The Twenty Ships That Built A House

In preparing for an upcoming architecture walking tour through the streets of Milton, I’ve had the opportunity to look at some of the homes and their backstory in much greater detail. The revelations have been highly gratifying to someone like me, who thrives on new discoveries and “connecting the dots.” One such revelation is the story of the W. C. Prettyman House at 308 Federal Street. The house itself is a beautiful example of preserved Gothic Revival architecture. Its construction predates the publication of the 1868 Beers Atlas Milton map, and was probably built well before the Civil War era. However, it is the story of its builder, William Clarke Prettyman, that fascinates me more.

The W. C. Prettyman House at 308 Federal Street, Milton, one of the nearly 200 buildings in the town’s Historic District listed n the National Register of Historic Places; many of the original details of the house are preserved (photo by Phil Martin)

Born in 1815, when the incorporated town on Milton was barely 8 years old, William Clarke Prettyman developed a liking for the shipbuilding trade, which was beginning its ascendancy here just as William was entering adolescence. His obituary in the Wilmington News Journal of February 12. 1901, states that he journeyed at a young age to Cincinnati, OH to build riverboats, then found his way to the Mississippi (exact location unspecified) where he readily found employment. The obituary writer gets an important detail wrong: William Prettyman did not return to Milton at the outbreak of the Civil War, but much earlier than that. He built his first ship, the General Harrison, in a Milton shipyard in 1840. It was the first of twenty that he would build, alone or in partnership with another builder, between 1840 and 1866. He had a considerable share – 3/4 – in one vessel he built in 1856, and named it the Margaret J. Prettyman, after his daughter. It was not unusual for ship builders to take shareholder positions in the ships they built, and Prettyman was no exception. A renowned master craftsman and astute businessman, he was able to retire from active construction work after he launched his last project, the Fannie, in 1866. Quite wealthy by this point, he continued to invest in Milton vessels built by others.

I recently discovered an uncatalogued original photograph purported to be either that of William C. Prettyman or of Elijah Hearn, the father of his son-in-law Dr. William J. Hearn. Coming to light now after 15 years in a file drawer, it was originally submitted to the Historical Society for the purpose of identifying it. No photograph of Elijah Hearn has ever surfaced to my knowledge, but it is time to take an educated guess. Elijah Hearn was a blacksmith in Laurel, and a very good one according to contemporary accounts. The photograph in question, however, depicts someone who, by his dress and bearing, appears to be a man of means. That description better fits William Clarke Prettyman, so I will go out on a limb and say that this photograph is of him.

Colorized, oversize albumen print of William Clarke Prettyman (1815 – 1901), ca. 1860 (Milton Historical Society)


Milton Historical Society collection

Ships and Men of the Broadkill, T. C. Conwell

Wilmington News Journal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.