Along the Great Egg Harbor River

By Richard Roberts Crane

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Looking down the Egg Harbor River today one has difficulty in conceiving this waterway as a bustling artery of commerce. This basin at Mays Landing still accommodates sea craft which, though mostly yachts, occasionally are of considerable size. Along the riverbank one finds pleasure boats issuing forth from Post Marine and Maycraft, most of which are under 40' in length. In such serene atmosphere you must stretch your imagination to picture four masted schooners lying alongside the wharf being rigged for sea and others, already in service, taking on cargoes for New York, Philadelphia, or the West Indies.

As our nation emerged from the War it found itself still dependent on England for much of its needs. Ships and men to build and sail these ships were in great demand.

Christopher Rape was one such man. On his return from the Revolutionary War where he served as a Captain in the 3rd Battalion from New Jersey he set up a blacksmith shop and shipyard at Clarkstown on the Great Egg Harbor River. This was sometime around 1780.Later his son Nicholas Rape was to carry on the shipbuilding and also run a general store. By 1830 John Taylor was building ships on the river. (1)

Captain John Clark and James Clark built some 30 ships in the reaches of the Great Egg Harbor River at Clarktown. There were over the years some 35 men who were building ships. In this time some 200 were built. (2)

The entire area was a natural for ships and shipbuilding. The forests abounded with trees and according to an early New Jersey Gazetteer of 1834 "Extensive beds of the variety of argillaceous oxide of iron, called bog ore, are common throughout the district". Said of the rivers "They are steady in their volumes and uniform supplies of water can be more confidently relied upon". (3)

George Wheaton was one of Mays Landing's earliest shipbuilders turning out ships where Babcock's Creek emptied into the river. Small schooners for river and coastal trade were built by Ephraim Dare. Upriver from Wheaton's was perhaps the most famous of all Mays Landing shipwrights - Captain Samuel Gaskill. The 21 Friends which Gaskill built for Captain John Jefferies of English Creek was so sturdy, (4) despite a collision and abandonment by her crew, she remained afloat for two years as a "ghost ship". She reportedly was seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Later she was salvaged and put to use by fishermen. The John Shay was also from Captain Gaskill's yard. She received local fame as a result of an encounter with Confederate privateers on her maiden voyage. Samuel Gaskill's reputation, however, was not only local but, it is said, he was known among and consulted by shipbuilders in Delaware and Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey.

The area around Mays Landing and Clarkstown saw it's most prosperous era from the 1830's to the 1880's. Lumber, pitch rosin, turpentine and iron left the docks not only in the composition of these great ships but in their holds as well with charcoal, the other principal export.

Ships and shipbuilding were of such importance to the industry and well being of the area that a launching was treated as a local holiday. Ships lined the docks at Pennington Point, Coal Landing, Huggs Hold, Doehls Point, and Junk House wharf waiting to be rigged (as many as 28 were reported). Other ships under construction rested on the ways, as many as six, three and four masted schooners at a time.

The River was navigable for ships of 1000 tons as far as Mays Landing while others up to 2000 tons could be loaded below Mays Landing. For the first part of the voyage out of Mays Landing, ships were towpathed by mules to deepwater. (5)

As the heyday of the sail drew to a close to too did that of Mays Landing. An easier and a better way, and cheaper way was found for the protection of iron ore. The last ships to be built in the area were towed to the yards on the upper Delaware River for rigging and fitting out. The year of 1885 saw the last of the schooners built here. Over 100 large schooners and numerous smaller vessels had gone down the River to the hungry sea, but now it was over.

At the mouth of the Great Egg Harbor was the old established port of Somers Point, which was also the scene of shipbuilding. In 1797 the new nation established a customs house increasing the town's importance as a port and a shipbuilding area. The sloops John Clark, John Wesley. J . F. Armstrong and the schooner Ioetta were built in this area. The last schooner built in the Great Egg Harbor area was the Eva I. Smith at Israel Scull's yard at Somers Point. (6)

Further up the River on the Patcong Creek, at Bargaintown a small ship building complex was started. (7)

The Grist Mill, blacksmith shop and the sawmill and an ample supply of cedar timber and the Creek made Bargaintown or Cedar Bridge a suitable site for a shipyard. (8)

Christopher Van Sant was the first known shipbuilder in the area and built his ships at Joel's Landing below Central Avenue in 1803. (9)

Nicholas Frambes, the father-in-law of Christopher Van Sant, with his Sons Job, David, Andrew and his son-in-law Daniel Edwards, a blacksmith, built ships in a Yard on the Creek just above Poplar Avenue. Nicholas Frambes lived in the old Scull farmhouse on the southerly side of the Avenue just southeast of Blackman Road. (10)

In 1818 - 1819 five ships were constructed along the Patcong Creek. Due to the limitations of the Creek's width and depth, the size of the vessels launched here could not have been as large as those built at Mays Landing and Somers Point. Still the schooner L.A. Rose, the last vessel reported issuing from the Patcong was 145 1/2 gross tons with a length of 98 feet. She was completed in 1868 for William Rose and her homeport was Somers Point. (11)

A vessel under construction. This is similar to the ships built by Israel Smith in his yard in English Creek in Egg Harbor Township.

Photograph by Jack E. Boucher           

From the l860's to the late 1880's the Ship Yard at English Creek was the birthplace of a number of two and three masted schooners. Through the eyes of the yards master we can gain some insight into the work and problems of all the shipbuilders of the Great Egg Harbor. (12)

In the spring of 1874, Israel Smith's thoughts reflected concern that the next ship might not give as much trouble as the last, The Elizabeth T. Cottingham. She was no trouble but from the time he launched her on January 30 until March 6th, he and a crew of men had been working to get her out of English Creek into deeper water in the Great Egg Harbor River. The distance was a little more than a mile to the docks beyond Horse Point. (13)

Israel Smith, master carpenter and shipwright, built schooners on the banks of the English Creek with a cleared plot of land serving as his Yard. He worked hard six days a week and his only pleasures, other than shipbuilding seemed to be the keeping of his Journal and the Sabbath on which he would attend as many as three different church services. (14)

On Saturday January 3, 1874, as the vessel Elizabeth T. Cottingham neared completion Israel wrote in his Journal "This afternoon in the yard finished the trail boards ready to send to the carver went in the afternoon to Leedsville after a wagon." Wednesday the 7th: "cut trees for launching."

Sunday the 11th: Israel kept the Sabbath and duly noted in the Journal with his stock comment for most Sabbaths, "Brother Moore preached a very interesting sermon." The following day he write, "This for noon employed in the yard until noon and then went to Mays Landing after a shearpole the day has been fair with W winds, then as an afterthought, "the riggers came today." (15)

The shearpole was to be used as a boom or hoist for the stepping of the masts. The rigger were specialists at their jobs, and in those days traveled from shipyard to shipyard as their service was required for ships nearing completion.

Thursday January 22, "This day employed at booby hatch it (has) been (a) very moderate day for the season. The riggers finished rigging to-day. The wind (at) nine SW and clear." By January the vessel was complete and Israel Smith and his helpers spent the day preparing for the launching. The launching the following day was almost canceled. January 31, "This morning getting ready to launch, there is a good tide but could not get ready, the tide has fell nearly a foot but the vessel went off." The delay which almost stopped her launching seemed almost an omen of what was to come. The ship had been built, but payment would not come until she had been taken downstream to deep water. Israel Smith's troubles now started.

Now the weather turned against Smith and his yard crew, but nevertheless they kept busy as he notes on Saturday Feb. 17th: "This day employed at a new model, the day had been stormy, and the snow is the deepest of the season." Whenever the weather was confining, work continued on the model of the next ship, these hand carved models served as a guide for the "laying down" of the ship on the mold loft or platform. From these lines the templates were made and the timbers were cut.

Monday Feb. 16, "This day turned the vessel and get her head down the creek." The 19th: went to the vessel to move her down to (the) creek did not move her far" also went and looked up some trees for anchor stakes." These anchor stakes were driven along the band of the Creek, A line was made fast to the piles and taken to anchor windlass on the vessel and by this means they were able to move the ship down the Creek. This was slow work as the ship was inched out on very high tide. At high water all hands in the yard fell to in an effort to get her to deep water. By now I, Smith was becoming frustrated with the task and the lack of water. (16)

Feb.24th: "there seems to be no tide of amount and we are plagued to get the vessel along." Nine days later on Thursday March 5th: "This afternoon moved the vessel down to the lower side of Horse Point." And finally on the following day this entry, "This day employed at laying out timber. The day had been cloudy, got the new schooner down to the wharf, feel very tired, wind E." Thirty-four days from her launching the Elizabeth T. Cottingham had reached her point of delivery, a distance not much more than a mile. She was a three-masted schooner of 265 gross tons with a length of 120 feet. The Elizabeth T. was built for John Smith of English Creek at a cost of some $26,000. Her home port was Camden. She met her doom in "the Graveyard of Ships" off Cape Hatteras. (17)

The Eva I. Smith was another three-masted schooner of some 434 gross tons and was 129 feet in length. She was built by I. Smith on the English Creek but without the same difficulties in moving her to the Great Egg Harbor. Her home port was Somers Point, and her owner was one Richard Adams. (18)

In the following year, 1875, Israel Smith built the Emma L.Cottingham. another three-masted schooner. She was 139 1/2 feet in length and of 34 feet beam and 534 gross tons. The difficulties encountered with the Elizabeth T. decided the builders' site of Somers Point for the Emma L.'s construction. Although Israel Smith owned a horse, older residents of English Creek recall his walking to and from Somers Point each day, a distance of about 5 or 6 miles. The Emma L. Cottingham was the largest ship built on this section of the Great Egg Harbor. (19)

The Emma L. Cottingham

Also built in 1875 was the schooner Theresa Wolf for Captain John Smith, the owner of the Elizabeth T. Cottingham. The Theresa foundered off the Delaware Breakwater that same year. Not a man to be discouraged, Captain Smith ordered another schooner, the Eliza S. Lee. She was also lost, somewhere off the east coast.

Other ships built by Israel Smith which were lost as sea were the schooner John B. Clayton and the Rebecca A. Tulane. (20) The former was built in 1862 for Captain John B. Clayton of English Creek. She was lost in a heavy storm off the East Coast. The Rebecca A. Tulane was built in 1882 for Captain Japhet Champion of English Creek. She was abandoned off Cape Hatteras, thus shared the same fate as the E . T. Cottingham. (21)

After 1875 Israel Smith turned more to farming and politics, but his services were still sought both as a builder and as a salvage expert. On one occasion in 1877 Captains Wesley and James Ireland called on him to salvage the St. Cave Edwards, which had gone aground near Washington, D.C. Under his instructions, the vessel was afloat the day after his arrival to the City. (22)

The last schooner of any size known to have been built by I. Smith in his English Creek Yard was the J. and H. Scull. She was a two-masted schooner, of 87 feet in length and of 111 gross tons. This was built for his brother-in-law Joseph Scull of Scullville in Egg Harbor Township. (23)

Some fifteen known schooners are attributed to the handicraft of Israel Smith, not to mention hay scows and other small craft, which he built as the days of sailing schooners declined.

Other scenes of shipyards were Absecon, Bakersville, and Gibson's Creek. The latter yard was in Weymouth Township.

Before the turn of the century the day of sail was fast fading. Roads existed where there had been none before. The railroads had been firmly established and they carried more freight faster and cheaper. The year of 1895 saw the last of the schooners built in Egg Harbor Township. Sailing vessels lingered for a number of years but for the Great Egg Harbor and its environs the proud day of schooners and sail were dead. They had served their purpose.

By Richard Roberts Crane,
April 14, 1964

Refer to the footnotes

Web Page by John Dilks


This Web Page © John H. Dilks, EHTdotCOM
Reprinted from Sketches of Egg Harbor Township © 1964 by the Egg Harbor Township Terecentenary Publications Committee.
Permission to reprint this book was given to John Dilks by William F. Cullen, III, Chairman of the Egg Harbor Township Tercentenary Committee.