Business and Labor

The Clipper Ship That Built the Sailors Snug Harbor

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.

The Great Republic by James Buttersworth.

The Great Republic by James Buttersworth.

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.

Sailors Snug Harbor

Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes served as its first president. Forbes, a China trader and ship captain, got rich dealing in opium. He gave generously of his wealth, and his time, to charitable causes.

Robert Bennet Forbes

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:

The Ferry-house and ferrymen in 1908, connected with the Sailors Snug Harbor at Germantown.

The Ferry-house and ferrymen in 1908, connected with the Sailors Snug Harbor at Germantown.

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.

McKay Replies

Donald McKay replied,

Dear Sir:

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.

Great Republic

The Great Republic opened 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 again opened to inspection. The exhibition raised more than $4,000.

On Dec. 27, 1853, the Great Republic burned to the water’s edge in a dock fire. Insurers then declared her a total loss. People said McKay never got over the loss.

Connecticut sea captain Nathaniel Palmer then bought the Great Republic and rebuilt her.

Then on July 14, 1856, the cornerstone of the Sailors Snug Harbor was laid.

This story last updated in 2021.

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