Whalers Built at Port Jefferson

Footnotes to Long Island History

Whalers Built at Port Jeff

December 16, 1954


Thomas R. Bayles


          One of the most active of the old shipyards on the North shore 50 years ago was that of James M. Bayles & Son at Port Jefferson.  This firm constructed 138 schooners, brigs and ships during its existence of more than 75 years, and many of them sailed around the globe time and time again.  due to their sturdy construction they were able to weather storms and hurricanes and earned fortunes for their owners.

          The ships built at this yard ranged in size from 300 to 800 tons, and cost from $10,000 to $50,000 each.  It was customary for the shipbuilder to show his faith in the ships he built by taking and eighth interest or more in the vessel, and at one time James M. Bayles & Son owned sailing for every known port.

          Two whaling ships, the Horatio and the Fleetwing, were built in this yard, and both were profitable to their owners, although the Horatio was afterward lost on a coral reef in the Caroline islands and the Fleetwing in an ice pack in the Arctic.  The crews of both ships were saved.

          Mr. Bayles, as a builder and investor in whaling ships, had a considerable knowledge of the business and the large earnings made by the boats was related by him.  The Cornelius Howland, with B. Frank Homan of Port Jefferson as captain, sailed from New Bedford in 1865 on a four year voyage which earned $355,000 and returned the captain as his share more than $27,000.  Other boats made similar records.  By 1908 the whaling business had shrunk to small proportions, and the Whalemen’s Shipping list of New Bedford showed only 40 vessels engaged in it.

          James E. Bayles, who was the surviving partner in the shipyard, built 30 yachts while the yard was under his management up to 1908, and in that year constructed an 80-foot twin screw yacht for Henry Tinker which was one of the finest boats of her size in the United States.  The materials used were teak and mahogany, and the boat was fitted out with sleeping and living in quarters and all modern improvements in the most lavish manner according to those years.  It was designed for cruises to the West Indies.

          Mr. Bayles, although a businessman giving his time and energy mainly to his shipbuilding operations and looking after his interest in the many vessels in which he had shares, was in addition a man of wide culture and literary tastes.  His library of 3,000 volumes contained all the standard literary works, and in addition 600 volumes of purely nautical works, many of them  very rare.  Some of them were charts and diaries of the old whaling captains of Salem and Boston and contained stories of thrilling interest.  The margins of the old logs,  written with a quill pen, were illustrated by quaint drawings of whales.

          The Bayles firm built the Henry James which was purchased by the government and formed one of commodore Porter’s famous mortar fleet which bombarded New Orleans during the Civil war to distract the enemy’s attention when Farragut performed his famous feat of running past the forts and capturing the city.

          Another famous ship was the 150-ton Edward L. Frost, which was sent around Cape Horn by her owners and ran between the Pacific coast and the islands of the South Pacific on trading voyages.  The Frost had the distinction of being the first American ship to bring a cargo of merchandise to this country from Japan, after Japan had been opened to American commerce by the treaty put through by Commodore Perry in 1856.

          The father of the two original proprietors of the Bayles shipyard was Elisha Bayles, who moved to Port Jefferson in 1809, when it was a little hamlet of a dozen houses known as Drowned Meadow.  He was the principal merchant of the place for years, as well as a strong Jeffersonian Democrat.  Through his efforts, it is said, the name of the village was changed to Port Jefferson.

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