John Nelson Young was born April 15, 1839 in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, the third child of John Alexander Young and Lucy Baldwin. John grew up in St. Andrews, a small but busy port on the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay, just across the international border from Maine.
His father was a chair and cabinetmaker, and John followed in his father’s footsteps. He also learned the art of trading and shipping for profit. In 1859, when he was twenty years old, he and his brothers, James and Alexander, left St. Andrews to go to California.
They sailed to Panama, crossed the Isthmus, and from there sailed up the west coast to San Francisco. John bought the schooner Champion and sailed between San Francisco and Sacramento carrying trade goods and passengers. (He may also have traded as far north as Portland, OR, or Eureka, CA, and as far south as San Diego.)
In San Francisco on April 15, 1868, John N. Young married Eleanor Annie Gray, daughter of Robert and Mary K Gray, emigrants from Robbinston, Maine. Shortly thereafter, John and Eleanor moved to San Diego.
In 1868, with his brothers James, Alexander, and William, John started a furniture business, one of the first commercial enterprises in San Diego. After James and Alex left the firm in 1869, John and William continued the firm of Young Brothers Carpenters and Furniture Builders, and added undertaking as a sideline.
William Young, John’s brother and business partner, died in 1873. John then reorganized the Young Brothers business as the Pioneer Furniture Company.
John and Eleanor had a growing family with five children. Annie Edith Young was born December 28, 1868 (in San Francisco), then in San Diego, Herbert Gray Young, on March 21, 1870; William Edward Young, on April 24, 1875; John Alexander ‘Jack’ Young, on January 2 1882; and Edgar Nelson Young, on July 21, 1885.
The family supplemented their income with produce from their garden John often took the older boys fishing mackerel and bottom fish in San Diego Bay.
Eleanor Young developed rheumatoid arthritis when she was in her early forties. She died on February 16, 1894 at age forty-five, leaving minor children Jack, 12, and Edgar, 10, and granddaughter Belle, 8.
John Young suffered from tuberculosis in the 1890s. After Eleanor died, he traveled extensively trying in vain to find a more suitable climate. He finally returned to San Diego. There he died September 13, 1896 at age fifty-seven.
John Young’s sons, Herbert and William, were working to help support the family. Herb learned deep sea diving by accepting several salvage jobs that required underwater skills and, in the summer of 1899, all four boys ran a glass-bottomed boat excursion at Catalina Island.
After the season ended, Herb landed a berth on a schooner bound for the Hawaiian Islands, and Will decided to join him on what he would later call ‘the great adventure.’ Twenty-nine-year-old Herb had served as chief engineer during the ten-day journey from San Francisco, while Will, then age twenty-five, served as crew.
The first view of Honolulu that greeted Will and Herb on January 19, 1900 and revealed a town numbering fewer than 45,000 residents. For several days, Chinatown had been burning to what would become a smoldering ruin in an effort to rid the city of bubonic plague.
With a capital of only $86, they bought a small launch, the Billie, and started running a ‘bum boat’ service in Honolulu harbor – they called their family business Young Brothers.
Jack Young arrived later that year (October); he once reminisced about arriving in Honolulu in 1900 with a few cans of fruit, a large trunk and only twenty-five cents in cash-too little to pay to have his trunk brought ashore. So, he rustled up a spare rowboat and rowed in his own gear.
In those days there were usually between five and twenty ships moored off Sand Island in the harbor at any one time. Most of ships used sail and needed help to move about in the crowded harbor.
The Young brothers ran lines for the ships in the harbor. When a ship came in, the anchor line had to be run out to secure the ship. Or if the ship needed to unload, a line had to be carried to the pier.
The next year they bought the Fun from the Metropolitan Meat Market and took over the contract to deliver meat and other fresh supplies to the ships anchored in the harbor. Herb got the contract, but Jack was assigned the job every morning of picking up meat, vegetables and fruits and deliver them to the various ships in the harbor.
Herb and Will also worked as a diving team, salvaging lost anchors, unfouling propellers, or inspecting hulls of ships for repairs. A more frequently needed undersea service was to scrape the sea growth off the hulls of ships.
The launches of the Young Brothers were routinely asked to pull stranded boats or ships off the shore or reef or to rescue ships in trouble at sea. In 1902 they saved six Japanese fishermen in a sampan that had become disabled in a sudden storm off Honolulu. The sampan had gone too far out to sea searching for fish and was caught by heavy seas.
The same year, they rescued a novice seaman in a rowboat who thought he could row out of the harbor to where a battleship was anchored. If he hadn’t been seen from the boathouse, he would have been lost. On another occasion, the schooner Mokihana was towed back to harbor from twenty miles out in 1901 when she lost control from the helm.
May 1903 saw the beginning of a long association between the Young Brothers and the Customs Department. Young Brothers purchased the launch Water Witch, from AA Young (no relation) and completely renovated her.
They entered a contract to use the Water Witch launch as a revenue and patrol boat, and to take boarding officers to all incoming liners. Herb had the privilege of presenting her and flying the Custom’s flag on May 21, 1903. The Water Witch remained in service for over forty years.
ln March of 1903, the Youngs moved from their first little boathouse on a sand spit near the lighthouse to a spot near what is now Piers 1&2. The Young Brothers’ boathouse was home to Herb, Will and Jack, and was a structure well known on the waterfront as a center of information for everything going on in the harbor.
In 1903, Edith moved to the Hawaiian Islands an joined her brothers. In 1905, Herb sold his interest in the Young Brothers business and went to the mainland to look for work as a diver. Young Brothers incorporated on May 5, 1913.
Following incorporation, Will stopped taking an active role in the operations of the company, preferring to pursue his fascination with sharks, and eventually left the islands for good in 1921 to become a well-known international shark hunter. Jack, the last founding member of the company to remain in Hawai‘i remained as the operating manager.
I am the youngest brother of the youngest brother of the youngest brother of Young Brothers. Jack Young is my grandfather. We never met him, and he and my grandmother never knew they had grandchildren from their son Kenny.
They both had died before they knew my mother was pregnant with my older brother. (Lots of information here is from Young Brothers: 100 Years of Service and a Young family background and genealogy.)