- Historic Sites
Masters Of The Merchant Marine
We built a merchant marine despite the opposition of the Royal Navy, went on to develop the most beautiful of all sailing ships, and held our supremacy for years. But how do we measure up today?
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
The Massachusetts was around long enough, however, to impress New York’s Commissioners of Public Charities, who decided the schoolship idea was worth emulating to give homeless and delinquent boys “a sure and honest means of livelihood suited to their adventurous spirit.” The packet ship Mercury was purchased in 1869 and fitted out to house three hundred boys. The original plan was to keep the ship at anchor, but the “experience of a few months demonstrated that the only effectual mode of instruction is the continuous handling of a ship at sea. ” Of the 258 boys who made the initial cruise to Madeira, the Canaries, Sierra Leone, and Barbados, the captain certified 100 as qualified for navy or merchant service as ordinary seamen—a step above ship’s boys.
The Mercury continued in service until 1874, when staff complaints of stinks, rodents, inadequate ventilation, and the failure of many boys to accept seagoing jobs combined to disillusion the Commissioners of Public Charities. At the same time, the city’s Board of Education had been contemplating creation of a nautical academy, not to house, school, and prepare foremast hands but to train prospective officers.
In 1874 Congress authorized the Navy to lend appropriate ships “for the instruction of youths in navigation, seamanship, marine enginery and all matters pertaining to the proper construction, equipment and sailing of vessels.” The ships were offered not to states but to seaports, and the federal government undertook no financial support except maintenance.
New York City was quick to take advantage of this offer, and established, at the foot of Twenty-third Street on the East River, the New York Nautical School aboard the former sloop of war St. Mary’s (the odd name came from St. Marys County, where Maryland’s first settlers landed in 1634) with a full complement of 123 boys between fifteen and nineteen. Thus began the first complete, coordinated approach to organized training of volunteer candidates for officer rank in our merchant marine since the brief career of the Clio , forty years before. In 1891 the Pennsylvania Nautical School began to function, followed two years later by the Massachusetts Nautical School, both on square-rigged former naval ships. These were state schools. All the nautical schools limited enrollment to local residents. Seattle and San Francisco also started schools, though they were shortlived. Since then Maine, Texas, Michigan, and again California have established state schools, while Pennsylvania closed hers. The Great Lakes Academy in Michigan concentrates on Great Lakes rather than deep-sea licenses.
It is ironic that these schooling systems came into being at a time when the merchant marine was in precipitous decline. All those glorious clippers of the 185Os were becoming tired and uneconomic at the same time. This simultaneous decrepitude, known as block obsolescence, always follows a spurt in shipbuilding. It has become a repeating phenomenon in American shipping.
America hadn’t altogether neglected steam, even though the clippers could sail rings around the steamships. But the steamer kept moving even in calms and won on averages. Our decline came not only from what we did not do but from what the British did . They came out of the doldrums in a rush, building clippers that rivaled ours. And at a time when few of our seamen had a good word for the steamers, which, they declared, “used four tons of coal to move one ton of cargo,” the British were building of iron and favoring the screw propeller over our side-wheelers. With the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, their steamships became the dominant means of ocean transport to India and the Far East. We still built ships, both sail and steam, but gradually left to other nations the important Western ocean passenger traffic. By 1900 only one American transatlantic line remained in operation, and American ships were carrying less than 10 percent of our foreign trade.
Both Congress and the Navy were worried about the decline of the American merchant marine and, as the packet and clipper officers died or retired, about their replacement. In 1891 Congress reestablished mail contracts for U.S. flag vessels. To be eligible, ships were required to carry on each voyage cadets or apprentices to be educated in the duties of seamanship: one American-born boy between seventeen and twenty-one for each one thousand gross registered tons.