Boston Marine Society History

The Boston Marine Society has a history which is as remarkable as it is little known. Founded in 1742, it is the oldest association of sea captains in the world. In its 247 years, its membership has totaled only 2,867 members. At the moment its ranks include only 315 men.

Yet some of the names listed on the Society's muster roll would make anybody arch his eyebrows. Number 234, for instance, was John Adams, who was admitted on March 3, 1769, and went on to become the second president of the United States. And Number 2590, admitted July 11, 1933, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the country's 32nd president. That these two men held certificates of membership is a point of surprise for most people. For after all, the Marine Society has always tacked close to the rule that only men who have served as masters of sea-going vessels can be considered for membership. Then how explain John Adams and FDR? Capt. Chester L. Jordan, a quiet, thoughtful man who himself went to sea for 40 years and now serves as the society's secretary, chuckles whenever that question is put to him.

"John Adams, of course, was never a sailor," he explains. "At the time of his election to membership, he was a shrewd young lawyer with considerable influence in the colony. I guess the society felt it would be wise to have a man of his abilities aboard. In fact, all dues were waived for him — that's how badly he was wanted."

Captain Jordan paused a minute and gazed out the window. Spread out below was the whole of Boston Harbor, with Governor's Island and Deer Island off in the distance. A winter wind was whipping up the water and a tug was having trouble easing a big, red freighter along a pier. He watched the maneuver with a knowing eye. Then satisfied, he turned and remarked, "As for Franklin Delano, he was an active member, not an honorary one, like John Adams. He was always interested in the sea, was skipper of his own yacht, served as assistant secretary of the Navy. I reckon the society felt that was qualification enough."

"Right now," he went on, "70 of the society's 315 members are honorary, elected by virtue of their business and civic attainments." All 245 others belong to that hardy breed of men "who go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters." They're all intensely proud of being members. They don't always say so, but one can tell that for them, belonging to the Boston Marine Society is comparable to a young scholar winning a Phi Betta Kappa key, or a matron suddenly finding her name in the Social Register. One gentleman recently put all this high meaning into words. "The society's roster," he said, "contains the names of New England's greatest shipmasters who have served in all the wars, who have carried the flag to all corners of the earth, and who have made the names of Boston and New England familiar the world over."

The voting boxWinning membership is not easy. One must have his name recommended, then passed upon by some of the country's ablest and most respected skippers. To express their decision, they use the same balloting box employed by the society for years without recall. If a man votes to accept, he drops a white ball into the box. If he votes to reject, he tosses in a black cube instead. Too much feeling of history pervades the society for the decision ever to be made lightly. After all, the society was already a generation old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was well established by the time Revolutionary hero John Paul Jones penned a letter to its president in 1777 asking for ship's supplies so his Ranger could beat it out to sea and harass the enemy British.

Over the years, members have been leaders in all the American merchant marine's great developments. They've captained its clipper ships, merchantmen, steamships. Now they're looking to the future. Not long ago the society's president, Capt. Soren Willesen, was called to speak before the Propeller Club in Baltimore upon the keel-laying of the country's first nuclear-powered merchant ship, the U.S.S. Savannah. Of this heroic tradition the society's club rooms are alive with mementos. The walls are lined with prints of famous sailing vessels and portraits of distinguished New England shipmasters. Models of famous ship types, from tugs to sleek clippers, are on display. An extensive library on the lore of the sea yields up answers to difficult inquiries from all over the country.

But all this is incidental to the society's first purpose. It was established as the Fellowship Club to improve the lot of those who made the sea their life and their living. Its manual tells this beautifully. "An association like this was imperatively required. The risk of life and property on the ocean was greater then than now. Vessels were small and rudely constructed. The science of navigation was comparatively but little known. Insurance companies, as they now exist (those safeguards of private property), were not known in this country, and the loss of a vessel would often leave penniless both the mariner and the merchant." After reading aloud this passage, Captain Jordan returned to the window and pointed to busy Atlantic Avenue down below. "See that parking lot down there?" he said. "That's India Wharf — or at least it used to be," he added wryly. "That's one of the oldest wharves in Boston. It was named India Wharf because it's from there that ships left for India and all the seven seas. In those days, a master would sail his ship out to the China Coast and might not get back for two or three years. If he got there, he'd load up with spices and precious cargo and come back a rich man. He could retire at a very young age and live free and easy the rest of his days. But then, too, he might run into a typhoon and go down with all hands, or be shipwrecked on some faraway shore. It's for such men and their families that the society was established. They needed protection and they felt they could get a measure of it by banding together."

The BoxHe walked to a glass case in the center of the room which contained a beautiful model of the Argus, a three-masted square rigger. Beside it was a black box, covered in leather and studded with brass nails. In the center of the cover was a slot. Above it were painted the simple words, "The Box." "That Box was the society's insurance policy, so to speak," he said, smiling. "Masters who got back to port safe and sound would slip money into the box. And masters who became impoverished, or needy widows of masters, would be 'relieved according to the Nature of the Misfortune and the Ability of the Box,'" he explained, quoting by memory. All in all, the Box has been very generous. The Society over the years has given away more than $1,500,000. Right now we have about 60 widows on our benefit rolls. Their average age is 80. We have one who is 94. Since its beginning, the society has helped hundreds of people."

He swung open the ponderous doors of a safe and pulled out a leather-bound book. It was the society's first book of minutes. Captain Jordan thumbed through the pages and pointed out various decisions to aid distressed widows. "This is Volume A," he said, putting the book back. "We're up to Volume H now. The minutes were recorded in pen script until 1933. That's the year that we changed to a typewriter." The unintentional reference to the society's old and proud history shone through the remark as brightly as a beacon. "The society's other main interest has been to make navigation safer. In the old days, members back home from a long voyage would give a report on anything unusual they had noticed about shoals or rocks or currents. Lights, you know, were very few, seas were uncharted, even the approach to Boston Harbor was difficult and dangerous."

"The society pressed for the construction of a lighthouse outside Boston Harbor, and that's how Boston Light — the oldest on the eastern seaboard — came into existence. Then we went on pressing for other improvements, such as locating and buoying channels and working for all kinds of aids to navigation. And of course, the society, as it has for many decades, still recommends the Pilot Commisioners to the governor. We send him the names of the men who should be on the board and the Governor's Council appoints them. They're invariably members of the society and men of the highest competence. It's the commisioners' job to regulate all matters concerning the piloting of ships into or out of Boston Harbor. As you can imagine, it's a highly reponsible job."

"But Boston Marine men have always been able to handle big jobs. Here, take a look," he said, picking up the list of past and present members. He ran his finger down the list and picked out names at random. There was Number 472, for instance, Commodore Edward Preble, who commanded the U.S. Naval Squadron at the Battle of Tripoli. Number 179, Capt. Hector McNeil, admitted Dec. 2, 1760. Captain McNeil commanded the U.S. Frigate "Boston" in the Revolutionary War. Captain Jordan's eyes brightened. "That was the 'Boston' which the present 'Boston,' the country's first guided missile ship, is named for. And today the 'Boston' is stationed here in this port."

Captain Robert Bennett ForbesThe stubby finger stopped again at Number 758: Capt. Robert B. Forbes, master of the "Great Republic," the clipper ship which Longfellow immortalized in his beautiful poem, "The Building of the Ship." Later Forbes served as master of the U.S. Navy's "Jamestown" when it delivered relief supplies to Ireland in the terrible potato famine. Number 1611: Capt. John L. Manson, who was admitted Jan. 14, 1879. Manson took the first cargo of rails for the newfangled Iron Horse around Cape Horn to the West Coast.

Satisfied that his point was proven, Captain Jordan closed the book and dropped it to the desk. A certain sadness overshadowed his strong features. "Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer merchant ships nowadays. When the society was formed, 550 vessels a year cleared from Boston for foreign ports. Why, on a single day in 1791, 70 vessels set sail from here. Today ships are becoming bigger and bigger. Do you realize that back in the 1800s, an average of 772 vessels pulled into Boston every year. But their total displacement was only about 100,000 tons. Why, that's about the displacement of a single — yes, a single — modern tanker. And of course, fewer ships means fewer masters," he sighed.

"As a result, the society's membership has been sloping off. Our peak year was 1893, when we had 475 members. Now we have 265 marine members. But they're good men and true, every one of them! Take Capt. Soren Willesen — our president. Back in 1916, he was second mate of the Edward Sewall, one of the world's biggest four-masted sailing ships at that time. Then he saw service on tankers, passenger ships, freighters. During World War II he supervised the construction of over 200 Liberty Ships. Now he's in charge of fleet operations for a steamship company. Or look at Capt. Harold L. Colbeth, who's been society treasurer for 30 years. He's in his 80s now, a prince of a man. Back in the early 1900's he was master of the 'Yale,' the famous express steamer which with the 'Harvard' gave overnight service between Boston and New York, in good weather or bad. And in 1913, he became the first superintendent of the newly opened Cape Cod Canal and held the post until 1950. That's the kind of men we have in this society."

One couldn't help recalling details of Captain Jordan's own career while he spoke so glowingly of others. He went off to sea on a fishing boat while just a youth, later shipped on a square-rigger to Buenos Aires. He worked his way up to first mate and chief officer on Isthmian Line ships sailing all over the world. Then came 25 years of service in the Coast Gurad. In 1941 he was commander of the International Ice Patrol, which keeps merchant and naval shipping informed of hazardous ice masses. During World War II he skippered a Navy tanker, the Big Horn, then served as commander of the First Coast Guard District. Now he was the proud secretary of the Boston Marine Society. He was winding up his brief talk about the society. His bearing became erect, his eyes flashed. "What is there to be most proud of in this society?" he repeated.

"One thing: it has served long and well. Through its members, in its early years and later, it made a big contribution to the economic development of our country."

reprinted from the Worcester Sunday Telegram

Copyright 2001 Boston Marine Society