On the morning of June 29, 1949 my friend Dana Story took a photograph our shipyard with a vessel ready to be launched. In the photo our yard looks much as it does today. There was wood everywhere. From the bedding timbers in the marsh, to a temporary wooden set of ways, to the staging posts set around other ways where other boats were built, to piles of loose scraps, it was a total mess of wood. Among the scraps there were multiple dories and rowboats, and while you cannot see them in the photo there were sheds where equipment and tools were kept, a steam box and all other matter of mess. Wood everywhere, all the way up to the road in the creek, piles of planking stock, framing stock, scraps, keel timbers, chips and sawdust, just wood everywhere. The above-mentioned photo was of the Eugenia J., the vessel that Dana morbidly chose to call the “Last Essex Vessel” in his many wonderful books on the subject of shipbuilding in Essex.
While at this point it is clear that the Eugenia J. was not the “Last Essex Vessel,” she was the last vessel built in our yard for a good many years. While the yard looks today the same as it did in Dana’s photograph, my childhood memories of this place were a lot different. In the short twenty-year span between Dana’s photograph and when my memories started, all the wood went away. The good staging probably went off along with any useful pieces of timber. The equipment was all hauled off, and the sheds and barn either fell down or were pulled down so as to avoid them being a hazard. Of course all the chips and sawdust and just about everything being made of wood simply rotted away feeding the marsh and yard with nutrients. While they were beautiful, my grandmother’s flowers must have added insult to our dead industry marking the spot where so much had happened here for so long.
At that point, while shipbuilding had been Essex’s defining industry, as Dana so eloquently pointed out in his many books shipbuilding’s presence in our town’s center and along the water’s edge was gone. Yes Nick Hemeon, Brad Story, Jim Lower and others were keeping the tradition going building boats in different places around town, and the town teams were still called the “shipbuilders,” but none of us kids had ever seen the splendor of a traditional sawn frame vessel taking shape out in the open along our river banks or rolling down to their beam ends while sliding into the water. I enjoyed my father’s hobby of boatbuilding and spent a lot of time in Brad’s shop dreaming of building boats and maybe a schooner some day, but for most of my friend’s shipbuilding was something that the old folks talked about.
Just when I graduated from Mass Maritime the Shipbuilding Museum brought the Goulart back to Essex and they eventually bought the Story Family Shipyard property causing many folks to think that the museum would be over extended and go belly up. When Dave Brown arrived and was educating the kids while we built LANNON, the old timers told us that what we were doing was impossible. Thankfully, for every person who told us the shipbuilding was a dead art, there were ten who remembered the old shipyards, the launchings, how the town once had been, and they missed it. Those folks showed up and pitched in bringing tools, advice, and in some cases much needed money.
Because of this my kids and a whole generation have no idea what the Eugenia J. was, or why it was important. They have grown up in a unique New England shipbuilding town and watched as ships took form along our riverbanks and slid down into the water and to them shipbuilding is a part of Essex much older than the town itself.