Sea captains found in Berkeley an ideal home

Daniella Thompson

The Captain Maury house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1982. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

12 June 2007

In 1894, when Captain John Slater built his house at 1335 Shattuck Ave., he was joining two other master mariners who had settled on the same block a decade earlier. They were Jefferson Maury and William B. Seabury, both high-ranking captains of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company who ended their careers as commodores of the PMSS fleet. While Captain Slater commanded square-rigged ships, Captains Maury and Seabury were at the forefront of the mechanized age.

Three captains’ houses on Shattuck Avenue between Rose and Berryman Streets (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1903)

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was founded in 1848 by William Henry Aspinwall (1807–1875) of the New York merchant firm Howland & Aspinwall, which specialized in trade with the Caribbean. PMSS was incorporated to execute a Congress-authorized contract to carry mail from the Isthmus of Panama to the West Coast.

Aspinwall (who also founded the Panama Railway Company) ordered three new steamships to inaugurate the trade. The S.S. California, first steamer on the West Coast, entered San Francisco Bay on 28 February 1849 and was soon joined by the Panama and the Oregon. The California Gold Rush assured the company’s success.

In Panama: A Personal Record of Forty-six Years, 1861–1907 (Star and Herald Co., 1907), Tracy Robinson recounts that the steamers of the Pacific Mail began running on the Atlantic side on 1 November 1865:

The Atlantic service had, up to that time, been in the hands of the Atlantic Mail Company, owned by Commodore Vanderbilt. The Pacific Mail, under the presidency of Captain Allan McLane since November 1869, determined to control the whole line from New York to San Francisco. The trade was at that time growing rapidy in volume and importance; and to meet the requirements of the company the capital stock was increased, by act of the New York Legislature, from $4,000,000 to $10,000,000, and a little later to $20,000,000.

The old Vanderbilt steamers, Ocean Queen, Rising Star, Northern Light, Ariel, and Champion, were bought, and three new steamers, Henry Chauncey, Arizona, and New York, were built [...]. They were all side wheelers, the screw not having yet been adopted. The stately ship Henry Chauncey, commanded by Commodore A.G. Gray, was the first to sail under the new arrangement [...]

The Henry Chauncey was followed by the Arizona, Captain Jeff Maury; Ocean Queen, Captain Seabury; and a little later, the Rising Sun, Captain H.P. Conner. The old Vanderbilt captains were not employed by the Pacific Mail Company.

Detail from a Pacific Mail Steamship Co. stock certificate

Jefferson Maury (1826–1895) was born in Virginia, the great-grandson of Rev. James Maury, teacher of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and the nephew of Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the father of modern oceanography and naval meteorology. In his book San Francisco’s Ocean Trade, Past and Future: A Story of the Deep Water Service of San Francisco, 1848 to 1911 (A. Carlisle & Co., 1911), Benjamin Cooper Wright wrote, “Maury’s uncle issued charts that have always been regarded as indispensable to navigation.”

Maury entered the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 and received his warrant as a Passed Midshipman in 1847. The following year found him in the Gulf Squadron, participating in the Mexican-American War. In 1854 he was stationed in San Francisco and a year later left the service.

Shipping records indicate that in 1862 Maury commanded the S.S. Northern Light, a wooden-hulled steamer with side paddle wheels and three masts on a sailing between Aspinwall (Colón), Panama and New York. The next year he was captain of the S.S. America, followed by the S.S. Atlantic, both plying the same route. From 1866 until 1870, Maury was master of the S.S. Arizona, which his future neighbor, Captain Seabury, would take over in 1874.

Jefferson Maury’s character received a glowing commendation from George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Monthly, in November 1872. In his column The Easy Chair, Curtis wrote:

[...] there is a Legion of Honor which wears no sign, yet is the most honorable at all. And whoever read of the burning of the steamer Bienville on her way to Aspinwall, in August of this year, will agree that Jefferson Maury, her commander, merits the grand cross of that legion.

Curtis went on to describe at length Captain Maury’s steadiness and quiet confidence, which kept the passengers calm and the crew efficiently busy at their tasks. When the ship could not be saved, all aboard were evacuated to boats. The majority reached safety at Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, about 130 miles from the point where they had left the ship. Maury went to extraordinary lengths to search for the missing over the next week. Curtis concluded:

[...] the nerve of the captain paralyzed disaster and made safety possible. He knew what to do, and how and when to do it, and his moral mastery alone prevented a frightful catastrophe. His name is Jefferson Maury. There has been no name lately mentioned deserving of more sincere respect. Those who are going to sea will sleep in their berths more soundly if they know that Captain Maury commands the ship.

Harper’s Monthly, November 1872

Maury married Adelaide Weeden (1840–1916), daughter of John Hull Weeden, a Rhode Island lawyer, assemblyman, and tax collector. In the 1860s and ’70s, the Maurys lived in New York, but the 1880 U.S. census found them boarding on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Five years later, the Maurys built a rambling one-story residence at 1317 Shattuck Ave. The main wing looked out to the west and was surrounded by a three-sided porch. A smaller square wing at the rear of the southern end featured a brick chimney and an obliquely placed square bay.

Berkeley Advocate, 2 January 1895

Captain Maury died suddenly at midnight on 1 January 1895. The Berkeley Advocate reported that he had suffered from heart disease. Adelaide Maury continued living in the house until her death in 1916. She was given to good works and for many years was active in the Ladies’ Protective and Relief Society, an organization dedicated to the support of destitute children and indigent women.

The Maurys were childless. Following Adelaide’s death, the house was sold to Harold McCarthy, a title company employee, and his wife Anne. The McCarthys brought three sons to the house and would soon produce two more. With the birth of their fourth son, quarters must have become inadequate, and in 1922 the McCarthys engaged architect John Hudson Thomas to expand and modernize the house. Keeping the original footprint more or less intact, Thomas added a second story, transforming the house into a double-peaked, shingled English country cottage.

During the 1980s, the empty and dilapidated Maury house was owned by the City of Berkeley. Here it is shown shortly after it had been sold and restored. (photo: Susan Cerny, 1992)

While Captain Maury was building his house at 1317 Shattuck Ave., Captain Seabury was erecting his own at 1322 Shattuck.

William B. Seabury (1840–1906) was born in New Bedford, MA, America’s foremost whaling port. His father, William Harrison Seabury, was listed in the 1859 edition of the New Bedford Directory as a clerk in William O. Brownell’s ship chandlery. There were several Seaburys and even more Brownells in town. The connection between the Seaburys and the Brownells is not mapped out, but it apparently entailed a marriage, since the 1850 U.S. census recorded the 85-year old Dorcas Brownell as living in the Seabury household. The middle initial B. in Seabury’s name stands for Brownell.

(San Francisco Call, 29 July 1904)

Captain Seabury’s biography, published in 1895 in Marine History of the Pacific Northwest relates:

[Seabury] commenced his marine service at Philadelphia while a boy on a vessel in the Brazil sugar trade. He was employed on sailing vessels out of New York until 1864, his last ship being the Gertrude, of which he was first officer.

He then joined the steamship Ocean Queen of Commodore Vanderbilt’s line as quarter-master and then as second and first mate. In 1865 he occupied the former position on the steamship Baltic, running to the Isthmus in December 1873, subsequently joining the Grenada as first officer. Soon after her arrival in San Francisco in March 1874, he was promoted to the captaincy of the steamship Arizona.

In March 1875, he was given command of the City of Panama, running north with her for four years, except for a few trips when she was relieved by the Constitution and Alaska, which he also handled, and was in command of the former when she was burned.

While in the employ of the Pacific Mail he had charge of all the large steamers owned by that company and superintended the building of the steamer China, nearly every detail of her construction being left to his judgment. He took command of her as soon as she was completed and has run her since between San Francisco and China.

S.S. China in the Suez Canal

Seabury married Maria Kelsey Almy (1848–1940), daughter of a prosperous New England cooper. Before moving to Berkeley, the couple lived in Pacific Heights, San Francisco and brought to the world two sons, Benjamin and Almy.

The Seabury house, 1322 Shattuck Avenue (O.V. Lange, Beautiful Berkeley, 1889)

The Seabury house was a substantial two-story Queen Anne whose asymmetrical roofline sheltered a second-floor balcony above the entrance porch. An unusual feature was the long corner window in the stairwell. The house was set in a triple lot and commanded open vistas in all directions. The Seabury family lived here until 1898, when they exchanged houses with the Parkhurst family.

Daniel Webster Parkhurst (1839–1899) was a Massachusetts-born capitalist. As a Southern Pacific Railroad agent, he was involved in the events that led to the Mussel Slough incident, which inpired Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. Parkhurst acquired lands in Fresno County, where he operated vineyards and orchards and was a director of the Fresno National Bank.

In 1892, Parkhurst and his wife Marietta moved from San Francisco to Berkeley because their eldest son had reached college age and the younger two were not far behind. The Parkhursts settled in an imposing Southside residence at 2401 Channing Way and Dana Street. Designed and built by the fashionable architect A.W. Pattiani of Alameda, the house was one of the earliest shingled structures in Berkeley (the shingled Anna Head School was built the same year).

The Parkhurst-Seabury house, 2401 Channing Way (Berkeley, City of Homes 1905)

Parkhurst and Seabury probably knew each other via the Southern Pacific–PMSS connection (SP owned PMSS from 1893 to 1912). Why the two families exchanged houses is a mystery remaining to be solved. On Channing Way, the Seaburys shared their immense new home with widowed brother-in-law Joseph H. Matthews, a supervising ship’s engineer, and his teenaged son and daughter, as well as with an Irish manservant and a Chinese cook.

The Parkhursts’ residence at 1322 Shattuck Ave. was short-lived. Daniel Parkhurst died within a year, and the house passed back to Seabury, who let it to tenants while continuing to live on Channing Way. Future Berkeley mayor Samuel C. Irving would purchase 1322 Shattuck Ave. in 1906, just months before the death of Captain Seabury.

S.S. Korea (State Library of Tasmania)

In December 1906 Seabury, who had been commanding the liner S.S. Korea, was close to completing a six-month vacation from his duties as commodore in the PMSS fleet. The family was rusticating at its country house in Guerneville when the captain received orders to take charge of the 27,000-ton S.S. Mongolia on its next trip to the Orient. He decided to spend a few days with his friend S.B. McNear (a member of San Francisco’s Citizens’ Committee of Fifty at the time of the earthquake and fire) in Ross Valley. While taking a postprandial walk on 18 December, the captain slipped from a stone wall and fell into an excavation, suffering a paralyzing spinal injury. He was taken to the Cottage Hospital in San Rafael for surgery but died before the operation had begun.

Berkeley Reporter, 27 December 1906

Maria K. Seabury continued living at 2401 Channing Way while her younger son Almy was studying civil engineering at the University of California (the elder son, Benjamin, was a metal manufacturer in Tacoma, WA). In 1909 they relocated to 2511 Virginia Street, but in 1911 Maria turned to John Hudson Thomas, who designed for her a modern 8-room house at 2710 Claremont Blvd.

The Maria K. Seabury house, 2710 Claremont Blvd. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

Heavily buttressed, the house boasts three parapet gables with dormer windows; square and semicircular bays on the ground floor; an arched entrance porch; and foursquare motifs on the gables and chimney. Curiously, this up-to-the-minute house echoed the asymmetrical roofline of the Seaburys’ old-fashioned Victorian.

Almy Seabury (1884–1953) worked as a draftsman at the California Highway Commission before taking a job in marine insurance at his cousin’s San Francisco firm, Matthews & Livingston. For three decades he lived with his family in a Craftsman bungalow at 6442 Colby St. At this address, from the early 1920s until the late ’30s, the Seaburys were close neighbors of the Guy Hyde Chick family.

6442 Colby Street, Oakland, when it was the home of Almy Seabury (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Almy’s son, William Brownell Seabury (1917–1994), was a landscape architect and engineer with the California State Park System when he married Eleanor Jean Maddox (1924–2006), daughter of Brigadier General Louis W. Maddox and the first female field geologist to be hired by Standard Oil.

Oakland Tribune, 7 July 1946

The Seabury-Irving house at 1322 Shattuck Avenue was torn down after 1950 and replaced with an apartment building. The Parkhurst-Seabury home at 2401 Channing Way was turned into a fraternity house. It was torn down before 1950, when such buildings were considered passé. Ida Sproul Hall of the University of California’s Unit 3 dorms has occupied the site since the 1960s.

This is the third part in a series of articles on captains’ houses and the families that inhabited them.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 15 June 2007.


Copyright © 2007–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.