Steering a Course: A Short History of The Pennsylvania Nautical School and Pennsylvania Maritime Academy

Cadets aboard the schoolship Saratoga while docked at the Bainbridge St. Wharf, Philadelphia, circa 1900

Cadets aboard the Saratoga»
(PNS Collection: Box 9, folder 7)

An Act of Congress approved June 20, 1874 authorized the Secretary of the Navy to provide a suitable ship and assign a superintendent and officers for the purpose of training young men for the merchant marine at a nautical school at each of any of the ports of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk and San Francisco. In 1889 the Pennsylvania Assembly established a nautical school in the port of Philadelphia aboard the 47 year-old 882 ton sailing ship USS Saratoga. The admission requirements to the school were for boys 16 and 19 years of age whose parents were citizens and residents of the state of Pennsylvania. Additional requirements included an aptitude or inclination for a sea life, a sound constitution, and for candidates to be of good moral character. Students were expected to be able to spell with a "fair degree of accuracy" and read "with tolerable correctness and ease." Students were required to furnish their own outfit, but "a mattress, a pair of blankets, hammock, mess utensils and clothes bag" were supplied free of charge.

The course of training was approximately two years and was dependent upon the capability of the ships to complete their training cruises within the specified time. Cruises were an important element in the training of cadets and were no doubt a draw for many young men eager to go to sea. Training cruises included a crossing of the Atlantic, with visits to several ports in Europe, South America, and the West Indies. Students were instructed in "boxing the compass, knotting and splicing, the strapping of blocks, reefing and furling, heaving the lead, using the palm and needle, the handling of boats under oars and sails, swimming, etc."

Detail of an early school prospectus listing admission requirements and clothing needs.

Early school prospectus»
(PNS Collection: Box 4, folder 6)

W. R. Edwards, describing his first days aboard ship, wrote:

"Tues 14 2PM We had our watches changed Sun and I have the 8 to 12 which is a honey & I feel great. This is a fact, I was not seasick & I think by now I have my sea legs. You can't really tell till we hit a storm. It's no cinch trying to drink jamoke when this thing is canted over at 25° or do anything else ..."

The schoolship Saratoga operated as a nautical training school from 1890 to 1908 when the 65 year-old vessel was replaced by the 32 year-old sail and steam-powered 1,400 ton USS Adams. The schoolships Saratoga and Adams were operated jointly by the State of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia.

The schoolship Adams ceased operations on February 16, 1914 when the Navy withheld its appropriation and withdrew the ship on account of local disagreement and the legislature's failure to appropriate funds.

The provisions of an Act of Assembly approved July 8, 1919 reactivated the nautical school. Now under the administration of the Board of the Commissioners of Navigation for the Delaware River and Its Navigable Tributaries, the school was renamed the Pennsylvania State Nautical School. Replacing the USS Adams was the 23 year old 1,000 ton steam-powered schooner USS Annapolis, assigned by the Navy in 1920 and continued in service for 20 years. New requirements for admission required that all applicants be high school graduates from 17 to 20 years of age. The school now offered courses in two separate divisions, deck or engineering. Students were instructed in dead reckoning, methods of finding latitude and longitude, the duties of an officer, theoretical and practical marine engineering, and in handling boats under oars and sail.

In 1940 the administration of the school was transferred to the United States Maritime Commission and renamed the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy, but this administration was discontinued in March 1942 and the cadets and officers were transferred to the recently established U. S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. to complete their training. The schoolship Annapolis was replaced in 1941 by the 33 year-old steam powered former Coast Guard cutter Seneca.

A page from cadet Anthony 'Ants' Charlton's (Class of 1941) scrapbook featuring fellow classmates. Bill Boyd was a past president of the Pennsylvania Schoolship Association.

William Boyd, Class of 1941»
(PNS Collection: Volume 2)

The state of Pennsylvania resumed administration of the school in September 1942 when the schoolship Seneca was returned to the state and renamed Keystone State. A shore base was established up river at Morrisville, Pennsylvania in 1945 to augment the shipboard training facilities. The course of instruction at this time included classes in theoretical and practical seamanship, nautical astronomy and navigation, compass compensation, stowage of cargo, elementary naval architecture, rules of the road, and navigation laws for the Deck Division. For the Engineering Division classes included steam engineering, mechanical drawing, internal combustion engines, electricity, and machine shop practice. Both divisions received instruction on ship drills and first aid and hygiene. The schoolship Keystone State was replaced in 1946 by the USS Selinur and renamed Keystone State II. With newer facilities there were plans for increasing the training program to a three-year course, with two practice cruises and a minimum of five hundred hours per year of classroom time. However, charges of poor management coupled with dwindling support in the State government, and a decline in applicants, resulted in the closing of the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy, on June 20, 1947.

In its 58 year existence the Pennsylvania Nautical School graduated nearly 2000 cadets. A number of cadets went on to work in the Merchant Marine, while others served in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. Others found work in non-maritime professions.

In 1955 a group of school alumni established the Pennsylvania Schoolship Association. Its stated mission is "to provide a means for the maintenance of contacts with esteemed shipmates; to promote a spirit of enduring friendship between alumni; to preserve the venerable traditions and lore of the Pennsylvania’s Schoolships, and to further the interests of the American Merchant Marine." To that end the Association holds annual musters and memorial services, and has organized field trips in the past. The Association’s newsletter, The Lookout, features profiles and updates on alumni, reports of association meetings, as well as articles related to the merchant marine in general.

This 'Short History' has been compiled as part the Independence Seaport Museum's Schoolship Legacy Project. Learn more about the Schoolship Legacy Project here. »

Additional Resources

• View the Guide to the Pennsylvania Nautical School materials housed at Independence Seaport Museum »
• View an online guide to the official records of the Pennsylvania Nautical School and Pennsylvania Maritime Academy housed at the Pennsylvania State Archive. »
• View a page with information and images related to George R. Conley, Class of 1938, at Footnote, an online resource for genealogists and historians. »