Excerpt from Joseph William’s Four Years Before the Mast: A History of New York’s Maritime College
The State University of New York Maritime College began as the New York Nautical School when in 1874 the federal government, in order to reinvigorate the American shipping industry, authorized the Navy to lend ships to individual states to set up specialized training schools for the merchant marine. New York became the first state to take advantage of the law, and on January 11, 1875, the first group of 26 boys enrolled in the Nautical School.
The school, which was based entirely aboard the square-rigged sloop-of-war St. Mary’s, was rated as a New York City public grammar school. Alongside lessons in history, writing, and mathematics, students messed over hard-tack while learning how to “pass a nipper” and “choke a luff.” This combination of a solid general education mixed with traditional training became a hallmark of the school, even as it departed for its first annual cruise in 1875.
The Nautical School, despite being poorly funded and forced to continually defend itself against efforts to shut it down, managed to thrive. By the turn of the 20th century it had produced a steady stream of sea officers who would go on to become leaders in their vocation. However, by the early 20th century, the St. Mary’s had become antiquated and was replaced by the Newport, a sail-steam hybrid, which in the following decades was replaced by the first of a long line of ships named the Empire State. Coinciding with this modernization was a professionalization of the curriculum, which was enhanced in 1913 due to a takeover by New York State that expanded enrollment and bolstered funding. The school now had become the preeminent institution of its kind, which was reflected in a change of name; first to the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1929, later to the New York State Maritime Academy in 1941.
By the 1920s, it became clear that in order for the school to maintain its place as the finest school for the merchant marine in the country, it needed to have a permanent shore base. The institution lobbied to obtain the property at Fort Schuyler on the Throggs Neck Peninsula from the U.S. Army. The political brouhaha that followed involved many prominent politicians of the day as Robert Moses had wanted to convert the property into a public park. However, due to the support of leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman; and lobbying by alumni and maritime interests, the school won the property after a hard fought battle.
Fort Schuyler was constructed between 1833 and 1856. It was part of the “Third System” of coastal defense that was developed in the wake of the War of 1812. By the early 20th century, the Fort was obsolete for use as a port defense, and fell into disrepair. The school, through the support of Depression-Era public works grants, reconditioned the Fort for use as a proper home for the school. On May 21, 1938, the rebuilt Fort Schuyler was officially dedicated for the institution’s use.
World War II brought further changes to the school including an accelerated training course to support the war effort. After the war, the college was authorized in 1946 to offer bachelor degrees in Marine Science. In 1948, the school joined the State University of New York (SUNY) as a founding member. The next year, the school changed its name to its current form: The State University of New York Maritime College. The head of the school, which until then held the title of superintendent, became president.
With the support of SUNY, Maritime College in the following decades expanded the campus through building projects and gradually expanded its list of majors to include Marine Engineering, Marine Environmental Science, and International Transportation and Trade. The college also had developed graduate programs in Global Business and Trade and Maritime and Naval Studies.
Notably, in 1974, the school became the first maritime college in the country to graduate a woman. In 2000, the program expanded to regularly include students beyond its traditional licensing program. By 2014, the college had earned its place as America’s oldest and finest educational institution for the merchant marine and related programs of studies.