Featured Story

Looking back on the lone birth aboard a ferry

COURTESY PHOTOS The Youngs pose with their daughter, now known as Elizabeth ‘Missie’ Mercer, in Florida this April.
The Youngs pose with their daughter, now known as Elizabeth ‘Missie’ Mercer, in Florida this April.

When Joan Elizabeth Young was born on the Islander the morning of August 22, 1954, newspaper accounts suggested that no other baby would ever be born on a ferry boat between Shelter Island and Greenport again.

Sixty years later, that prediction published in both the New York Herald Tribune and the East Hampton Star holds true.

Joan Young, who you may know by her nickname “Missie” or her married name Melcer, turns 60 on Friday. The story of how she was born remains as unique and entertaining as it did that day.

Her father, Thomas, a line man for the Shelter Island Light and Power Company and later LILCO, phoned Dr. Donald Currie at 3:30 a.m. to say his wife, also named Joan, was in labor and the young couple needed to get to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport as soon as possible.

Dr. Currie told him to board the first boat out of the ferry terminal in Shelter Island Heights and that he would meet them there. The boat did not depart on time, however, after a deck hand showed up late for work.

Realizing there was little time to spare, Greenport-Shelter Island ferry boat captain George Dickerson “rang for full speed,” according to an article in that week’s edition of The Suffolk Times.

“But all in vain, for the baby came into the world in the front seat of the Youngs’ automobile with Dr. Currie in attendance,” the article reads. “The child, the first born on any of the boats owned by the ferry company, weighed 7 pounds and 14 ounces.”

Joan Elizabeth Young was born in her parents’ 1954 Nash Rambler at 5:30 a.m., just as the ferry was rounding the railroad dock in Greenport. She is believed to be the only baby ever born on any ferry boat out of Shelter Island.

Newspaper accounts of the birth all shared a similar remark: Joan will one day have a heckuva cocktail party story about the day she was born.

While Ms. Melcer says the tale comes up on occasion, it’s a much bigger deal for her parents, who recently moved in with her and her husband in Sunrise, Florida.

“Right now it’s a big story for my father,” she said. “He brings it up to just about everybody.”

Recalling that morning this week, Mr. Young said he missed the actual birth when the doctor asked him to get out of the car to make more space.

“By the time I walked around to the other side of the car, the baby was there,” he said.

Mr. Young said he never worried about his wife not making it to the hospital on time.

“I never thought anything of it,” he said. “It hadn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since.”

Ms. Melcer says since transportation has expanded so much in the decades that have passed, the idea of a baby being born on a ferry or another mode of travel isn’t necessarily as noteworthy today.

“It is still kind of cool though,” she said. “People are surprised when I tell them. But nowadays you hear about babies being born on jet liners and in taxi cabs, it happens more often.

“But in 1954, it was a huge deal.”

After the ferry birth was covered in print, the Youngs were invited to appear on a pair of television shows, including the game show, “On Your Account,” featuring host Dennis James.

Ms. Melcer lived on Shelter Island until she married her husband, Paul, in 1975 and the couple moved to Shirley. They left Long Island for Florida a dozen years later.

She previously worked as a clerk in a chiropractic office, while raising her son and daughter. She’s now a grandmother to her daughter’s four children, who live in New Orleans but had come to live with her in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In an example of life coming full circle, Ms. Melcer said she’ll spend her 60th birthday caring for her parents, who have fallen into ill health in recent years. Mr. Young, now 87, has been undergoing intensive physical therapy to make his legs stronger, as he struggles to walk. Ms. Young, 83, suffers from severe back pain.
“We had a gigantic celebration for my 50th,” Ms. Melcer said. “This year will be spent helping mom and dad, who are going through a rough time.”

The second of four Young children, Ms. Melcer last visited Shelter Island in 2012 to see her older brother Tom, who still lives on the Island. She rode the North Ferry during that trip, taking the same journey her parents made on the day she was born.

Of course, when her children were born it wasn’t nearly as eventful. But that didn’t stop the Melcers from making sure they were prepared for anything.

When she became pregnant with her son and learned they’d be traveling to a hospital in New York City from Shirley to give birth in winter, the Melcers purchased a four-wheel drive truck to avoid getting stranded if it snowed that day.

“It ended up being the most gorgeous January day,” she said with a laugh.

Thomas and Joan Young pose with their baby girl, Joan Elizabeth, at Eastern Long Island Hospital on the day she was born.
Thomas and Joan Young pose with their baby girl, Joan Elizabeth, at Eastern Long Island Hospital on the day she was born.