marble or two. The boys would often talk as they walked along about the exciting adventures that were happening to some of the older boys of the community.

Egbert's father, whom he missed very much, was in California and like so many others was trying to strike it rich in the newly discovered gold fields. An older boy Egbert knew had left school and had gone to sea on one of the sailing ships that left New York City's South Street Seaport for destinations all over the world. When the boy returned to town, he was considered a hero by the other boys and was constantly asked about where he had been and what he had seen.

Gold had been discovered in California, near present-day Sacramento, and by February 1849, the first gold seekers had arrived in San Francisco aboard the ship California. Like Egbert’s father, the gold rush enticed many Long Islanders to board the many clipper ships heading for the west coast.

In a related development, trade with the Orient was in full swing and ships sailed to China daily with trade goods bringing back teas, spices, cotton goods, lacquerware, porcelain and other exotic wares.

The potential for profit in 2-4 year whaling expeditions was just being realized as well. Ocean-going whaling ships were bringing back thousands of gallons of whale oil and not even meeting the demand.

Long Island was also a main source of firewood for New York City. Ships left daily carrying cordwood, passengers and farm products to city markets. With all these factors combined, there was a great rush to produce ocean-going and coastal vessels to meet the demand.

Bark Mary and Louisa entering Hong Kong Harbor. Painting by Chinese artist. Photo courtesy Betsy Delforge

To build the necessary vessels, the shipbuilding industry was in full swing. Along Stony Brook Creek, Stony Brook Harbor and Setauket Harbor, shipyards were building

sailing vessels of every size and type. Lining Shore Road in East Setauket were the shipyards of Nehemiah Hand, William Bacon and David B. Bayles. At the intersection of

Shore Road and Bayview Avenue, the shipyard of William Bacon was constructing a 145-foot square-rigged medium clipper bark that was to be named Mary and Louisa. The

bark, completed during 1857, took on cargo in New York for Mobile, Alabama. This was the first of two trips that would test the vessel and its captain, Benjamin Jones, for the rigors of longer and more extensive voyages.

Egbert Smith recalled the bark as it was nearing completion. “One vessel especially excited my curiosity more than any other ... it was easy for me, during the school days to slip down to the yard during the noon hour and with other boys play hide and seek about her decks and cabins hoping all the time that some day, I might sail in such a ship, but I was afraid that time would never come.” For eleven-year-old Egbert Smith, that time would come the

following year.

One of the schoolbooks that must have helped to inspire Egbert Smith to travel to foreign ports was Warren's Physical Geography. The textbook was illustrated with engravings showing faraway lands and their people as well as many of the special features and unusual animals found there.

Schooner Stephen Taber loaded with cordwood

Egbert was also inspired by experiences that took him away from the local area during the summer months. “It was about this time that my uncle promised to take my brother and me with him on one of his

trips across Long Island Sound. My turn was to come first. I made great reckoning of the event. At length the day came. Mother made cake and baked beans for me... The vessel was loaded with wood and bound for New Haven, Conn. We arrived in due time and after disposing of the wood, took a cargo of oyster shells and returned home. The whole trip occupied about a week. I enjoyed it greatly, and as I was a guest of my uncle, who was both owner and captain on this little trip, it greatly increased my ambition for a seafaring life.”

“One day I heard something that greatly surprised me. The [Mary and Louisa] had arrived from Mobile, had discharged, was even then taking on board a cargo for China and

expected to sail in a few weeks.”

Egbert Bull Smith wrote in his book Voyage of the Two Sisters that he heard the news about the return of the bark Mary and Louisa to New York City in early September, 1858. He was only twelve years old, but his desire to be a part of the world of ocean-going clipper ships was so strong that he made up his mind to ask the captain, a resident of East Setauket, to take him along as a cabin boy.

Captain Benjamin Jones had said, because of the accidental death of a boy on a previous trip, that he did not want to take another young man with him. However, as Egbert wrote, “There was a rumor about the village that Captain Benjamin’s wife expected to go with him on the voyage to China. Now, my brother was much more of a philosopher than I. He argued that, if Mrs. [Jones] was going on the voyage with her husband he might reconsider

his former decision about boys.

Captain Benjamin Jones

“The very next afternoon [September 9, 1858], after school, I went down to his brother's store to see him, and to ask him if he wanted to engage a cabin boy. I set out that afternoon as brave as a lion, at least I thought I was. But when I met him face to face, my courage failed me, and while I was considering the matter he departed.”

The store where Egbert went to speak to Captain Jones was in East Setauket where HSBC Bank now stands. The store was run by Benjamin’s brother, Walter Jones, who was just 24 years old in 1858. The 1858 Chace map lists a “W. Jones dealer in Dry Goods, Groceries and c.” Walter is listed as a merchant in the 1860 census and as a “grocer and dry goods” owner in the 1880 census.

Egbert's older brother Charles, age 15, saved the day by asking Captain Jones for him. The captain, after talking to Egbert and his mother, agreed to take him on at wages of three dollars per month. At the time ordinary seaman were paid eight dollars a month and able seaman twelve.

Egbert attended school for about two more weeks and on Friday, his last day of school, said goodbye to his classmates, and friends. Early Monday morning Egbert and his mother took the local stage coach to the Lakeland Railroad Station (just east of the present Ronkonkoma Station). There was no North Shore line until 1872. From there they took the Long Island Railroad to South Brooklyn where they boarded a ferry for the ride across the East River to New York City (Manhattan).

Ships lying at the wharves at South Street Seaport

Egbert wrote , “With the exception of my trip to New Haven with my uncle, I had never been five miles away from home. Everything was new and strange to me. A ringing of bells, blowing of whistles, the great ships that lay at the wharves on either side of the river, with their tall masts and square yards that seemed in the distance to be all tangled up together as trees in a thick forest.”

Bark Mary and Louisa being towed to sea. Drawing by Archie Raynor, from Egbert Smith’s book Voyage of the Two Sisters

Egbert and his mother went on board the Mary and

Louisa and spent the night. The next day, September 23,

1858, the ship was quickly prepared for leaving port.

Egbert was put under the charge of the ship's steward.

His mother and other guests stayed on board as the ship

left South Street Pier 32 and was towed out to sea by a

small steam tug. Finally, past where the Verrazano Narrow's Bridge is now, the tug came alongside and took the guests off.

The clipper bark set the fore-and-aft sails as the tug pulled away and Egbert waved goodbye to his mother. The square sails were then set and the Mary and Louisa was underway for Shanghai, China. It was to be three years before the ship returned to New York and Egbert,

by then 15 years old and an experienced sailor, returned home for a visit.

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NEW BOOK FROM TVHS: Down The Ways - The Wooden Ship Era: East Setauket Shipbuilders, Ship Captains, Maritime Trades and Dyer's Neck Homes is now available on this web site and every Friday afternoon 3-7 PM at the Farmer's Market on the TVHS Headquarters and History Center field. Bev Tyler

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