“The maintenance of a merchant marine is of the utmost importance for national defense and the service of our commerce.” President Calvin Coolidge
“In peacetime, the U.S. Merchant Marine includes all of the privately owned and operated vessels flying the American flag – passenger ships, freighters, tankers, tugs, and a wide miscellany of other craft. Merchant Marine vessels ply the high seas, the Great Lakes, and the inland waters, such as the Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers.” Heroes in Dungarees by John Bunker
During the colonial period, businessmen and legislators realized that prosperity was connected to trade. The more shipment of imports and exports through colonial ports the more money there was to be made. Carrying American produced goods to market in American made and managed ships kept the money in American pockets. Formation of the United States Merchant Marine is dated to 1775 when citizens at Machias, Massachusetts (now Maine) seized the British schooner HMS Margaretta in response to receiving word of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
After the Revolutionary War American ships were no longer under the protection of the British empire. The new nation offered incentives for goods to be moved on American ships. Wars on the European continent turned attention away from American activity as U.S. ships opened up new trade routes in the early Federal period. The Empress of China reached China in 1784, the first U.S. registered ship to do so. American shipping and shipbuilding flourished in the early 1800s.
The years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War saw the development of canal systems connect the western interior with seaport markets. “Those years saw the merchant marine rise to its zenith in terms of the percentage of American trade carried. Only in the aftermaths of World Wars I and II would its percentage of world tonnage stand as high.” America's Maritime Legacy by Robert A. Kilmarx
Sail powered packet ships, carrying passengers, pushed their crews hard. There was money to be made in quick passages across to Europe and back. Clipper ships also relied on speed as they carried high value cargoes of silk, spices and tea across the Pacific and the slave trade across the Atlantic.
The hybrid sailing ship/sidewheeler steamer Savannah’s 1819 Atlantic crossing, the first with a steam powered engine, signaled the start of the transition from sail to steam. The May 22 date for National Maritime Day commemorates the day Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia to England. The Savannah transported both passengers and cargo. More information about the SS Savannah is here:
Restoration of the merchant marine after the disruption of the Civil War was a national political issue in 1872. The Republican party advocated adopting measures to restore American commerce and shipbuilding. Mail packets, carrying mail around the world were active in this period. Financial scandals were associated with mail packet contracts. Training sailors in an academic setting began in the last quarter of the 1800s, predecessors of the present day Maritime Academies. The period between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the European outbreak of World War I was a dynamic time for shipping. American raw materials and agricultural products were shipped to world markets and products from those markets received and used by American industries.
John Bunker writes: “When we entered the war, the Merchant Marine, although still privately owned, came under government control. The men who sailed the ships were civilians, but they also were under government control and subject to disciplinary action by the U.S. Coast Guard and, when overseas, by local U.S. military authorities. Compared with soldiers and sailors, merchant seaman had much more freedom of movement. After completing a voyage, they could usually leave a ship but had to join another vessel within a reasonable period of time or be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. There was no uniform required for merchant seamen. Some officers wore uniforms; many did not. During the war, merchant ships were operated by some forty steamship companies, and the War Shipping Administration assigned new ships to them as they were completed. A total of 733 U.S.-flag merchant ships were lost during World War II. More than 6,000 merchant seamen died as the result of enemy action.”p12
U.S. Maritime Service personnel operated the 2,700 Liberty ships during World War II. The U.S. Maritime Service was the only service at the time with African American crew members serving in every capacity aboard ship. Seventeen Liberty Ships were named for African-Americans. Approximately 10%, 24,000, African Americans served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
During World War II the U.S. Merchant Marines moved war personnel and material under conditions shown above.
The American Merchant Mariner’s memorial in Battery Park, New York City reads: "This memorial serves as a marker for America’s merchant mariners resting in the unmarked ocean depths." Poignantly the sailor in the water is covered twice a day at high tide. Installed in 1991 by sculptor Marisol Escobar designed based on a photo of the sinking of the SS Muskogee by German U-boat 123 on March 22nd, 1942. The photo was taken by the U-boat captain. The American crew all died at sea.
Merchant mariners who served in World War II were denied veterans recognition and benefits including the GI Bill. This despite having suffered a per capita casualty rate greater then those of the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1988 a federal court order granted veteran status to merchant mariners who participated in World War II.
On May 31, 1993, the Hudson River Maritime Museum received a brass plaque reading: “The United States Merchant Marine. This plaque is dedicated in memory of those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during W.W. II and in particular to those who did not survive “The Battle of the Atlantic”. Their dedication, deeds and sacrifices while transporting war material to the war shared their sacrifices and final victory, we, their surviving shipmates dedicate this memorial with the promise that they shall not be forgotten. Died 6,834. Wounded 11,000. Ship Sunk 833. P.O.W. 604. Died in Prisoner of War Camps 61. American Merchant Marine Veterans – May 31, 1993.”
Today, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) is the Department of Transportation agency responsible for the U.S. waterborne transportation system. Founded in 1950 the mission of MARAD is to foster, promote and develop the maritime industry of the United States to meet the nation’s economic and security needs. MARAD maintains the Ready Reserve Fleet, a fleet of cargo ships in reserve to provide surge sea-lift during war and national emergencies. A predecessor of the RRF, the Hudson River Reserve Fleet of World War II ships, popularly referred to as the Ghost Fleet, was in the Jones Point area from 1946 to 1971. More about the Maritime Administration including a Vessel History Database can be found here: https://www.maritime.dot.gov/
United States Merchant Marine Training
Modern day training of merchant marines is held at seven academies, two of which U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and SUNY Maritime College, are in New York State.
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY (USMMA) is one of the five United States service academies. When the academy was dedicated on 30 September 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, noted "the Academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy."
USMMA graduates earn:
USMMA graduates fulfill their service obligations on their own, providing annual proof of employment in a wide variety of MARAD approved occupations. Either as active duty officers in any branch of the military or uniformed services, including the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or entering the civilian work force in the maritime industry.
State-supported maritime colleges:
There are six state-supported maritime colleges. These graduates earn appropriate licenses from the U.S. Coast Guard and/or U.S. Merchant Marine. They have the opportunity to participate in a commissioning program, but do not receive an immediate commission as an Officer within a service.
More information about the U.S. Merchant Marines can be found here:
Thank you to John Phelan, HRMM Wooden Boat School Coordinator and Dock Master for suggesting this blog post topic. John graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and held the title of Chief Mate working on product tankers for a major oil corporation during his years at sea.
Carla Lesh, Ph.D. is Collections Manager and Digital Archivist at Hudson River Maritime Museum.
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Like many nautical terms, the words “barge” and “scow” are fraught with diverse definitions depending upon timeframes, local usages and individual perspectives and backgrounds. In this way, these words are not unlike “ship,” which in common usage refers to anything big capable of independently making its way across the water. At various times in history, the word ship referred only to sailing vessels with square sails on three masts (as opposed to brigs, barks, barkentines, etc.) while also meaning the collective team of crew and officers of any vessel. Paradoxically, the big steamers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the Hudson were never called ships; they were always referred to as boats regardless of size or capability.
Historically, the words barge and scow have applied to everything from the flat bottomed sailing barges of the Thames, floating pleasure palaces and funerary boats to the garbage boats of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, these terms generally bring to mind simple floating boxes that carry cargo and are pushed or towed by tugboats. They often suggest craft with flat bottoms and shallow drafts. Let’s take a brief look at what these words have represented here on the Hudson River.
Simple barge-like cargo boats that could be easily built and poled, rowed or sailed appeared in New England and possibly in New York. Some of these, referred to as gundalows, were typically rectangular in plan and featured flat bottoms, inclined ends, retractable masts near the bow and rudders and tillers aft. They were well adapted for carrying lumber and hay and persisted into the late nineteenth century in some rivers.
With the inauguration of canals in New York State, specialized boats based on narrow boat prototypes in Europe were introduced. Some of these found their way to the Hudson River. Flat bottomed, horse-drawn packet boats and line boats carried passengers or a mix of passengers and freight. But with a few notable exceptions, they remained in the canals. However, mule-drawn freight barges often plied the Hudson when they were gathered up in the huge steam tows of the nineteenth century and taken with their cargo to New York. These barges and scows featured specialized designs based on intended trades and the building preferences of yards all across New York and the neighboring states. Barges carrying coal were markedly different from those intended to carry perishable cargoes such as grain. They also differ depending upon the dates of policy changes on the canals (squared bows prohibited due to embankment damage) and the dates of canal expansion projects when the dimensions of the canals and the lock chambers were enlarged allowing deeper and wider barges to grow simultaneously. A number of canalboats were fitted with sail rigs for use when these barges reached the open water of large lakes and rivers where animal towing was no longer possible. Hoodledashers, powered canal barges usually towing a second, unpowered barge, became a feature of the greatly expanded NYS Barge Canal of 1915. One, the Frank A. Lowery, was abandoned in the Rondout in 1953 and remains identifiable. Many canal barges have found their way to the bottom of the Hudson and its tributaries, including a rare bifurcated and hinged Morris Canal barge from the nineteenth century.
Unlike the canals, barges built for use on the Hudson River were less limited in terms of configuration or dimensions. One of the few commonalities among them was the presence of log fenders suspended from the rails along the sides. A large number of box-like barges with living cabins aft were built to carry coal in their holds. Many measured 100 feet in length and 25-30 feet in beam. Some included midship houses for collapsible masts, derrick booms and winches to facilitate loading and unloading. Rectangular scows with inclined ends were built in large numbers to carry deck loads of trap rock, sand, brick and other bulk or non-perishable freight. They often featured deck cabins for their keepers and families and bulkheads fore and aft to contain the material and separate it from the living quarters. Barge hulls were readily used for dredging equipment, pile drivers and derricks used in salvage and construction. Specialized dump scows were built by the New York Sanitation Department with trap bottoms that could release garbage and refuse when outside of New York harbor. The weathered wooden bones of scows and coal barges can be found all along the river as well as in our own Rondout Creek. A prominent derrick barge lies abandoned in Athens.
The railroads were major barge builders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their ferries, tugs, lighters and barges and car floats (the term used for the long narrow barges that carried rail cars between terminals) were legion and referred to as the “railroad navy.” All of this floating equipment was necessary to move freight from ships to railroad terminals and to move freight and rail cars between terminals and to customers across a metropolitan region divided by rivers, bays and inlets. Among the specialized barges built by the railroads were the hundreds of covered barges built to transport perishable and high value freight throughout the New York area. These distinctive boats with scow-like hulls and boxy cabins with double barn doors on each side made their way up the Hudson on occasion. A number of them found waterfront retirement homes as shad fishing cabins and marina headquarters when no longer useful to the railroads. The Pennsy 399, built in 1942 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, has been restored and is currently docked in the Rondout.
Then there were the early nineteenth century “safety barges” built to transport squeamish passengers afraid of dying in the notorious steamboat explosions or fires that characterized the early years of steam navigation. These were often double decker affairs that looked like steamboats without the paddlewheels or the stacks. A closely related barge type that appears to have grown out of the safety barge model was the hay and produce barge. These craft appear to have proliferated after the Civil War when New York City’s demand for upstate hay became insatiable. Towed in great rafts by paddlewheel towboats and later by tugboats, they were typically double-deckers with shallow draft moulded hulls, tall masts to carry stiffening stays, pilothouses and rudders. In addition to their workaday role carrying hay, livestock and produce, they were popular for inexpensive passenger excursions on Sundays. One example, the Andrew M. Church, built in New Baltimore in 1892, was 139 feet long, carried three decks and was equipped with a rudder and a pilothouse to facilitate tracking and docking. She made her inaugural voyage taking four Sunday School classes to a local picnic ground. Sometimes, these barges were rafted together and towed in pairs or even groups of four. They were still in use carrying hay in the 1930s, and a specialized version, the cattle barge, persisted even longer.
Barges were also built in the nineteenth century for oyster processing and sales, chapels and even municipal bathing pools. Hospital barges appeared in the 1870s initially through the philanthropy of the Starin Line and were towed around New York harbor in good weather to offer fresh air and a change of scenery to invalid patients. Ultimately, the concept evolved into that of a floating clinic set up in disadvantaged communities. The last of these, the 1973 Lila Acheson Wallace is now docked on the Rondout Creek waiting to be repurposed.
Specialized lumber barges also made an appearance with moulded hulls based on the hay barge model. They were built with aft cabins and pilothouses and appear to have carried large deckloads of lumber.
Another distinctive Hudson River barge is the ice barge. Transporting the blocks of ice cut from the river during the winter months and stored in enormous white warehouses along the river shore to urban centers where refrigeration was essential, these barn like barges with rounded bows and sterns carried distinctive windmills to pump out melt water and derrick masts and booms to facilitate loading and unloading.
There is no less variety in the steel barges plying the Hudson River currently. Many are specialized to carry and handle petroleum products, steel recycling, turbines, rock and dry cement. They are typically pushed by diesel tugs but on occasion they are breast towed or towed aft in the nineteenth century manner to facilitate handling and docking. Some are still named for places or members of the respective towing company families and are routinely maintained and painted with pride. Articulated tug and barge combinations (ATBs) represent a relatively recent innovation. They are designed to allow the bow of a tug to precisely fit a notch in the stern of the barge so that when underway, a single unit is created, simplifying handling while avoiding the regulations entailed in designing and operating a comparable motorship.
While less visually interesting than their nineteenth century antecedents, today’s barges carry far more tonnage and operate more safely and efficiently.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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