Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sailor’s Friend, an Extinct Breed


When I first started working on the waterfront, back in the 1970s, I didn’t realize I was coming into a scene that was rapidly disappearing. With the exception of the automobile docks in Saint Johns and Rivergate, Portland docks did not have much in the way of guards at the gate. I should mention, Terminal 4 had a guard gate, but it was rarely occupied, and when it was, no one stopped to be checked in. This means that one of the regular sights was some vehicle—either a taxi cab, or a Cadillac, or an old beater—filled to the brim with prostitutes headed for the ship. A regular visitor (and one who took the bus) was a pitiful woman, known as “Penny dirty legs.” Her mother had been a prostitute, or so it was told, who brought her daughter with her on the job. It is hard to say how old Penny was, somewhere between 30 and 50, but it was obvious she was mentally undeveloped—probably from being abused her entire life.

By the 1970s the great majority of the vessels were Liberian flag, owned by Americans, or Greeks, and staffed by Greek, Korean, or Japanese officers, and manned by Chinese or Pilipino crews. We still saw an occasional ship from the U.S.S.R. (until Jimmy Carter’s embargo), Norway, Greece, Japan, or even the U.S.A. But these were on the way out.

Besides the prostitutes another common sight was a preacher whose name I do not know, though looking back, I wish I had made his acquaintance. He was the last of a dying breed as well, the sailor’s friend. I first mistook this gentleman for a U.S. Customs official. He was tall, with snowy white hair rolling out from under his peaked officer’s cap. Then I noticed him leading a small group of confused-looking Asian sailors to a van in the parking lot bearing the emblem of an anchor, and the words: “Seamen’s Lighthouse Church,” and in smaller script, “Rescue the perishing.” I can’t say which came first, the old preacher going to collect his “crown of glory,” or the new security rules requiring the docks to be surrounded by razor wire and the gates manned by real guards, requiring everyone entering to show a TSA TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Card) card. If this gentleman were working today he would have to wait patiently outside the gate for sailors looking to catch a bus into town.



The old preacher was carrying the flag for a movement that started in Great Britain as part of the English Evangelical movement. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was started in1701. It was deeply involved with British maritime adventures, as can be seen by the official seal. There is a clergyman standing on the bow of a British man o’ war, holding out a Gospel book towards the heathen masses running to hear him speak. The society also published a book of daily devotions for sailors, and instructed ship captains in the duties of holding morning and evening prayer, as well as a Sunday service.

In 1821 another Evangelical movement arose in Britain, this one, the Seaman’s Friend Society, was directed at the spiritual life of the sailor. Many pious citizens lent a hand in this effort. A Methodist shoemaker developed the “Bethel” flag for use on vessels to announce services. “Bethel” meaning “House of God,” became synonymous with the chapels and religious services on the society. Within the decade the movement came to the United States with the organization of the New York, American Seaman’s Friend Society, which encouraged religious activities among American sailors, and built sailor’s chapels in many seaports.






By the 1870s Portland, Oregon was an emerging seaport, with Astoria taking on the cargoes when the rivers were too low for vessels to load, or load fully in Portland. Seaman’s Friend Chaplains were assigned to both ports: the Rev. R.S. Stubbs in Portland , and the Rev. Johnston McCormac in Astoria. In Portland a group of religious city fathers: Henry Corbett, William S. Ladd, Simeon Reed, John McCracken, Edward Quackenbush, and James Laidlaw formed a chapter of the society, with the aim of building a Bethel, and a facility with boardinghouse, dining hall, and library.  The chief aim was to remove the poor sailors from the clutches of the ruthless boarding masters, Jim Turk being the major problem at the time.

The first structure, a chapel, reading room, kitchen, and chaplain’s quarters was a wood frame building on the corner of 3rd and Davis. In 1882, at the same location, the society built their vision, a building with sleeping rooms, and all the other accommodations. They christened the place the “Mariner’s Home,” and dreamed about putting the evil crimps out of business. The structure remains to this day.

The Mariner's Home NW 3rd and Davis, as it was some years ago, and as it was 2012



Turk and his fellow crimps and runners, men who dealt in the lives of sailors, were organized enough to make it impossible for the boardinghouse part of the facility  to operate. The captains, who received the wages due to deserting sailors, also did not wish to run afoul of the crimps, who could bring them great sorrows. The crimps could tie them up in court on false charges, or even bring them grievous bodily harm, making it highly dangerous to use this alternative method, provided by the Bethel, for obtaining sailors.

(I have discovered some rather shocking details about this period in the history of the Mariner's Home, but I am saving it for my upcoming book, a biographical history of the shanghaiers of Portland and Astoria.)

The founding chapter of the American Seamen’s Friend Society, in New York, closed in 1970. By then the mission to sailors had reappeared in many different forms, with similar names, in ports around the world. In Portland it was the Seamen’s Lighthouse Church, with its poignant byline, “Rescue the perishing.” It’s “Bethel” chapel was a windowless frame building where North Lombard makes a jog at St. Johns Avenue. There is an empty lot there today.

If you have read Portland’s Lost Waterfront, you may have noticed I told the story of how one of the first Bethel services in Portland was held in shanghaier, Jim Turk’s boardinghouse. Recently I discovered, in the writings of Rev. Johnston McCormac, a reference how he held Bethel services, for a time, in the Astoria sailor’s boardinghouse of John Kenny and Paddy Lynch. These were some strange bedfellows (if you will excuse the expression). Shortly after this Paddy was sent to the penitentiary for shanghaiing, but for that you will need to get my next book for details.