Contributing to American Seapower for over 275 Years
The Boston Marine Society's first meeting. Note "The Box" in use for collecting member dues.
The society first formed as a fellowship in 1742, and officially incorporated in 1754. Its founders included William Starkey, Edward Cahill, Isaac Freeman, Richard Humphreys, Edward Freyer, Moses Bennet, Jonathan Clarke, John Cullum, Joseph Prince, and Abraham Remmick.
In its first century the Society conducted meetings at the Concert Hall, Bunch-of-Grapes tavern, and the Sun Tavern. In 1851 it kept an office on Commercial Street and later in the Merchants Exchange. Since the 1980s it has operated from offices in the Boston Navy Yard. in Charlestown.
According to maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the Society's meetings
"were common ground where all Bostonians interested in seaborne commerce met. The secretary describes it in 1811 as 'composed of upwards of 100 former shipmasters who have retired from sea with adequate fortunes, many of whom are largely interested in the insurance offices and as underwriters, and about 50 of the most respectable merchants and shipowners and gentlemen of the highest stations in the commonwealth. The rest of the Society is composed of the more active and younger mariners who still follow the seas as a professional business."
The Society has been instrumental in sponsoring measures to improve navigation. John Foster Williams, a member of the Society, commanded America's first revenue cutter, the predecessor to the Coast Guard, and took as his special task the drawing of an accurate chart for Cape Cod Bay. The construction of lighthouses and placement of buoys and markers has often been accomplished with the advice of the Society. Of particular concern to the Society was the appointment of pilots to see to the safe passage of vessels in and out of the port. Beginning in 1791 and continuing through the present, the Society through its Trustees is vested with the authority to appoint Pilot Commissioners, who in turn appoint Boston Harbor pilots.
Between the end of the War of 1812 and the Civil War, America enjoyed the Golden Age of maritime enterprise. Although no longer the nation's greatest port, Boston continued sending her ships and captains to the far corners of the world. Among the most famous of these captains was Robert Bennett Forbes, a member and president of the Society. Forbes went to sea at age 13 and was a master at 20. In ten years of China trading he spent only six months on shore. Forbes retired from the sea and became one of the great merchants of Boston, involving himself in numerous business and charitable activities.
In 1847, when Ireland was staggering under the terrible effects of the potato famine, Forbes' name headed a list of merchants petitioning the United States Congress to provide a ship to carry relief goods to Ireland. Two ships of the United States Navy were lent. U.S.S. Macedonian was sent from New York and U.S.S. Jamestown from Boston. On 28 March 1847 Jamestown sailed from Boston laden with goods donated by the people of the city. Captain Forbes came out of retirement to volunteer his services as captain. Other volunteers on board included the Chief Mate Captain F.W. Macondray and the Second Mate Captain J.D. Farrell, both members of the Society.
Symbolic of America's maritime greatness were the clipper ships, those "Monuments of Snow" racing to Europe and battling Cape Horn to make record passages to China and California. The most famous of these were built across the harbor in East Boston at the yard of Donald McKay. Sovereign of the Seas, Flying Cloud, Stag Hound and the largest wooden sailing ship ever built, Great Republic, were all launched from McKay's Yard. Although most of the Boston-built clippers flew the house flags of New York or British merchants, many were captained or owned by such Society members as Bacon, Eldridge, Emmons, Forbes, Glidden, Howes, Lodge, Ropes, Upton, Wales, Watkins and Weld.
For Boston, the age of the clippers was a sunburst of glory-dazzling in its effect, but short lived. The Civil War and the advent of steam dealt harsh blows to the port. As the nineteenth century progressed, Boston fell further behind as an international port, but at the same time her role as a coastwise entrepot continued. Wooden schooners, many of them built Down East, dominated the coastal trade, carrying bulk commodities - coal, ice, timber, and stone. Coastwise trade was booming and Boston captains were in the thick of it. Membership in the Society increased and reached its peak in 1893, with 475 marine and honorary members.
As part of its concern for the safety of navigation, the Society had long been interested in the proper training of American seamen. In 1891 the Massachusetts Nautical Training School was organized. Two years later the Society agreed to perform supervisory duties in relation to the school similar to the supervision it exercised over the harbor pilots. Of special interest to the Society was the operation of the school ships Enterprise (1892-1909) and her successor Nantucket (1909-1917, 1921-1940). Many members of the Society received their nautical training aboard these two vessels.
Today, into its third century of activity, the Boston Marine Society has remained true to the original charter. Distressed mariners and their families continue to receive support from the "Box," and the safety of navigation remains an active concern. Having had several homes, the first at the Charlestown Navy Yard, now part of the Boston National Historical Park. The items on display here, so generously donated by its members, and carefully preserved by the Society, reveal not only the history of a distinguished institution but also help tell the story of one of America's oldest and most important ports.
William M. Fowler, Jr.