The Principle of Beneficence: The Early History of the International Ship Masters' Association, 1886-1917
By Jay C. Martin
Volume XI, Number 1
By mid-morning on October 13, 1909, the surviving crew of the wrecked steamer George Stone had nearly given up hope of rescue. Disabled by a severe Lake Erie gale and pushed upon Grubb's Reef near Point Pelee, the coal-laden propeller was quickly disintegrating beneath the feet of her beleaguered crew. Previous attempts to reach shore in a lifeboat had resulted in the death of the captain and five others when the boat capsized. Only two crewmen made it to shore alive. The remaining crewmen huddled on the stern of the vessel as the action of the wind and waves dismantled it.1
The crew's repeated attempts to attract the attention of passing vessels brought the propeller F.M. Osborne commanded by Fred A. Dupuie to their assistance. Although his vessel was without cargo and therefore more sensitive to the influence of wind and waves, Captain Dupuie recognized the immediate danger to the crew of the Stone. Depuie weathered the fierce gale and the shallow water, dropped both anchors to steady his vessel, and then drove the Osborne's bow against the sinking stern of the wrecked craft. His action allowed ten men and an "English bull terrier" to scramble to safety just as the Stone's stern disappeared in a fury of spray and splintered wood.2
Captain Dupuie landed the survivors in Detroit, thereby adding another tale of bravery and seamanship to the annals of maritime tradition. It is a tradition crowded with examples of mariners coming to the aid of others in times of emergency. As exciting as such incidents of shipwreck and rescue are, they exemplify a deeper tradition of mutual assistance that binds Great Lakes mariners to one another. This tradition evolved from the dual needed to provide for the families of shipwrecked sailors and to improve the professionalism of the sailors themselves. These needs led to the formation of a beneficial organization that later became known as the International Ship Masters' Association (ISMA). Many beneficial organizations evolved during the period of the industrial growth following the American Civil War. Such organizations arose primarily to protect the security of their members through financial aid and collective organization. This sort of arrangement was especially common in the transportation oriented occupations, where many saw a higher chance for mishaps than in other fields.3
In many of the beneficial organizations formed during the Gilded Age, a collective bargaining component eventually came to overshadow the beneficial element, thereby turning the mutual aid society into a labor union. The International Ship Masters' Association, a beneficial organization that did not undertake the responsibilities of collective bargaining, was an exception to this pattern. Beneficial organizations, otherwise known as "friendly societies," existed in England and Scotland since at least the sixteenth century. In his book Voluntary Action: A Report on Social Advance, Lord Beveridge defined the friendly society as a:
society of good fellowship for the purpose of raising from time to time, by voluntary contributions, a stock or fund for the
mutual relief and maintenance of all and every the members thereof, in old age, sickness, and infirmity, or for the relief of
widows and children of deceased members.4
During the nineteenth century, many occupational groups, originally formed as beneficial organizations, began to deviate from strict adherence to the objectives of inter-group mutual aid. Organizations developed to meet the needs of a particular occupational problem. The Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) was formed in the late 1860s, for example, to make provision for the financial security of the families of members disabled or killed while serving as engineers aboard Great Lakes steamers. While mutual aid remained the primary goal of MEBA for a time, by 1875 the organization began to represent the occupational group in contracts with employers. From this beginning, the organization eventually entered into a collective bargaining role that included negotiating wages, benefits, and working conditions with employers. By undertaking this activity, they assumed the adversarial role of a labor union.6
ISMA differed from MEBA in that it continued to serve the mutual aid function without entering the realm of collective bargaining and without assuming an adversarial posture toward the employers of its members. Instead, ISMA emphasized cooperation with shipowners, government, and those private agencies that controlled Lake commerce. The goal was to achieve safer navigation, while also providing security to members through mutual aid. Through this original mutual aid function, and its role in the professional growth and development of the Great Lakes ship masters, ISMA came to have a far-reaching impact upon the Great Lakes commercial shipping industry.
The dangerous nature of their trade had long been a concern for mariners and their families. Because the Great Lakes are landlocked, they have climatic and topographic features that make them especially hazardous to vessels navigating in their confined waters. The sailors themselves were most aware of these dangers. Since life and disability insurance did not exist, they initiated their own solutions.
The earliest known organized attempt to aid the families of deceased Great Lakes mariners was through the founding of a group known as the Ship-Masters' Relief Association. In 1852, this Oswego, New York, group used the proceeds of an annual ball to benefit the "widows and orphans of deceased sailors." Little information regarding this organization survives, but a handbill for its seventh annual ball in 1859 listed the names of seventy-seven ship masters and forty-two "honorary" members of the group. These honorary members were probably local merchants and vessel owners.7
Voluntary action also took place on the basis of a single incident. In 1886 the mate of the steamer Boston of the Western Transit Company died and left his widow so impoverished that she was unable even to meet all of his funeral expenses. Fellow vessel officers serving the same shipping line responded to her plight and collected $125.00 for the widow and her family at an informal gathering. From the circumstances of the Boston case, the idea for an organization of ship masters emerged in Buffalo. On March 2, 1886, fifteen vessel officers, most of them employed by the Western Transit Line, met and formed the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association to provide financial assistance to the relatives of deceased members.8 The organization made each member liable to pay a pre-set tariff, known as an "assessment," upon the death of any other member. In this way, the deceased member's beneficiaries received the sum of $100.00 to assist with funeral and other immediate expenses. By 1897 the organization had raised the death benefit to $1000.00.9
From the very beginning, ISMA was unique among other organizations of this type. The Buffalo ship masters had no intention of creating anything like a labor union, yet their collective efforts came about partially in opposition to rules being imposed upon them by their employers. The most repugnant of these rules required that ship masters attend a nautical school in order to improve their knowledge of the new navigational rules, equipment, and techniques occasioned by the rapid transition from wooden sailing vessels to steel, steampowered vessels during the late 1880s. The construction of the first iron bulk carrier Onoko in 1882 and the first steel bulk carrier Spokane in 1886, the same year that ship masters organized, heralded this boom. Since ship master had traditionally learned their trade by working their way up through the ranks, they viewed the formalized training requirement as casting as aspersion upon their competence. They resisted the effort, countering that they could best educate themselves by forming an association through which they could freely exchange new information.10 Hence, they formed the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association to meet the dual needs of mutual aid and improvement. In part the 1886 constitution stated that:
The efforts of this association shall be to improve and elevate the character of its members, create sociability and brotherly
feeling; render assistance to those of our calling in sickness or death; to assist in providing a fund in case of death, to be given
to the widow or orphan; to discuss matters of benefit to those in our calling, so as to make us more desirable to the owners of
the craft we navigate; in fact to bring us closer together for mutual benefit.11
Vessel owners and managers at first feared that the ship masters might follow the precedent set by the Lake Seaman's Union. After forming a labor union, they had become affiliated with the Knights of Labor. The owners and managers objected to their masters' participation in the Association until they learned that the organization planned to concentrate on improving professional skills and mutual security rather than upon collective bargaining. With this thorny issue peacefully put aside, the vessel owners even offered to assist with the payment of death benefits.12
This early reconciliation of corporate leadership with vessel captains was the critical factor in avoiding the development of strong discord between vessel men and their employers. The relative harmony resulted in a high degree of mutual respect and cooperation. For ship masters this meant safe working conditions and reasonable compensation, while for the ship owners it meant the most efficient and productive use of the time of their employees and the equipment in their charge.
The first officers of the Excelsior Marine Beneficial Association were William Dixon, president; Edward Condon, vice president; and John Dissette, secretary. Captain Martin Niland obtained a charter for the organization from the State of New York.13 Under the leadership of Alexander Clark, who became president on January 1, 1887, the organization made concentrated efforts to expand. For all practical purposes, Clark became the motive power behind the developing organization.14
Alexander Clark was a man of exceptional energy and ability who commanded great respect among his peers. Born at Orilla, Ontario, on May 4, 1844, the son of a saltwater mariner who moved to the Lakes, Clark moved with his parents to the United States while very young. He began his career on steamboats as lookout aboard the California in 1859. In 1872 he became master of the Western Transportation Company steamer Badger State and began to associate with the officers of that company's steamboats. These individuals became the founders and early members of the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association.15
In the winter of 1887 Alexander Clark, with assistance from F.D. Welcome, began an active campaign to organize branches of the Association in other port cities. Clark and Welcome were able to create some momentum toward achieving a broader based organization that winter and in February 1888 launched a second lodge of ship masters at Port Huron, Michigan.16
During his nine years as president of the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association and its successor, the Ship Masters' Association, Clark assisted in establishing no less than eight additional lodges. Chicago, Cleveland, and Bay City, Michigan, all created lodges in early 1890. Milwaukee and Detroit formed lodges a year later, and Toledo followed suit in 1892. The security offered by death benefits and the ability to improve one's professional knowledge and political clout through collective interaction with other professionals led to such rapid growth in membership that by January 1892 the Association claimed over 800 members.17
In 1891 the Association held its first annual convention in Buffalo. Each lodge elected two delegates for every twenty-five members and collectively these delegates helped to establish the Grand Lodge. The Grand Lodge governed the entire organization and coordinated activities such as the management of the endowment fund from which they paid death benefits and for which they collected contributions from Association members. Officers for the Grand Lodge won election from among the members of the local lodges. The Marine Review of January 15, 1891, commented that "the advantages of this organization are so numerous that no captain can afford to miss the opportunity of becoming a member."18
As the Association grew, it became apparent that its name no long fitted its activities. Consequently, the Association became the Ship Master's Association at the third Grand Lodge annual meeting held at Port Huron, Michigan, on January 17, 1893. The organization continued to grow, and by January 1894 it boasted a membership of 1,000 out of 1,086 masters of American steamers on the Great Lakes, an increase of 200 in just two years.19
The continued growth of the organization created the desire among the membership to form additional lodges. In 1909 lodges at Ogdensburg, New York, and at Algonac, Michigan opened. The sister cities of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, formed what became known as the Twin Ports lodge in 1911. The St. Clair, Michigan, lodge opened in 1912 and one at Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1940. The first Canadian lodge formed at Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1913.20
The creation of a lodge on Canadian soil led to the renaming of the organization. In 1916 it became the International Ship Masters' Association, indicating its changing composition. Annual Grand Lodge conventions alternated between American and Canadian cities to insure that the concerns of particular geographic areas received adequate attention. Later, new lodges joined from Green Bay, Wisconsin; Alpena, Michigan; Niagara (a combination of Buffalo and nearby Canadian lodges); and Muskegon, Michigan.21
Not everyone could become or remain a member of the Ship Masters' Association. Although relatively uncommon, the Association rejected a membership applicant undesirable for either professional or personal characteristics. On February 18, 1910, the Cleveland Lodge rejected the application of Mr. H.H. Gegline for membership after member placed more than five black balls in the ballot box in each of three balloting sessions.22 The Association also generally denounced unethical or illegal behavior, as illustrated in December 1891 when the Milwaukee Lodge expelled Captain Elmer W. Craine, the "defaulting and absconding master of the steamer W.H. Wolf."23
Founding of the Buffalo lodge of the Excelsior Marine Beneficial Association initiated the first prolonged effort of Great Lakes ship masters to take action in their common interest. The death benefit was the most immediate manifestation of this impulse, and continued to play a leading role in the early development of the organization.
The beneficial aspect of the Association's activities tended to remove some of the worry about the sudden death of members leaving dependents with no means of financial support. Now there was certainty that a designated beneficiary would receive a set sum of money paid out immediately upon proof of death.
As placed in operation by the first Grand Lodge in 1891, each Association member paid a $2.00 assessment upon the death of any other member. This amounted to $1,000 for presentation to the beneficiaries of the deceased member through the Grand Lodge secretary. In case of total disability, a member received one half of this monetary sum, the remaining $500 being payable to his beneficiaries upon his death.24
Through the early records of the Cleveland Lodge, it is possible to gain some idea of the extent to which ISMA influenced both the individual lives of Great Lakes mariners and the commerical shipping industry. For example, it is apparent that the provision of death benefits sometimes went beyond the bounds of the Association itself. In the general meeting of the Cleveland Lodge on January 14, 1909, a discussion took place concerning the unpaid claim of Mrs. J. W. Isbester following the accidental death of her husband the previous spring. The minutes of the meeting indicate that "the Aetna Accident Insurance Co. was not treating Mrs. J. W. Isbester fair" regarding the death of her husband in Buffalo. The Lodge decided that "our Delegate to the Grand Lodge present the matter to the Grand Lodge and urge them to use their best endeavor to see that the claim of Mrs. J. W. Isbester is satisfactorily settled."25 The Grand Lodge did indeed address the issue. The adopted a resolution that not only urged Aetna to pay the $3,000 death benefit to the deceased man's widow but also called for the use of Association lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to pressure governmental sources for action.26
Even before this, the Lodge provided assistance to sick and disabled members through a standing committee set up for that purpose.27 As early as 1906 this committee regularly visited sick members. The case of Captain Donald Buie provides an example of this work.
In March of 1910 the committee received word that Captain Donald Buie was destitute and living at the government Marine Hospital. A special committee investigated the situation and one week later reported that this was indeed the case. The committee proceeded to collect "$24.00 to purchase clothes and other necessities."28 The Cleveland Lodge monitored the needs of this individual and on February 3, 1911, voted $12 to $15 "to procure a suit of clothes and any other necessary articles for the comfort of Donald Buie now in the Marine Hospital."29 Additionally, on March 7, 1913, the Lodge assisted its less fortunate members by voting to pay the dues and assessments of all disabled brothers.30
Although the Association did look after the personal affairs of its members, its most lasting contributions to the Great Lakes shipping industry came through its emphasis on professionalism. In 1891 the Association opened its own navigation school in Buffalo with Captain J. M. Todd as instructor. They later added branches at Detroit, Milwaukee, and Toledo.31 For a time the Association schools apparently fulfilled the needs of the Great Lakes community since the Lake Carriers Association, the primary association of American Great Lakes steamship owners, did not open a school of this kind in the 1880s as planned. Eventually the growing expense of operating these schools, and the need for standardization of navigational methods in light of rapidly changing technology, led to the creation of a Lake Carriers school at Cleveland in 1916. The Association schools subsequently ceased operation.32
Lodge meetings helped to improve professional knowledge on the local level. Demonstrations of new equipment, lectures on topics of interest, and discussions about new piloting rules helped to keep members up to date on new techniques in navigation. Advances in navigational and communications equipment during the early years of the Association made it expedient for the lodges to invite authorities to speak on these topics. For example, the Cleveland Lodge hosted a talk by Mr. Donaldson of the De Forest Wireless Telephone Company on January 3, 1908, and a pelorus (an instrument used to take bearings and celestial azimuths) demonstration on February 21, 1908.33 First aid became an issue in 1910 and the Cleveland Lodge set up a series of first aid classes for ship masters in cooperation with the local Red Cross.34
The issue of federal and state licensing of ship masters and pilots was a major professional problem in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The federal Steamboat Inspection Service was responsible for the inspection of both steamboats and the men who operated them. An infraction of any rules regarding the operation of a steamboat brought the offending party before the local inspectors for review, with suspension from duty or loss of license a possible outcome.
Given the importance of the position held by the inspectors, it is not surprising that the Cleveland Lodge formed a committee in 1911 to defend "any Bro. who may consider himself unjustly dealt with by the U.S. Local Inspectors."35 That same year they appointed a committee to "prepare a Resolution to present to Congress to pass a law to impose a suitable fine on Licensed Officers for slight infraction of Pilot Rules instead of the present Method of suspending their Licences and thereby causing them to lose their positions."36
When direct pressure on the governmental agency involved was unsuccessful, the lodge turned to other political means. In late 1911 the lodge asked for and received support for its efforts from an influential source. The chairman of the legislative committee reported that "congressman P. Howland is willing to introduce any bill that the committee may submit" regarding penalties for infractions against the piloting rules.37 The lodge continued to work with the Congressman regarding this legislation and kept him apprised of their opinion regarding legislation of a marine nature.38
The need for a clear voice and active presence in Washington, D.C., eventually led the Association to open an office there. The Grand Lodge held its annual convention in Washington periodically to remind legislators of the ISMA's importance in providing efficient and relatively inexpensive waterborne transportation of iron ore, coal, and limestone, commodities crucial to the health of the American steel and manufacturing industries. The critical part that Great Lakes shipping played in the transportation of iron ore from the mines of the Lake Superior region to the steel-making centers of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania made the concerns of ship masters carry considerable weight in Washington. The Ship Masters maintained their influence through active communication with officials of the United States Lighthouse Service, River and Harbor Commission, Steamboat Inspection Service, and Hydrographic Office, among others.39Because of their influence with these government agencies, as well as the various associations of vessel owners and significant collective bargaining units such as MEBA, the Ship Masters influenced the handling of critical issues relating to the safe and efficient operation of Great Lakes vessels.40
The professionalism of ISMA members led to an increased awareness of, and a more organized approach to, the improvement of Great Lakes navigation. Campaigns to change specific navigational features often began in the local lodges. Proposals for change circulated among the lodges before the lodge delegates voted on them at the annual Grand Lodge meeting. The Association then sent the resolutions passed by the Grand Lodge on to the appropriate governmental or business agencies.
Through its efforts to improve both existing aids to navigation and the knowledge of mariners regarding the existence and use of these aids, ISMA had a marked influence on the development of Great Lakes shipping. They brought about the testing and installation of new and better navigational aids and equipment, encouraged practical solutions to navigational problems, promoted tests and improvements for innovations in the steel shipbuilding industry, and led a growing concern for the safety of Great Lakes mariners.
Association members cooperated with significant marine groups like the Lake Carriers Association to increase the level of safety involved in operating commercial vessels. In some cases Association lodges asked the Lake Carriers Association for assistance in attaining their objectives. One such request came from a committee formed by the Cleveland lodge in March 1909 to "draw up Resolutions to present to the Advisory Committee of the Lake Carriers Association urging them to use their best efforts to have a manner of steering uniform on all Boats."41
Although to a landsman it might seem that you simply turn the wheel to steer a boat, it was not so simple in actual practice. Great Lakes steamers used two particular types of steam-assisted steering gear to make it possible for a single wheelsman to steer the vessel from the pilot house located at the extreme forward end of the vessel. Known as "straight chains" and "cross chains", these two types involved an opposite use of the steering wheel when turning. With "straight chains" the wheelsman turned the wheel in the direction that the vessel was to turn, while with "cross chains" he turned opposite to the direction desired. Since all vessels had their own peculiarities of steering because of the differences in size, shape, and resistance to wind and water, both the officer on watch and the wheelsman needed to be intimately aware of the particular physical and mechanical characteristics of their vessel in a wide variety of weather conditions.
A crewman developed a sense of the characteristics of a boat over time. In those instances where he transferred to another vessel, he naturally had to readjust. When considering in addition the differences in steering gear regarding reliability, response time, and various other factors, it became apparent that Great Lakes maritime practices needed some standardization in order to reduce accidents. Through prolonged lobbying of the Lake Carriers Association and the individual steamship companies, ship masters eventually achieved a high degree of standardization in this area.42
Another example of this cooperation occurred on March 22, 1906, when the Cleveland Lodge asked the Lake Carriers for assistance in obtaining a lighthouse on White Shoals near the north end of Lake Michigan. Their cooperative effort was successful, with the lighthouse entering service in 1910.43 Conversely, the Lakes Carriers later asked for and received support from the Ship Masters for a petition to the Canadian Government for the improvement of the Fighting Island Channel in the Detroit River.44 In both cases ISMA used its professional and political influence to obtain support for navigational aids that reduced the number of mishaps at critical spots, thereby diminishing the loss of life and property that might otherwise have occurred in those areas.
During the first Grand Lodge meeting in January 1891 there was an even more telling demonstration of the cooperation between the Association and the Lake Carriers Association in regard to the special characteristics of Great Lakes navigation:
President Caldwell, of the Lake Carrier's Association, laid before the convention a remonstrance against the line carrying
projectile law, which will apply to all lake steamers, passenger and freight, after the first of February unless congress in the
meantime should take action to the contrary. Three copies of the remonstrance were signed by each of the delegates, and
at once forwarded to Washington. This protest from practical men should have weight. While the law in question may be
well enough for the ocean, it is altogether unnecessary on the lakes. It is hoped that congress will exempt the lakes from
The article went on to state that the ship masters "intend to take up one or two important subjects each winter, and concentrate their efforts thereon, rather than work in a scattered way."46 This practice remains constant today.
Through its activities the International Ship Masters Association made the careers of Great Lakes mariners much safer and more satisfying. It also continued support and aid to mariners and their families following the death or disablement of Association members. In this way the members of the profession were able to provide some stability in a historically insecure occupation.
Additionally, the educational function of the Association helped to raise their occupation to a more professional level and offered the opportunity for ship masters to achieve a higher level of technical expertise in an age of rapidly changing technological development. Newer, larger vessels brought a need for men who were equal to the task of sailing them. The educational component of the Association helped to achieve this end by creating both formal and informal opportunities for the free and worthwhile exchange of technical information. Finally, the Association's close cooperation with the Lake Carriers Association, United States and Canadian Coast Guards and predecessor organizations, and many other governmental and private agencies led to the continual improvement of Great Lakes navigation. They helped to establish better licensing procedures and standards, to encourage more and better aids to navigation, to develop more effective safety standards, and to standardize important shipboard gear.
By 1917 the organization matured as a mutual beneficial association that not only emphasized constructive efforts to improve Great Lakes commerce but had also begun to recognize the basic duality of power in waters divided by two nations. The induction of a Canadian lodge in 1913 and the subsequent change of the name of the organization to reflect its international makeup signalled the beginning of an effort to unite Canadian and American ship masters in a cooperative effort to better manage the shared freshwater seas.
In essence, ISMA provided the apparatus through which Great Lakes mariners could make their voices heard and respected in a time of increasing animosity among the forces of labor, business, and government. At the same time, the organization provided support and encouragement for those members who fell victim to the pitfalls of a dangerous occupation.
The editor of the Marine Review described the essence of ISMA in 1892:
No other organization save the Cleveland Vessel Owners' and Lake Carriers' associations have done more towards the
improvement of lake navigation than this organization. . .While the association was formed on the principal of beneficence
it has extended its influence and usefulness into a wider scope.47
That tradition of dedication to the improvement of safe and efficient Great Lakes commerce continues today as the Association enters its one hundred fifth year of existence.
1Detroit Free Press, October 14, 1909; Duluth Evening Herald, October, 14, 1909; Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Ship Masters Association, 1910. ISMA Collection, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Perrysburg, Ohio, 28; hereafter referred to as ISMA Collection.
28"Meeting Minutes," Cleveland Lodge, ISMA Collection, March 4-10, 1910.
40Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes Vol. I, 498-499; Journal of Proceedings of the National Marine Engineers Benevolent Association, 46th Annual Convention (Washington: National Marine Engineers Benevolent Association, 1921), 777-778.
41"Meeting Minutes," Cleveland Lodge, ISMA Collection, March 5, 1909. The Lake Carriers Association is the single most important entity in commercial shipping on the American side of the Great Lakes. The Association consists of representatives of the various commercial shipping companies and therefore has tended to control many aspects of the shipping industry over the last century
42Lake Carriers Association Scrapbook #1, Lake Carriers Association Collection, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Perrysburg, OH, 1, 31, 80: Frank Ward Sterling, Marine Engineer's Handbook (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1920), 1206-1223.
43"Meeting Minutes," Cleveland Lodge, ISMA Collection, March 22, 1906; The White Shoals lighthouse entered service in 1910, replacing lightship service that had been maintained since October 1891. William Flint, Lightships of the United States Government: Reference Notes. (Washington: United States Coast Guard, 1989), Index 109.
45. The projectile law required all American merchant vessels to obtain and carry aboard, at the expense of the owners of the vessel, a small cannon and associated apparatus needed to fire a lifeline to another vessel in time of distress. Great Lakes mariners felt that this law was not applicable to Lakes conditions because of the difficulty and danger of maneuvering a vessel close to a grounded vessel in order to provide aid. It was felt that land-based Life Saving Crews could better provide this service. Marine Review, January 8, 1891, 5.