Last week we took a look at Ebenezer Turner’s shipyard in the Ferry Village neighborhood of South Portland. This was a shipyard located on West High Street, roughly where the Ferry Village Landing townhouses are today, where the ships were launched from what is now known as Davidson’s Beach. In the first variation of Eben Turner’s yard, he partnered with Stephen Harris, calling the shipyard Turner and Harris.

Portland Harbor was once teeming with sloops, schooners, brigs, barks and ships of all sizes. This circa 1890 image shows several sloops and schooners, with Portland in the background. H.M. Payson Collection at South Portland Historical Society.

As we have continued our research, we have come across at least one ship launched by a Turner and Harris on the Portland waterfront, the 180-ton, two-masted brig, J.R. Rhoads. While these do appear to be the same two shipbuilders, they would have needed to move in 1850, like the Dyers did, when the railroad expansion led to the filling in of the waterfront on the Portland peninsula to accommodate railroad tracks. It certainly makes sense to see them purchasing the three-acre lot from John Mussey over here in Ferry Village in August of 1850.

In South Portland (then Cape Elizabeth), we have thus far found two ship launchings by Turner and Harris in Ferry Village. A 240-ton bark launched in 1851, and a 240-ton clipper schooner, launched in April of 1853.

This clipper schooner seems to be an important piece of American history, in that it was built by Turner and Harris for two Black sea captains, Joseph P. Taylor and Elbridge P. Talbot.

In a newspaper report, the clipper schooner was launched in April, 1853, named the Jeanette (for Taylor’s wife), and would be commanded by Capt. Taylor with Elbridge Talbot serving as first officer, and with an entire crew made up of Black sailors.

This is a significant event in history when one considers that this was before the Civil War. Indeed, the newspaper Massachusetts Spy included an editorial comment about the danger faced if the ship were to encounter bad weather or any other issue that would cause it to need to land in a port in a southern state, where it would be possible that Taylor, Talbot and the rest of the crew could be arrested and thrown in prison.

H.M. Payson Collection at South Portland Historical Society.

We have been surprised so far to find that very little exists to document any voyages. Normally, vessels coming into and leaving a port are listed in the newspaper under vessel clearances, easily obtained by newspaper reporters through the customs office.

We know where and when the Jeanette was launched, and in Capt. Taylor’s obituary, variations of which were published in Portland, Boston, and New York newspapers, they provide information that seems to confirm the voyages of the Jeanette. All of these newspapers published a statement saying that Joseph Taylor was the first Black man in America to both build and captain his own ship.

They further stated that his ship made “a number of successful voyages to the West Indies” before being wrecked and declared a total loss. Unfortunately, Taylor and Talbot had no insurance on the vessel. This does seem to confirm that the Jeanette sailed and headed down to the West Indies. We have found just one article referring to the Jeanette, with Capt. Taylor in command, down in the Gulf looking for guano (fertilizer, which was a common cargo on ships such as this).

There are a few possible explanations for the lack of newspaper reporting on the vessel departure. Since so many records were lost in the Portland fire of 1866, however, finding concrete proof has been difficult on this early ship.

Very little seems to have been documented about either of these men. I checked out a copy of Maine’s Visible Black History, (an excellent book covering Black history in the state of Maine), but found no mention of either man. In our research, however, we have uncovered some interesting details on both men.

Captain Elbridge Talbot spent the early decades of his working years in the maritime trades. He commanded at least one vessel prior to the construction of the Jeanette. In Talbot’s obituary, the claim was made that he was the first Black man to command a vessel out of Portland.

While we are still working to confirm this, we believe it could have been the 240-ton bark Odd Fellow, built in 1844 by Robert and Thomas Knight in their yard on York Street in Portland. In vessel clearance reports in 1846 and 1847, the Odd Fellow was under the command of “Captain Talbot” and this was while Talbot was living in Portland and reportedly a sea captain.

Through local news articles in the 1860s and 1870s, we learn that Talbot was a well-respected citizen of Portland, who didn’t shy away from politics, and that he was at times called upon for public speaking. At a meeting at Portland City Hall in 1870 to celebrate the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Elbridge Talbot was one of five people to give a speech.

On Jan. 1, 1872, on the ninth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a meeting with Elbridge Talbot presiding was held at the Newbury Street Church. In September of 1875, there was a large gathering of Black citizens in Portland. They met to discuss politics and the upcoming election. While a committee was formed at the meeting to draft resolutions, Elbridge Talbot was called upon to address the gathering.

By the time Elbridge Talbot reached about 50 years of age, he seemed to have left the maritime trades. He served as a porter for the Portland Post Office after the Civil War. In 1870, he was listed as a janitor at the Portland Post Office. Talbot died in 1880 at the age of 59.

Much less is reported about Joseph Taylor in newspaper reports, however, we’ve been able to piece together aspects of his life that show Taylor to have been a creative thinker, a leader, and very entrepreneurial in spirit. He was born in Virginia, and had previously been living in Charleston, South Carolina, when he came to Portland and married Jeanette C. Small in July of 1840.

He served for a number of years as a steward on the Portland Steam Packet Line. In 1853, after having the Jeanette built, he purchased from the Willards a majority interest in the 110-ton schooner Jerome and captained her, as well (the Jerome was built in Portsmouth in 1843 and was formerly owned by Capt. Benjamin Willard and his brother, Capt. Enoch Willard – of the Willard family for whom Willard Beach is named).

Taylor reportedly played a leading role in the Underground Railroad, helping people escape slavery and make their way up to Canada. In 1862, it appears that he obtained a retail liquor license and opened the Burnside Eating Saloon on Fore Street in Portland. He experienced a lot of loss in his lifetime – in addition to losing his ship in a wreck, he also lost real estate and property in Portland in the Great Fire of 1866. In his later years, he worked as a barber in Portland. He died in 1891 at the age of 85.

Note to readers: The South Portland Historical Society needs your financial support. We encourage you to find a way to help. Membership information is available on our website at www.sphistory.org (a family membership is $25) and you can donate online at our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline. The society can also be reached at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at [email protected] Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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