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Founded in 1806, SSH Continues Serving Retired Merchant Mariners

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

December 23, 2022

  • Stained glass at SSH’s former facility in Staten Island. Credit SSH.
  • The Harbor’s seal, Portum Petimus Fessi ("We who are weary seek a harbor"). Credit SSH
  • Stained glass at SSH’s former facility in Staten Island. Credit SSH. Stained glass at SSH’s former facility in Staten Island. Credit SSH.
  • The Harbor’s seal, Portum Petimus Fessi ("We who are weary seek a harbor"). Credit SSH The Harbor’s seal, Portum Petimus Fessi ("We who are weary seek a harbor"). Credit SSH

The Sailors’ Snug Harbor (SSH) is a charity based out of New York that provides assistance to retired merchant mariners. In 2022, SSH helped more than 400 mariners in 33 states and Puerto Rico. SSH helps mariners live more comfortably by assisting them with their living expenses such as rent, mortgages, and utilities. SSH also helps them find other assistance and local services. In recent years, SSH has expanded its eligibility criteria to include inland mariners as well as deep sea mariners.

SSH was incorporated in 1806 as the result of a bequest made by Captain Robert Richard Randall. Captain Randall’s will left his 21-acre Manhattan farm to erect a facility called "The Sailors' Snug Harbor" for the purpose of supporting, in perpetuity, “aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors”.  

Not much is known about Captain Randall. He spent much of his life managing the family shipping company. By far his most famous deed—and the one by which he is remembered today—occurred on June 1, 1801, when he signed his will. Purportedly, in consult with his attorney Alexander Hamilton, Capt. Randall decided to return his wealth from whence it came; the sea. Capt. Randall passed five days later on June 6th. The will ordered that this “Sailors’ Snug Harbor” charity be governed ‘forever’ by eight of New York’s most important positions and their successors in that position. The conscripts were: the chancellor and recorder of New York, the mayor of New York City, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in New York City, the president and vice-president of the Marine Society of New York, and the senior ministers of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches in New York City. Today, 222 years later, the president and vice-president of the Marine Society and the senior ministers of First Presbyterian Church and Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City remain active in SSH’s governance.  

The Randall, by Augustus Saint- Gaudens. Credit SSH.

There were numerous legal challenges to Capt. Randall’s unique request.The challenges were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Fortunately, in 1830 the will was upheld and the Trustees were free to start fulfilling Capt. Randall’s directive.

In 1833, SSH opened its first retirement home in Staten Island, NY. At its peak, in the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 1,000 sailors were in residence together at the facility. The decades following, enrollment declined while costs to maintain the recently landmarked buildings to current building codes rose. The facility closed in 1976 and the 105 mariners residing at the facility were relocated to SSH’s newly built facility in Sea Level, NC.

In 1992, SSH began a pilot program to help mariners who lived outside of the Sea Level facility. SSH soon realized the vast majority of retired mariners would rather stay in their home communities with their spouses, families and friends. This led to the gradual move away from operating a retirement home. In 2005, the Sea Level facility was sold and SSH began transitioning to helping mariners solely in their home communities. In 2017, the last mariner at Sea Level passed away.

Today, much of SSH’s work is done from a small office in New York. Besides subsidizing living expenses, SSH also preserves oral histories, help manage their finances, and help make them aware of other local assistance that may be available.  

Much of SSH’s long history has been saved. Artwork and artifacts used to decorate the retirement homes are now cared for and beautifully displayed at the Noble Maritime Collection in Staten Island. Many of SSH’s former Staten Island buildings are maintained and cared for by the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Lastly, SSH’s historical documents are well cared for at the Stephen B. Luce Library at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, NY.  

SSH understands most mariners retire without much need for assistance, but it is their goal to let every mariner know they are there to help if needed. Any help in these outreach efforts is very much appreciated. The SSH website and Facebook pages have more information.

Liberty Ship Robert R. Randall. Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, VA

About the author: Jay Brooks has worked for The Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor since 2006 and has been its Executive Director/Governor since 2018.  

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