When Sailors’ Snug Harbor opened its doors in 1833 it became America’s first home for retired seaman. It also became one of this country’s oldest secular philanthropic institutions. Dedicated to the welfare of “aged, decrepit, and worn out” mariners, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was established in 1801 from the will of Robert Richard Randall. The fortune for such an endeavor had been left to Randall by his father Thomas Randall, a Revolutionary War patriot who greeted George Washington on his entrance into New York City in 1783. Thomas Randall accumulated his vast wealth as a privateer during the French and Indian War and helped create the Marine Society of the City of New York in 1770. Thomas Randall became an influential “merchant captain” and entrepreneur and helped found the city’s Chamber of Commerce. He also bought farmland in lower Manhattan that would eventually become the economic backbone of Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
Robert Richard Randall’s will was rumored to have been written by Alexander Hamilton, a friend of the family; legend has it that Hamilton advised Randall that his family fortune had come from the sea and thus it should return to the sea in the formation of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Randall’s will named prominent New York City officeholders as its executors including the Mayor, the President of the Marine Society, and the Rector of Trinity Church. The original plan was to have the Snug Harbor built in Manhattan on the Randall farm but the executors bought 140 acres of land in New Brighton on Staten Island overlooking the Kill Van Kull and used monies from leasing the Manhattan real estate to create one of the wealthiest charitable institutions in the world. The Manhattan property today is what we would call Greenwich Village including Washington Square Park.
Legal battles kept Sailors’ Snug Harbor from opening for over 30 years but when it did the Trustees were quick to create a unique site that integrated beautifully designed buildings and grounds with culture, entertainment, and onsite health care. The Trustees hired renowned architect Minard Lafever to design the main houses on the property and he produced a group of Greek Revival buildings that have been called the most important on the East Coast. The institution eventually evolved into its own mini-township and included a working farm with livestock; a church; a hospital; a power plant; and a graveyard. There is no firm number but estimates conclude that over ten thousand retired mariners spent their final years there and were buried at Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
Residents of the institution were called “inmates” and by the end of the nineteenth-century they came from every facet of the merchant marine world and included veterans of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish American War. Requirements for admission to Sailors’ Snug Harbor were firm: ten years or more as a crew member of ocean-going ships and at least five years of them under the flag of the United States. The head administrator was called “Governor” and the position was an important one in New York City. Sailors’ Snug Harbor’s third Governor was Thomas Melville, youngest brother of the author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville. Thomas Melville has been called one of the most important leaders of Snug Harbor for modernizing the recordkeeping and expanding the population. Herman Melville and the Melville family spent many holidays at Sailors’ Snug Harbor during Thomas Melville’s tenure as Governor from 1867-1884.
Sailors’ Snug Harbor remained one of the most important charitable institutions in the United States until the years after WW II when the residential population began to decline. In 1965 the Snug Harbor site on Staten Island was declared a National Historic Landmark. The home for retired sailors moved to Sea Level, North Carolina in 1976. The work of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees continues to this day helping retired mariners in need and keeping faith with the original Latin motto of Snug Harbor: Portum Petimus Fesse (“Wearily, we seek a haven.”).