The weatherbeaten old tars who found refuge in the Sailors Snug Harbor in Quincy, Mass., owed some of their comfortable retirement to a sensational clipper ship.
Capt. Josiah Bacon founded Sailors Snug Harbor in 1852 as a refuge for sailors ‘broken down by infirmities brought on by diseases in foreign clinics, expenses, and hardships.’
The Harbor was situated among grand old trees on a peninsula, and during most of the year the sailors ran a ferry back and forth across the Weymouth River.
Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes was its first president. Forbes was a China trader and ship captain who became wealthy dealing in opium. He gave generously of his wealth, and his time, to charitable causes.
In October 1853, shipbuilder Donald McKay launched the Great Republic, a four-deck four-masted clipper barque, the largest wooden clipper ship ever built. It was a sensation. Boston schools and businesses closed for the launch, which attracted 50,000 spectators.
Forbes anticipated the Great Republic would draw a large crowd, and he thought of a way to take advantage of it.
On Oct. 8, 1853, Forbes wrote to McKay:
Donald McKay, Esq.,
My dear Sir:-
As your ship, the Great Republic, is likely to be visited by thousands of admirers, I suggest that you make her the medium of doing a great service to an institution which is about going into operation, and of which I am, for want of a better, the presiding officer. The “Sailors’ Snug Harbor of Boston” has the sympathy of all those who take an interest in ships, and they would willingly pay a “York shilling” to see your ship and at the same time serve a benevolent object. If you approve of the suggestion, I will carry it out at once by sending a competent agent on board, and if any one should by mistake drop a dollar in the purse, I will give him credit for it.
I am a very truly
Your friend and servant
(signed) R. B. Forbes.
Donald McKay replied,
Capt. R. B. Forbes:
Yours requesting my concurrence in your very benevolent suggestion, that of having the privilege of collecting a small sum from the
visitors to the Great Republic for the benefit of the “Sailors’ Snug Harbor” in Boston, has been received. I assure you that nothing will give me more pleasure than to afford you such an opportunity. This class of men have too long been neglected: they do the labor, they
sail the clippers of which we boast as a nation; and any little reward that they may be able to collect along this way, will be highly pleasing to me. And I hope the public will contribute in this way, and feel it to be a privilege to be able to build up a bulwark to shelter the weather-beaten sailor, now no longer able to earn his bread by his perilous profession.
I am, dear sir, yours truly
(signed) Donald McKay
The Great Republic was open to public inspection in Boston Harbor, and $1,000 was collected for the Sailors Snug Harbor.
Then the clipper ship sailed to New York, where she was again open to inspection. More than $4,000 was collected.
On Dec. 27, 1853, the Great Republic burned to the water’s edge in a dock fire. Two-and-a-half years later, on July 14, 1856, the cornerstone of the Sailors Snug Harbor was laid.