Regional Sea Stories - John A. Merritt....

A Story of Gulf Coast Maritime History

By The John Appleyard Agency, Inc.

The following story appeared as chapter VII in the book 1887 - Pensacola; The Lumbering Era which was published in 1987 by The Gannett Co., Inc., Pensacola News Journal and The John Appleyard Agency, Inc. This Chapter is presented by permission of Mr. Appleyard who has produced many historical books and articles concerning maritime Pensacola.


John A. Merritt...
The Waterfront and Allied Services

If the 1870s saw the management and physical handling of cargoes conducted informally, the next decade saw this situation change dramatically. Specialization developed in virtually every segment of shipping, and as this occurred the lumbermen and mill operators, for the most part, came to rely on new firms and organizations which were coming into being all along the waterfront. One of the more obvious ones arose in the profession of the steamship agent, where John A. Merritt & Company was the most durable example. During the mid-years of the Civil War, with his father a federal prisoner in Fort Pickens, John A. Merritt was born in Columbus, Georgia, where his mother and other children had fled. After the war, the family lived temporarily in New Orleans, then returned to Pensacola in 1869.

In 1880, young Merritt's father found him a situation reading law, but the two didn't mix well. For a time, the teenager worked as a lumber tally clerk in the bay, then as a deckhand on a tug, the JUNO, owned by his father and others. Later he worked as a lumber inspector, and for the George W. Wright Lumber Company.

At Right, John A. Merritt, steamship
agency founder, civic leader.

Following the elder Merritt's death in 1893, young John opened an office as ship broker and steamship agent. The ship broker was a connecting I ink between the exporter and the ship and ship owner. His duties began when he identified the needs of a shipper; then he would go into the market to locate a ship to lift it; or, in reverse, when his client was the vessel, he would seek freight for her to carry. In either case, the broker brought the interested parties together, negotiated terms, cared for paper work and finally collected a brokerage fee for services rendered.

It wasn't a simple job, and with the port averaging two ships arrivals every day of the year, brokers and agents were busy people. In a statement made in the 1930s, Merritt recalled his activities this way:

"I used to visit every merchant in the port practically every day. I'd discuss requirements, then cable our agents in London that we wanted such-and-such under such-and-such a condition. They would go into the market and locate- an owner who had a vessel that fitted the position, then cable back an offer."

"It usually took a lot of cabling before the charter or contract was consumated. The reason for handling it in this manner was that in those days, a very large majority of tonnage was foreign-owned, and London was the center of the chartering market. If the business was coastwise, it was usually handled through New York."

At left, a bark prepares to take on timber from the bay, flanked by similar vessels.
At right, R. H. Turner, Jr., partner in John A. Merritt & Company.

In 1892, Merritt married the eldest daughter of businessman R. H. Turner; eight years later he took his brother-in-law, Richard H. Turner, Jr., into the business.

In the late 19th century, most ships were chartered for complete cargoes, for one or more ports loading and discharging; cargo was usually furnished by one shipper, and total cargoes seldom exceeded 100 tons. Early in the new century, Merritt & Turner founded the Pensacola Supply Company, with Manuel Palmes as a third partner, to handle export and bunker coal, which by then was beginning to rival lumber as the port's chief interest. A working arrangement for coal was developed with Lambert Brothers, LTD, of London, as European agents.

John A. Merritt's beginnings were typical of organizations serving the water- front. Parallel with the steamship agencies, stevedoring firms were organized to process the actual loading and unloading of cargoes. Workmen who took the title of longshoremen banded into their own organizations, The Stevedores and Baymen's Associations (one for white workmen, a second for black). Stevedoring firms were licensed by The Port Wardens of Pensacola, who in this period included L. M. Merritt, president; Dennis Burns, secretary; Madison Langley, John Mooney and Jacob Krygins. Stevedores were required to fix a bond before operating. (Note from the records of the Port Wardens, July 26,1887: "Marion A. Quina, having examined and fixed his bond - was granted a license as 'C' Stevedore.") By the mid-1880s stevedores had formed a contractual relationship which established wages, benefits and working conditions for longshoremen, had set crew sizes and developed different work arrangements for activities aboard schooners and steamships, and between vessels at work in the bay and those loaded through the hull at the waterline, or alongside docks.

The revised contract protecting longshoremen (reprinted in 1902 but taken largely from provisions set down considerably earlier) called for these specifics:

  • To become a member of the Association, a workman paid a $25 fee, plus dues of fifty cents per month plus a $1 assessment upon the death of a fellow member.

  • From these dues and fees the membership built a treasury which paid a member $7 per week during period of illness or injury. If he died, the workman's family received a $75 death benefit, including payment for a headstone.

  • Work specifics were spelled out according to job titles. A standard crew loading sawn lumber onto a schooner included a foreman, four holders, two swing men, two hookers-on and three winchmen (winches were operated by hand).

  • Crewsworked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., and were required onboard by 6:50 a.m., when the Association flag was raised on the ship. Wages were set as follows: Foreman, $8 a day; holders and swingers, $6; winchmen and hookers-on, $4. In addition, the contract specified that "...all contracting stevedores shall be com- pelled to furnish members of the Association with good ham and beefsteak, potatoes, good bread and butter, coffee, all cooked in good fashion on board ship, and with cups, knives and forks, plum pudding and good Pensacola water."

  • A suitable cabin aboard ship was to be provided for one-hour mealtimes: breakfast (about 8:30) and lunch 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. During the lunch period crew members were permitted to perform some light work duties "if time permitted."

  • A crew of longshoremen aboard a schooner was set at eleven men plus a foreman; seventeen men were required for the standard steam vessel. To complete loading a cargo, crew members were permitted to work beyond five o'clock (at $1 an hour), but the contract specified that work must cease at dark.

  • At the end of each week the Stevedore was required to meet his crews (in a public place) and pay them their week's wages - in cash.

  • Work was performed six days a week, with longshoremen scheduled on a casual basis much as the practice continued into the twentieth century. When

A group of longshoremen pose
on one of their rare holidays.
Work in the bay was long
and difficult. But in the 19th
century careful rules governed

there was work, they were called; however, the contract and Association rules were very harsh on any foreman or longshoreman who tried to juggle work simultaneously on two vessels while fellow Association members went idle.

  • Four days each year were recognized as non-work, unpaid holidays: Good Friday, Fourth of July, August 18 and Christmas Day.
  • The crew's work was hard and hazardous. Accidents were frequent, and with only one Victorian hospital and a handful of physicians, results of ship-board accidents were often brutal, hence the early concern for the welfare of the sick and the dead.

    Loading ships was exhausting, dangerous labor, and required considerable time. In 1882, the port serviced 662 vessels, most of them receiving 100 tons or less. A vessel's loading pattern depended upon its charter and local arrangements, as well as the willingness of the shipper to spend money for berthing at a pier. When a vessel appeared off the bar and was sighted by a lookout, it was met by one of several steam-driven pilot boats, owned and operated by members of the Harbor Pilots Association. If the ship had prior commitments, it was taken to one

    All of Pensacola clelbrated when the U.S.S. CONSTITUTION
    paid a visit here

    of the sixteen wharves and tied up, with the longshoremen being called for the following day if cargo was ready. Those vessels loading logs had unique trapdoors cut into the hull above the water line. Longshoremen worked from small boats to maneuver the heavy timbers into position, then forced them through the hull opening into the hold, where they were lashed in groups to bolts in the beams.

    Those loading lumber away from the docks were approached by small lighters, and the open-water longshoremen worked with part of the barge crew. Others performed above decks and in the holds, transferring sawn wood by hand-operated winches.

    Time in port for the crews of these vessels was often long. Provisioning took several days, and was done by chandlers working from warehouses grouped three or four blocks north of the docks.. The greatest delay was in preparation and transfer of cargo to the loading site, and the work of transferring 100 tons of lumber onto a ship, using only hand-power, was slow. Paperwork was laborious too, for all records were prepared in longhand, including the neatly transcribed logs maintained by steamship agents, and later, by railroad officials.

    Equally important in the movement of cargo were the harbor pilots necessary in Pensacola Bay because of the relatively narrow channel which in the 1880S and 90s held a draft of less than twenty-five feet in places.The eleven-mile run from the sea buoy to the major piers was treacherous in wild weather, and frequently more than one pilot was assigned to a vessel by the pilots organization.

    By 1886, the Harbor Pilots Association was formally established, with a constitution and by-laws,and the document of that date listed forty-one active members.

    Like the longshoremen, the Pilots were both a business enterprise and a benevolent society. All fees were routed through an elected Agent, who was obligated by charter to set aside one per cent of the gross to meet sickness, injury and

    A variety of powered craft carried workmen to their ship assignments; Pilots
    had similar craft on which they met vessels at the harbour mouth.

    burial costs of members. As in the case of the longshoremen, $75 was the maximum benefit paid.

    For meeting incoming vessels the pilots used their own power boats, owned jointly by several members. By-laws specified that twenty-eight per cent of the gross receipts should be paid to owners of the boats for their operation, maintenance and profit, and that another small sum be budgeted for the Caterer to the Mess, who was to provide food for pilots and pilot boat crews at work.

    The day was divided into three watches, with a Captain of the Watch appointed for each shift. His duties included assigning pilots to ship calls, including situations where ships had to be moved within the port, with assistance of a tug.

    For many years the Association maintained a headquarters and dock on the grounds of the Navy yard. Members on watch slept or remained here; a watch tower helped a lookout to sight incoming vessels and to alert the pilot and his boat crew. (The headquarters fell into disuse when radio contact became state-of-the- art, and the old headquarters was razed in the 1970s.)

    Becoming a pilot was generally a family matter even then, with opportunities for training and acceptance into the fraternity passing from father to son. However, the coming of larger vessels on a lesser schedule eroded pilot opportunities, and by 1987 one pilot was certified for the port.

    The booming little city by the sea boasted many amenities common to an emerging community. To serve the hundreds of ships calling here there were chandlers such as The Lewis Bear Company, who were also wholesale grocers. Others included W. A. Dunham & Company, Heinberg Bros., Alex. Zelius (who advertised himself as both a chandler and grocer at 700 South Palafox Street), and McKenzie, Oerting & Company, who were chandlers and dealers in hardware. James McHugh's New Orleans Grocery Company and Kruger & Kugelman were wholesale grocers. The Parlor Market (J.S. Bell, proprietor), The Meyer Grocery Company, and Sol Cahn's special delicatessen rounded out the major food merchants.

    Built in 1889, the new Customs House
    and Post Office looked like this.
    Later it became the County Court House.

    There were saloons (such as Dannheisser Brothers' Main House, opposite the Union Depot), and the ORIGINAL Kentucky Barrel House operated by S. Q. Friedman. The John White Company and the Levy-Pou Company were the city's premier clothiers for men, (there were few advertisements for women's clothing). J. M. Hilliard and J. M. Howell manufactured buggies, carriages and dray wagons, and there were, up and down the main street, a goodly number of physicians, attorneys, dentists and midwives, all of whom advertised their services regularly.

    Some of the attorneys, like W.A. Blount, Judge Jones, E. Dixie Beggs and Benjamin Tunison, became regionally or nationally famous for their specialties. Blount became general counsel for the L&N Railroad and a jurist (when he died the entire L&N system was halted for one full minute as a symbol of respect). Judge Beggs became not only a famed lawyer but also a leader in education as a member of the local school board, while Tunison was the area's foremost practitioner in marine law.

    Other business prospered, too. Peter Lindenstruth was a jeweler, along with J. I. Stephens, who described himself as a watchmaker. The B. A. Davis Marble Company was the provider of memorial stones and markers, while Marston & Finch were the leading furniture dealers (at this point there were few firms selling appliances since the average household had a limited choice).

    The public school system, founded in 1872, had 4500 students at the turn of the century, with N. B. Cook as superintendent. The schools, most of them small, account for railroad fare to and from the communities, plusa n allowance for maintenance of his horse.

    The Navy Yard, begun in 1829, had been burned by retreating Confederate forces in 1862. It was partially rebuilt with a dry dock thereafter, and spurted in activity at the end of the century when the nation hurriedly prepared for war against Spain. Additional fortifications were built, and there was action at Ft. Barrancas. The small Dummy Line railroad provided rail service to the yard, but even optimistic writers like Charles Bliss recognized that the Navy's interest in this post was waning. (The yard would be closed in 1911, to reopen three years later to serve early naval aviators.)

    At the end of the century Pensacola boasted three military units, highlighted by the Chipley Light Infantry, with Richard Cary, Robert Bushnell and W. H. Palmes as principal officers. (The troop was often photographed during its

    Pensacola's militia drillon bicycles; right, their commander, rail official
    Richard Cary.

    maneuvers, which were attempted on bicycles.) Military units, incidentally, furnished much of the area's social activity, a surprising development so soon after the Civil War. The city was involved in a modest way in the Spanish-American War, especially as trainloads of trained troops traveled from Texas to Tampa for embarkation. Included in this force were the Rough Riders led by Theodore Roosevelt. The bicycle, incidentally, was beginning to make a serious impact on local transportation.

    Outside the city agricultural experimentation had begun on many fronts, with cattle breeding already successful. Crops that gained a foothold were tobacco, rice, sugar cane, figs, pecans, peaches and pears. Citrus had been attempted, but by 1900 the uncertainties of winter were causing some to have second thoughts. Agriculture was a rising part of the local economy. However, there was little movement of surpluses out of the area.

    In the city proper, contractors such as Charles Turner and A. V. Clubbs were building classic Victorian mansions, while government agencies were erecting such facilities as the new Customs House (which would later become the County Court House). That building, incidentally, cost taxpayers $75,000.

    This period also saw a growth of civic pride in the past. Citizens encouraged by W. D. Chipley erected the Confederate Monument in Lee Square, and in St. Michael's Cemetery many families were placing handsome memorials to the dying who had served in the Civil War.

    Also emerging in those decades was the community's interest in better housing and public buildings. Many of the early merchants and lumbermen erected houses facing Seville Square or nearby. But as prosperity loomed the new richbuiltlarger,fashionable Victorian structures north of Garden Street. Numerous church congregations constructed fine sanctuaries. Gentlemen joined private clubs (like the Osceola), and by 1890 a horse-drawn street car system was operating. Utilities were still primitive, but the city could boast of an opera house, several hotels and many enjoyed the beaches on the bay.

    Pensacola was indeed showing signs of prosperity, and virtually all of the new wealth sprang from lumbering and its adjuncts.

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