O Captains, My Captains!

In the November 21, 1902 edition of his Milton Letter in the the Milford Chronicle, David A. Conner wrote this notice which first caught my attention some years ago:

Mrs. Margaret A. Jarvis, wife of Sidney A. Jarvis, died at her home at Harbeson, on Wednesday afternoon, the 12th inst., aged 46 years, 6 months and 11 days…. Mrs. Jarvis leaves to survive her a husband, one son, six brothers and one sister: —Captain John B. Megee and Captain George E. Megee, of Milton; Captain W. H. Megee, of Philadelphia; Captain Theodore Megee, of Harbeson; Captain Caleb Megee, Galveston, Texas; and Mr. Alfred Megee, a prosperous farmer of near Harbeson, and Mrs. Ella Bryan, of near Milton. Perhaps it may not be amiss to say in this obituary notice, there never was a family more prolific of captains, not one whose members have stood by one another so well. The writer knows whereof he writes and, at least, one half of the members as this family, have been pupils of his.

So this is not a post about the Walt Whitman poem or the film Dead Poets Society; it really is about captains, specifically the five Megee brothers who rose to prominence as masters of their own vessels. These were the sons of Moses Megee (1819 – 1888), a prosperous Sussex County farmer who is not known to have ever set foot on a sailing ship. He sired fifteen children in all, only 9 of whom survived to adulthood. By 1902, upon the death of Mary Ann Megee Jarvis, only seven remained.

The Patriarch: Moses Megee, undated cabinet card photograph, courtesy J. Dean Abbott

Before looking at the individual stories of the Megee captains, it is worth considering this: the Megees did not operate on their own. There were at least two dozen regular investors from Milton and Philadelphia who provided the capital with which their ships were constructed, and this group of investors and captains evolved into a web of business relationships that spanned decades. The brothers themselves often invested in the construction of the ships they commanded and other ships they never boarded. They were interchangeable commanders of the same ships as well. First cousin (once removed) Noah W. Megee was a major builder of, and investor in, Milton schooners that the brothers sailed. The eldest two brothers served in the same Delaware infantry regiment and company during the Civil War. And as the excerpt from Conner’s news letter indicates, they stood by each other over the decades. Only one – Caleb Rodney Megee – sought to make a life for himself beyond the Milton – Wilmington – Philadelphia axis.

One final note: you will see vessel ownership shares in the narrative expressed fractionally, in 32nds or 64ths. Wooden sailing vessels in the 19th century were still very risky ventures requiring a high initial capital outlay, so investor syndicates were formed to spread the risk and limit individuals’ exposures. This still begs the question: why 32 or 64 as the fractional basis, rather than a percentage?

The web site www.alloceansclosings.com provides some theories as to the origins of this peculiar system, which it maintains is British in origin. One is that wooden hulls were once constructed with 64 ribs; another is that while a vessel may have started out with 100 shares, the British government would retain 36 of these shares as a “tax” or means of requisitioning the vessel for its use in time of war. The most likely theory, however, is that the practice originated in medieval Venice and spread throughout Italy as a funding mechanism, using fractional 24ths or 64ths as the share basis. The practice caught on and was eventually codified in Britain’s maritime law through the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. It naturally carried over to America in colonial times and beyond, and continues to this very day.

Captain John Robert Megee (1842 – 1920)

The first born child of Mary Salmans and Moses Megee, he kept a low profile compared to his brothers. His obituary describes him thus:

Captain Megee was a Christian gentleman, a rare friend to the needy, and a man without an enemy.

Milford Chronicle, June 4, 1920, page 5, column 4

Before turning to the sea for his livelihood, he served in the 3rd Delaware Infantry Regiment during the Civil War era; Federal records show he qualified for a pension in 1888 and his widow, in turn, in 1920. By 1870, he gave his occupation as “sailor” on the U. S. Census. It is not known what ships he served on initially, but he is associated with the unique history of a Milton-built vessel, the oversized two-masted schooner John Johnson. Built by the Megee brothers’ cousin Noah W. Megee in 1866, the John Johnson passed to the command of John Megee’s younger brother William Henry in 1873, along with a 3/32 share of ownership. in February 1877, John Megee took over as captain, and bought out William’s share as well. This move coincided with John Robert’s marriage that year to Lydia Ann Carpenter; marriage in those days often spurred young men advancing their careers and increasing their compensation. In 1880, still in command, John had increased his share to 1/8. In May 1882, Theodore Megee took over command and 2/32 ownership of the vessel, retaining command and his share until 1884. The three oldest Megee brothers had, by this time, commanded the John Johnson for 11 straight years; one can think of the Johnson as a “training vessel,” as each Megee captain moved on to larger ships after completing their service on it. This was indeed a family affair, in terms of construction, ownership, and command.

The John Johnson, watercolor as conceived by Amos C. Brinton (1888 – 1982) (courtesy Milton Historical Society)

John Robert owned a house at 206 Chestnut Street, opposite the Goshen Cemetery and just a short walk to his brother William Henry’s abode. Beyond this, we know few personal details of his life, but his history of commanding other Milton-built vessels can be pieced together from newspaper accounts and from the incredibly detailed Ships and Men of the Broadkill, by Capt. T. C. Conwell.

The 1887 Milton survey prepared by John Coard Hazzard indicates that this was Captain John Henry Megee’s house at 206 Chestnut Street, opposite the Goshen Cemetery (photograph by Phil Martin)

In 1884, he bought for $400 a 2/32 share in the Emma J. Meyer, from brother George Henry, and became her skipper, a job he held for several years. A shareholder in the George Taulane, Jr. from the time she was built in 1882, he skippered her briefly in the mid 1890’s.

John was an early investor in the Florence Creadick, completed by C. C. Davidson in 1889, which turned out to be one of the most storied vessels that was produced in the Milton yards (see the post on the Florence Creadick for more details). He also was an early shareholder in another of Davidson’s vessels, the William T. Parker, launched in 1891. Both of these ships had relatively long service lives, but indications are that John withdrew his investment in both of these ships after only a few years.

The William T. Parker in Curtis Creek, Baltimore, 1932 with a load of lumber; after 1935, she was used as a floating residence in Baltimore. She was accidentally rammed by a Liberty Ship in 1951 and destroyed. (photograph by Robert C. Burgess, courtesy Milton Historical Society)

In the 1890s John R. Megee was captain of the Milton-built schooner George Taulane Jr. and the Mary H. Brockway, The latter was a 750-ton schooner described as “palatial” by George W. Atkins, writing for the Milton News Letter in the Milford Chronicle. It was on the Brockway, of which he was part owner, that John Robert took his second wife Della and daughter Blanche for a pleasure trip in 1896.

There is one last mention of a command position for Captain John R. Megee: skipper of the Marie Thomas, one of the oddest vessels to have been produced in the Milton yards. John Robert was appointed captain of the Marie Thomas in May of 1909, after the second conversion of the vessel in an attempt to make it profitable. Brothers George and William retained their shares in the vessel, but fortunately for John, he did not put any of his own money into the venture; she was still a money loser.

John Robert Megee’s brief stint as captain of the Marie Thomas may have been his last sea command. He retired in the early 1910s, but continued to take first mate positions on ships skippered by his nephew Wallace Burton Megee.

Afflicted with a degenerative muscular illness, John Robert Megee died in 1920.

Captain William Henry Megee (1848 – 1909)

Captain William Henry Megee (undated cabinet card photograph, courtesy J. Dean Abbott)

Along with his brother John Robert, William Henry Megee served in Company D, 3rd Delaware Infantry regiment during the Civil War, mustering out at age 17. Improbably, he is listed in mustering out records as having attained the rank of captain! We first hear about him in connection with the maritime industry when he took command of the schooner John Johnson in 1873, at the age of 25. One year later, he felt secure enough to marry Luella Young of Smyrna, DE. By 1876, when their first of 8 children was born, they owned a house at 308 Chestnut Street, still standing today in Milton’s historic district.

In spite of the placard by the front door of this house at 308 Chestnut Street naming it the “Captain John F. Fisher House,” the 1887 Milton survey prepared by John Coard Hazzard indicates that this was Captain William Henry Megee’s house; it remained so until he moved his family to Philadelphia in 1898 (photograph by Phil Martin)

He commanded the Johnson for four years, followed by his brothers John Robert and Theodore Burton. He was a shareholder in the largest ship ever built in the Milton yards, the Eliza J. McAnemy, launched in 1878 by master shipbuilder David Atkins, and the Alice Hearn, completed in 1880 by another master shipbuilder, C. C. Davidson; he did not command either of those ships, however. Following the turning over of his shares and command of the Johnson to John Robert, he took over a Milford-built vessel, the Ramon de Ajuria, in 1879. His sights were set on more ambitious goals, though.

In 1880 – 1881, William H. Megee put together a syndicate of investors for the purpose of commissioning the construction of a state-of-the-art schooner in the Milton yards. One of the investors, Philadelphia merchant Henry Waddington, had already lost a name-sake vessel, and Megee apparently persuaded him that the syndicate would give him a chance to have his name on a vessel again. Because of the size, cost and risks involved, shares in the syndicate were apportioned in 64ths; Megee took on 6/64, and Waddington took on the largest share of 8/64. Cousin Noah W, Megee, another noted Milton shipbuilder, took a 4/64 share. The builder, David H. Atkins, apparently sold his share to the syndicate before the ship was registered. The rest of the investors were all Philadelphians.

The Henry Waddington, sailing out of Boston, MA; copied painting of the original, by Emily Pleasants Megee with the assistance of her husband, William Henry Megee, Jr. (from Ships and Men of the Broadkill, T. C. Conwell)

The ship was named Henry Waddington for its largest investor, and its story is one of the most thoroughly documented among all Milton-built ships, in another book authored by T. C. Conwell – the grandson of Captain William H. Megee. Except two brief periods, one in 1885, when brother Theodore Burton took command, and one in 1890, when brother Caleb spelled him, the three-masted Waddington remained under William Henry’s command until 1891. She was dedicated to East coast and Gulf of Mexico routes from Maine to Texas, as well as Caribbean ports in Cuba, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica. Until 1889, these voyages were uneventful, but a hurricane on April 17, 1889 severely damaged and nearly sank the vessel and brought Captain Megee closer to death than at any point in his career.

William Henry Megee left command of the Waddington in May of 1891, turning the post over to a Captain Melvin. At that point, Megee had invested in a four-masted schooner, the Arthur McArdle, built in Camden, NJ, and took command of that vessel after leaving the Waddington. How long he continued to command ships at sea is unclear. He was an astute businessman with many investments, including in other Milton-built ships: the George W. Fennimore (David Atkins builder, 1883), the Emma J. Meyer (David Atkins builder,1884), and the Marie Thomas (James P. Davidson builder, 1907). All three of these investments were in ships where one or more of his brothers also had an investment or command position. At some point, like so many sea captains before him, he had to have decided that the rigors and dangers of life at sea were too much for an aging body, and he could enjoy the fruits of his labors on dry land. He moved his family to Philadelphia in 1898, leaving behind his brothers and the house at 308 Chestnut Street where all of his children were born. He founded the firm of Mitchell and Megee, Ship Brokers and Agents, and continued in that line of work until he passed away in 1909.

As for the Waddington, the damage of the storm of 1889 weakened her hull, making her more vulnerable to being waterlogged. She continued in service until February 27, 1892 when, under the command of a Captain Lee, she became waterlogged 120 miles east of Cape Hatteras and was abandoned by her crew.

Captain Theodore Burton Megee (1854 – 1905)

Captain Theodore Burton Megee (undated photograph, ancestry.com)

We know little of the details of Theodore Burton Megee’s life. One can surmise that among the brothers, he was a follower rather than a leader. He was born too late to have fought in the Civil War, and was still working on the family farm in 1870. at the age of 18. It is likely that he followed his older brothers to the maritime life after that year. We know nothing of his activities at sea until he assumed his first command, that of the John Johnson, in 1882, and which his brothers John Robert and William Henry commanded before him. It seems most likely that he served on ships that were commanded by his older brothers before he took over the Johnson. He relieved his brother William Henry of command of the Henry Waddington in 1885, on which he probably was already serving as first mate, He is noted in the Milford Chronicle as being captain of the Arthur McArdle in 1896; brother William Henry was a shareholder in that vessel. Theodore and brother George Edward later became joint owners of the schooner Ella Call, which they acquired in 1899, and sold to former Governor James Ponder’s widow Sallie and Captain Joseph Warrington in 1901.

Schooner Ella Call, before 1901 (courtesy Milton Historical Society)

His final known vessel command was the two-masted William I. Simpson, almost identical to the Ella Call, Illness, however, ended his career and his life prematurely; by 1904, he was very sick with tuberculosis, and died in 1905.

Captain George Edward Megee (1858 – 1933)

Captain George Edward Megee (cabinet card photograph ca. 1900, courtesy J. Dean Abbott)

Of all the sea-going Megee brothers, George Edward could be characterized as the most audacious and politically ambitious. As with brother Theodore Burton, it is likely that George found his sea legs on ships commanded by his older brothers John Robert and William Henry, although we don’t know exactly when he began sailing; it could not have been earlier than the mid-1870’s. He began investing in vessels in 1884 with the Emma J. Meyer, commanded by his brother John Robert. His first command on record, beginning in 1885, was that of the Charles Coulomb, a fine three-masted schooner built in Milton by cousin Noah W. Megee in 1873 for transatlantic voyages. In that command, he succeeded his second cousin, Captain Charles T. Megee, who had been master of the vessel since 1878. George also owned a share in the vessel at that point, although we don’t know how large. He had one close call in his first year of command, off the coast of New Jersey bound for Cuba, when he lost spars, sails, and some of his cargo in a gale, but was able to make port and obtain repairs.

George Edward’s tenure as captain of the Charles Coulomb probably ended in 1887, when he became master of the Mary B. Judge. The length of that tenure is not known, but probably ended around 1890. At that point, he bought the Wallace Veasey farm in Cave Neck. Regular reports in the Milford Chronicle about his activities indicate that he had shifted his focus landward. He had a thriving business selling piling and other lumber products, shipping them from his warehouse on the Milton wharf; he owned a saw mill, and several residential properties in Milton. He also had a substantial interest in the Black Diamond Tunnel Company, a mining operation in British Columbia.

He married Jessie Arabella Dodge of Portland, ME in July of 1884, whom he probably met on one of his voyages north; the Megee brothers’ routes were intracoastal for the most part and extended all the way up to Maine ports. The couple never had children, but nevertheless sometime around 1900 George built a substantial home on a rise overlooking the Broadkill River and the Milton wharf, which still stands today.

Captain George Henry Megee’s home on 210 Chandler Street, ca. 1900
The house that George Edward Megee built, viewed today from the air; the west side of the house show here is nearly impossible to see it from the ground except in winter. (photograph by Phil Martin)
The George Edward Megee house (center of photo), at the headwaters of the Broadkill River (photo by Phil Martin).

The construction of this house and the operations of his businesses were not enough to keep him occupied, however. In 1906, he decided to design a vessel that would better serve his shipping needs and be less reliant on the vagaries of wind and tide. The result of this brainstorm was the Marie Thomas, an unusual hybrid of sail and internal combustion engine, and the first vessel with that type of power plant to be built in the Milton yards. Constructed by the seemingly retired ship builder James P. Davidson, it was a three-masted schooner with a naphtha-powered engine that was to be used as auxiliary power when tides or winds were unfavorable. George persuaded brother William Henry and William’s son William Henry, Jr. to participate in the venture.

Schooner Marie Thomas ca. 1906, before the changeover to coal-fired steam power; Captain George H. Megee can be seen standing just in front of the foremast (courtesy Milton Historical Society).

Launched in October of 1906, the vessel was underpowered and unprofitable. Converted to coal-fired steam power in 1908 in the Milton yards, she lost two masts and gained a smokestack in the process, but the coal bunkers below deck greatly reduced the space available for freight; the Marie Thomas still lost money. Finally, in 1909, she was refitted with a freight house above deck, increasing her cargo capacity. At this point, in February 1909, George Edward went as far as obtaining a steamboat captain’s license with the intent of being his own captain. He must have thought better of this idea, because in May of 1909 he appointed brother John Robert to be her skipper.

As a curious footnote, the Marie Thomas achieved some local fame when her steam engine was used to pump water through the hoses of Lewes firefighters putting out the embers of Milton’s Great Fire of August 13, 1909.

Brothers George and William retained their shares in the vessel, but fortunately for John, he did not put any of his own money into the venture; the Marie Thomas was still a money loser. By late 1910, creditors sued to recover money owed them, probably since the refitting of 1908 with a steam engine. After the owners failed to appear in court on December 2, the judge in the case ordered them to sell the the vessel immediately to satisfy the debt. On December 3, the Marie Thomas, tied up at the Milton wharf, burned to the waterline and sank into the mud of the Broadkill. She was reported to be uninsured.

What distinguishes George Henry Megee from the rest of his family is his political ambition, largely unrealized. Amidst a horde of applicants, he applied for Sussex County Clerk of the Peace, an appointed office, in 1901 but failed to obtain it. Favored to obtain the position of U. S. Marshal for Delaware in 1909, he did not get it. He ran for delegate to the Republican convention in 1912, and lost by eleven votes. That same year, he was one of the nominees to run on the the Progressive ticket for state representative, and lost that too; that seems to have put an end to his ambitions for elected office. However, he finally did receive an appointment to the Sussex County Board of Assessment, in 1926.

He died in 1933 from complications following a stroke.

Captain Caleb Rodney Megee (1861 – 1934)

Captain Caleb Rodney Megee (cabinet card photograph ca. 1890, courtesy J. Dean Abbott)

Caleb Rodney Megee, the youngest of the five brothers, followed them to the sea for his livelihood. He learned seamanship under his brothers’ tutelage, serving as first mate under John Robert and William Henry. He commanded the Henry Waddington on at least one voyage, in 1890, from the North Atlantic to Galveston, TX. It was there that his life’s trajectory deviated somewhat from that of his brothers. He met his future wife Una Pascoe, in Galveston, whom he would marry in 1891.

Although I have no photograph available of Una, family members described her as a beautiful, gracious woman, born in Vicksburg, MI in 1864 during the period when the city was under siege by the Union Army. Her family moved to Galveston shortly after the end of the Civil War. After his marriage, Caleb Rodney moved permanently to Galveston, and spent a number of years as first mate on the steamer Pensacola, a vessel that ran a Galveston – Tampa – Pensacola route. He was in Pensacola when the disastrous hurricane of September 8, 1900 hit Galveston. Caleb’s family escaped with their lives, but their house was swept off its foundation and everything in it was lost. One of Caleb’s daughters later wrote, “That great disaster caused Father to quit….sailing the deep seas and he subsequently commanded tugboats in the Galveston Harbor area,…then the Galveston pilot boat, and later served several years as a licensed pilot at Galveston and Texas City harbors.” One can only begin to imagine what must have been going on in Caleb’s mind, separated from his family and unable to take them to safety, during a catastrophe that claimed the lives of over 6,000 people. His decision to become a local pilot makes perfect sense, however.

Caleb Rodney and his family made one visit to Milton in September of 1895, and Caleb made one last visit in 1926 accompanied by his oldest daughter. In 1930, he and Una moved to Houston, TX, where he died in 1934. Una survived him, passing away in 1942.

Sources

Far and away the most important source material for anything relating to the Milton shipbuilding industry and the men who commanded the vessels is found in Ships and Men of the Broad Kill, by Tilney Clarke Conwell, a descendant of the Megee line. I am also indebted to J. Dean Abbott, another Megee descendant, for allowing me to use precious family photographs of the Megee captains and the family genealogy published as Kith and Kin of the John Megee Family. And, as always, editions of the Milton News letter in the Milford Chronicle and the Wilmington News Journal from 1880 to 1933 fill in some of the gaps.

7 thoughts on “O Captains, My Captains!

  • Darren

    Love reading your research. I live at 515 Chestnut Street. I’ve been told that the twin Victorians 515 and 517 (Salon Milton) were built by Megee brothers. Any idea if that is true?

    Thanks

    • Phil Martin

      I remember a few years ago we tried to get an answer to this question, unsuccessfully. I don’t believe it was any of the five Megee brothers in the post; I know where they all lived. It could have been one of the next generation of Megees, of which there was an abundance, or even cousins of these captains (or their offspring). I now have a fat book of Megee genealogy to reference, so I’ll see if anything turns up there. There was also the question of whether or not these houses were moved to the current location from further up Chestnut Street.

      • Darren Bobby

        I would appreciate that so much. Bought the house in 2014 I’ve never received a clear answer.

  • Judith Fisher

    Phil, you have accomplished a masterpiece. Don and I have inhaled every word and learned so much we never knew about the Megee family and the shipbuilding industry. The accompanying photos are wonderful.
    Thank you for all the work you are doing to bring to light Milton’s shipbuilding history, as well as all the other interesting blogs you have provided.

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you so much for the kind words and the continued support! It means a lot to me.

  • J. Dean Abbott

    Phil, I can’t thank you enough for this detailed and fully researched history of my great uncles the Megee Captains. It is a fascinating read. Particularly poignant because we have recently moved to the Puddin Hill neighborhood in Milton and only three houses away from The old Goshen cemetery we are so many of these ancestors rest.

    • Phil Martin

      This post was one I really enjoyed working on, in no small part because I had a descendant of the Megees right here in town to help me. Your assistance and the materials you provided me made a big difference in the quality of the post, and I thank you for all of that!

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