Tide Turns : America Loses Its Illustrious Marine Past

Associated Press

The decline of the U.S. merchant marine seems all the more notable in a nation with such an illustrious seagoing past.

America in its infancy was basically an island. You had to take a boat to get there, and ships were the lifeline to the Colonies.

Seamen, as boys, “came up the hawsepipe” to learn before the mast. Nathaniel Bowditch, the great navigator, got his start selling pulleys and marlin spikes as a young ship’s chandler until he learned enough to go to sea. Lads from Nantucket and New Bedford shipped out on whalers across the globe, came home years later and signed on again as mates.

Whale oil lit the lamps of the young nation. Slavers plied their vile trade to man the cotton fields, and other ships brought immigrants to settle the whole country. American-designed clippers from Baltimore and New England out-sped the world in the China trade.


John Fitch drove the first practicable steamboat on the Delaware River in 1789, 20 years before Robert Fulton. In 1806, Frederic Tudor displayed Yankee maritime ingenuity by eschewing Harvard as “a place for loafers, like all colleges” and becoming an exporter of what New England had plenty of--ice.

Cruise Line Competition

The tide began turning in the 1840s, when Britain subsidized the new Cunard Line on the North Atlantic crossing. In 1847, Congress followed suit by subsidizing the building of the Bremen Line, jointly owned by Americans and the city-state of Bremen. Carrying the flag became a matter of policy and national pride. In America, shippers thus were alternately fed and starved by congressional and presidential whims.

The decline of the seagoing life was epitomized by the man Frank Braynard, curator of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., calls “that wretch, Horace Greeley,” when Greeley advised America’s young men to go West. They did, in prairie schooners, and the nation turned its back on its maritime heritage.


“The seaman changed from the town hero to the local drifter,” Braynard, a steam-fired advocate of a return to maritime greatness, said. “The need for labor in the United States was so great (that) any loose men were drawn to jobs in the heartland.” Never again would an increasingly rich America be able to compete with the low wages paid to foreign merchantmen. The glory days were largely over.