Press "Enter" to skip to content

They Who Go Down To The Sea – Capt. Joseph Darius Meade

Not many of us have generations of family who have lived and worked on, and by the sea. Jed Meade is one of those lucky salts. Jed’s family history goes back to the age of sailing ships, and he lives in the house his grandfather, Captain Joseph Darius Meade, built on the shores of Fire Island Inlet in 1909. It’s been moved twice due to erosion and the Hurricane of 1938, but it stills stands, remains in the family and currently is the home of Jed and his wife, Jolene. The house is rich with the adornments of family nautical history. This is Jed’s grandfather’s story.

Capt. Joseph Darius Meade was born between 1871 and 1877 in either in New York City, County Cork in Ireland, or England. The Meade name is of early Irish origin and there are records he was baptized in Ireland. Confused immigration records were normal during this period. My family is listed as Chinese in the Ellis Island records though we are Sicilian. However, my Nona did make spaghetti with eggrolls every Sunday. Joseph’s family recalls him not having an accent indicating he was born here or immigrated at a very young age. He was not a man who spoke much of his early life. His parents, William and Jane Meade stated on the 1900 Census that they immigrated to the USA in 1865 and married in 1870, but where is not clear. It is interesting to note that Billy the Kid, also Irish in heritage, is listed as having been born in New York City, Missouri and New Mexico. The best guess is he came from the infamous Five Points ghetto near Canal Street in New York.
Joseph Meade headed out to sea at an early age, and he did it in a big way. Like William Bonny (The Kids real name), he grew up NYC, not far from waterfront docks still bristling with masts. He shipped out on sailing ships during the waning years when competition from tramp steamers was beginning to supplant those beautiful, creaking ships with their majestic sails. Family records show he also crewed time as a sailor on the battleship ‘‘Texas’’, delivered guns by rowboat to Cuban partisans in 1898, and was involved in fighting the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1902. It is obvious that he lived life to the fullest and loved adventure.
In 1903 he rounded Cape Horn on the clipper ship “Jabez Howes”. His grandson keeps a beautiful painting of a similar ship from the famous “Black Ball Line” in his home. It was during one voyage to California that Joseph Darius Meade met another adventurer in Oakland about 1902-03. They were about the same age and this adventurer was to become the famous author, Jack London. London was a master journalist and novelist. Joe would trade seafaring stories with London. One of Joe’s tales was of a brutal first mate on a sailing ship he crewed. The first mate was “Bull Kelly” who used his wide fists without compassion to rule the decks. As told in the Meade clan, “Bull Kelly’’ became London’s inspiration for Wolf Larson in his best seller “Sea Wolf”.
After kicking around the seas a bit more, Joseph Darius Meade landed in Central America and signed on as engineer/surveyor on “Teddy’s Big Dig”, the building of Panama Canal across the isthmus in 1905-06. This would change the world of shipping by eliminating the danger of shipping losses incurred by sailing around the Capes. The work, heat, and mosquitoes were almost intolerable, but Joe Meade was always a man with a mission.
Teddy Roosevelt visited the project and for entertainment watched Joe knock out the Navy boxing champion in a forty-round fight. Teddy threw his arms around him, exclaiming “Bully, Meade, Bully!’’ Which is how Teddy always expressed enthusiasm. Especially since Teddy had been a college boxer himself.
The Panama hellhole finally got to Joe and he nearly died of Yellow Fever. The doctors insisted he work only in outside non-tropical climates for the rest of his workdays, so the sea called him in a new direction bound to the sea and ships. He went back to San Francisco and joined the U.S. Lifesaving Service, precursor of our Coast Guard today. All along our coasts were situated ‘’Life Saving Stations’’ at varying distances according to the amount of danger from sand bars, rocks, partially submerged rocks and shorelines were located and fog and mists were prevalent. A crew of men and a captain manned each Life Saving Station. The entire contingent lived full time in the station during the unruly winter months when wrecks were more probable. For a good number of the crew who were farmers, it was a fill in job and they left to work their fields during the calmer months.
Each station had several lifeboats that could be launched into the sea from horse drawn wagons. They also had a Lyle Gun (Small Cannon) that shot weighted lifelines into a distressed ships rigging so a “Breeches Buoy” could be deployed to remove a ships passengers and crew, one by one. As a captain, Joseph Darius Meade had complete command of his crew just as if he was on a large ship. His word was law. When he shouted ‘’Launch lifeboats” the boats would pierce the storm waves as the men scrambled aboard to grab the large oars. Then through the heavy surf they went. The saying in the Life Saving Service was, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back’’. That’s how serious this job was in the days before good charts and GPS.
Captain Meade would eat, work and sleep with his men. He entertained them with phrases he later recited to his family. “Eat hearty, lads, and give the ship a good name!’’ “One hand for the rigging and one for yourself”, a necessity learned in his youth while sailing. Eventually he transferred to the East Coast where he served at several Life Stations including Rockaway, East Hampton, Montauk, Jones Beach, Eaton’s Neck and Oak Beach, which was his first and last outpost.
In 1909 Capt. Meade married Johanna Pitha and they were graced with three children, Roger (1909), Edwin (1911), and Mary (1923). They decided to build their home on Oak Beach and raise the family there although later they also had a house in Babylon when their children became school aged. The Coast Guard took over the Life Saving Station in 1915 and Capt. Joe retired in 1924. It was then he put his powers of the written word into use. He wrote a weekly column for the Babylon Leader under the ‘Nome De Guerre, ‘’Neptune Junior”. It was very popular. He was not afraid to take on political cronies and even Robert Moses. And then there are his poems, one of which “Shorebound”, written after he retired, is printed below. The love of the sea is in his words. Think about this, Captain Joseph Meade taught himself to read by candlelight aboard a ship and it served him well.
Captain Joe left quite a legacy. One son commanded naval ships during WW II and coastal freighters in peacetime. The other, an avid sportsman, set records for Giant Tuna and created one of the first lap strake skiffs built for offshore fishing. Moving up a generation, one grandson became a New York State Conservation Officer and another an officer in the Navy’s UDT/Seal Teams. A third, Jed Meade, has long been a marine contractor. It is Jed who fought to save the historic Oak Beach Life Saving Station where his grandfather was once the “Officer in Charge”. It is now completely refurbished and down the road from where Jed lives with his wife, Jolene, in the same 1909 house Captain Joseph Darius Meade built. What could get better than that?
Below is one of his poems. It speaks volumes of his love of the sea and the passage of time.