by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist
It's the dead of winter, and the wind that lashes against the downtown docks is bitter cold. The planks of the moored boats in harbor moan with the coming and going of the icy chop. Some of the boats have been there for months-entire families huddled on deck around a meager fire. Others have just arrived with men hauling freight onto waiting horse-drawn carts to be delivered to some destination on the island. Nearby under a billowing white tent, a preacher in a white robe leads a hymn chorus in song. His congregation is truly a motley assortment: seafarers from every nation imaginable: raggedy children with their parents who have come down from the houseboats, and a few members of the Board dressed in fine suits, looking on approvingly at the entire scene.
Such is what one would have encountered on a wintry Sunday at Coenties Slip during the second half of the 19th century. While SCI's history spans across the globe and over three centuries, I've always found it fascinating that so much of the Institute's early story can be told by zooming in on a single strip of land in downtown Manhattan. The area between what is now Pearl Street and Hanover Square was once the home of Conraet Teneyck, an immigrant from Amsterdam who came to New York City in 1651 and settled on what was then Dock Street with his wife, Antje. The area soon became known as "Coenties" Slip, a rough combination of the couple's first names.
During the 1850s, Coenties Slip was developing into a hub for New York's growing shipping industry. Seamen of all kinds as well as truckmen and longshoremen became constant fixtures of the neighborhood, loading and unloading shipments during the day and looking for entertainment after hours at one (or several) of the many saloons and grog shops that lined the Slip. The recently established Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen (a predecessor of SCI) was quick to identify the need for a missionary presence at Coenties Slip, appointing the Reverend E. F. Remington its first Missionary at Large in 1852. Remington held services on the pier or on the decks of barges, preaching to seamen who would gather there as well as families who lived in the neighborhood or on the docked boats themselves. As Remington describes them in his 1852 Annual Report, the congregation at Coenties Slip was made up of the "tens of thousands who wander like sheep without a shepherd, neglecting year after year the house of prayer."
Remington's flock grew quickly, and he soon found himself leading services beneath a donated tent (see photograph below) to audiences that swelled into the hundreds. Despite being exposed year-round to the elements and rough conditions of the neighborhood, it is clear that Remington found much reward in his daily work at the docks. In his 1857 Annual Report, he writes:
"That he [the Missionary] has suffered much from rheumatism, neuralgia [pain of the nerves], sore throat and other diseases, is true. That he has been uncomfortable, when preaching in mid-winter, with his hands and feet benumbed with cold, or when standing on hot paving stones, the thermometer 98 in the shade, is also true. That there has been joy on earth, and, as he believes, joy in heaven over the sinner that repenteth; that hundreds have attended these services who were never within the walls of an earthly sanctuary; that thousands have listened to the words of eternal life, who have been deprived of the ‘means of grace' for many long years, are also among the verities of the past, the results of which eternity alone can unfold."
Remington served as Missionary at Large until June of 1858, when the Reverend Robert J. Walker took over the position. In his 1859 Annual Report, Walker eloquently states the unique challenge that preaching to a congregation of people who spent their lives on the water presented:
"A few familiar countenances are recognized; but the large majority of the hearers are total strangers. Those who were with us on the last Lord's Day are now far away at sea, or pursuing their course along the rivers and canals of the interior."
Those who attended the open-air services were invited to the "Room for Books" to receive free books and tracts. The Room for Books was also where the Visitor's Books were kept. The books contain entries from Board members who had attended the morning's service or comments from the Missionary himself. A typical entry reads as follows:
"Weather damp and uncomfortable. Congregation small but very devout and serious. One seaman was much affected by the sermon and shed many tears. 12 persons came to the room for books: 4 Bibles, 7 Prayer Books, 2 John Newtons, 1 Pilgrim's Progress, and several tracts, pamphlets and religious papers were distributed amongst them. - R. J. Walker" (Sunday Afternoon, February 20, 1859).
The Reverend Isaac Maguire took over as Missionary at Large in 1872. Maguire, who by his own admission entered the post "with much fear and trembling," soon established himself as a reputable force amongst the seafaring men to whom he would deliver services on Sunday. In his first Annual Report of 1873, he writes: "It is a most interesting spectacle to see over a hundred of these hard-working, weather-beaten men sit down under cover of a barge or on the edge of the wharf attentively listening to the Word of God." By 1878, Maguire had become a fixture at the Slip, holding services twice a day weekly. In his Annual Report of that year he commented that the open-air services attracted men, women and children who were "not prepared to make the appearance in dress" that would be necessary to attend a "normal" church service somewhere inland. Thus SCI's early Chaplains brought the word of God to those who were denied it, seeking out the excluded and exploited and offering their services to them on their terms.
The Reading Room offered free reading material, both religious and secular, to seamen, as well as a place to have a cup of coffee or tea. It was Rev. Maguire who first suggested that there be a coffee house established in Coenties Slip to offer an alternative to the neighborhood's saloons.
SCI shut down the Coenties Slip Station in 1906, but the Institute wouldn't be away for long. In my next article, we'll take a look at the Rev. Archibald Mansfield's "Dream Hotel" for seamen at 25 South Street.