A Hot Supper and a Benevolent Berth: Brooklynite John Arbuckle and his Deep Sea Hotel, The Jacob A. Stamler
70 TO LOSE HOMES IN FLOATING HOTEL
The Good Ship Stamler, John
Will Be Dismantled.2
The Jacob A. Stamler was built at the North Sixth Street, Williamsburg shipyard of Thomas Stack, and launched on the afternoon of October 11, 1856.3 Her chief owners were William Laytin and Edwin H. Hurlbut, prominent New York shipping agents whose office on venerable South Street dispatched numerous coastal and trans-Atlantic ocean liners before the Civil War.4 Minority owner Jacob A. Stamler was a New York merchant who had achieved financial success in the city’s lucrative butcher markets.5 His namesake vessel weighed over a thousand tons and had a depth of roughly twenty feet, a size characteristic of the large merchantmen being built in the 1850s.6 The Stamler was a sailing packet ship and held to an established route on a fixed schedule. Her original port of call was Antwerp, Belgium, after which she changed agents and sailed in the Havre Second Line between New York City and Le Havre, France.
Berthed in the North River, the Le Havre ships concentrated on immigrant traffic rather than freight. Germans and Swiss comprised most of the Stamler’s passengers. Eventually, steamships displaced the sailing packets, but the Stamler was the last ship placed into service in the Havre Second Line, and she sailed the line until it folded in 1870. She then continued as a general trader to Le Havre, under Wall Street agents Boyd and Hincken.7
In 1899, however, a man named John Arbuckle purchased the Stamler. Arbuckle was a self-made millionaire. He was born in 1839 in Pittsburgh, the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant. In school, young John rubbed shoulders with future magnates Henry Phipps and Andrew Carnegie. He dropped out of Washington and Jefferson College to join his brother Charles and others in a wholesale grocery business in Pittsburgh. Arbuckle’s invention of a machine to weigh and package coffee resulted in a popular coffee he dubbed “Arbuckle Ariosa,” which is marketed even today.8
Arbuckle’s business eventually became the largest importer of coffee in the world. By the late 1800s, Arbuckle had moved to Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn and built an office across the East River at Old Slip and Water Street. He walked to and from work every day, through “roustabouts and longshoremen on the river-front.” In his office he talked to department managers, as well as workers who faced financial hardship, and “to many outsiders who hoped to gain his ear for charity.”9
Arbuckle was a member of the Plymouth Church, headed by noted abolitionist and reformer Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher had a profound influence on Arbuckle, and Arbuckle himself would cultivate a reputation for engaging in philanthropic and humanitarian causes with a drama that rivaled his business successes. Living in the noisome filth of turn-of-the-century New York City led him to concoct a host of eccentric schemes to aid the disadvantaged. He built a retirement colony for senior citizens on Lake Mohonk, north of New York City. He also converted a ship into the Riverside Home for Crippled Children.10 But his most audacious idea involved a much older ship, the Jacob A. Stamler.
By the turn of the twentieth century, New York City had undergone the most massive population explosion in American history. The unification of the five boroughs in 1898 helped create a city of over 3.5 million people, many of who lived in tenements constructed to meet only the barest requirements for size, ventilation, and light. Horse defecation, heat, polluted water, garbage, and cramped living conditions helped push the death rate in the city to an astonishing twenty percent of the total population in 1900. Tuberculosis, in particular, raged through the poorest and most unsanitary slum neighborhoods.11
Millionaire philanthropist John Arbuckle had an idea to give working class New Yorkers relief from the fetid streets of the city, particularly during the hot summer months when conditions were at their worst. He would take an old, dilapidated ex-packet ship, refit and refurbish it for human occupancy, and “give tired brain workers a chance to do a little yachting.”12 Arbuckle planned to sail women and children, and later men, around his coffee and sugar factories and “give them a lunch and a good time.” Overnight trips would also be offered. The watery excursions would be free at first, continue through the summer, with proceeds from later trips going to the Consumptives’ Home.13
The maiden voyage of the strange “Deep Sea Floating Hotel,” as the papers called it, was on July 17, 1901. A small tugboat, the John Harlin, pushed off from the foot of Atlantic Avenue at six p.m. with a paying group consisting of Arbuckle’s friends, business associates, publicists, newspapermen, and socialites. The tug met up with the Stamler off Liberty Island, transferred her passengers to the Stamler, and the Harlin gently pulled the city’s first floating hospice past the Narrows and down the lower bay. The journey lasted till five a.m., during which several speeches were made, though Arbuckle politely declined to speak. A luxurious dinner was served of consommé, broiled bluefish, fillet of beef with mushroom sauce, pineapple fritters, roast lamb, mashed potatoes, rice pudding, ice cream, and coffee. “I am a Brooklyn man,” ex-Pittsburgher Arbuckle boasted. “Here I have made money, and here I propose to spend some of it.”14 Despite the fact it was a rainy night, the inaugural trip was deemed a success.15 It could be argued that this New York harbor trip was the earliest American commercial pleasure cruise.
Attractions on board the vessel included carpeted saloons for men and women (only milk and ginger ale were served), a smoking room, Pullman berths, and a dumb waiter connecting the “culinary department” and pantry. There was a ten-ton ice refrigerator, and a giant steam-driven fan to keep guests cool during the hottest days of summer. Fare for Saturday evening trips, including a berth, dinner, and breakfast, totaled $2.50. Saturday-to-Monday trips were twice that, and weekly trip tickets cost twelve dollars. Arbuckle assured patrons that “I will have a couple of special policemen, big and strong enough to shake the toenails of anyone who attempts to cause annoyance on board, and pitch him in the black hole on the John Harlin afterward.”16 The Company also made assurances that “a woman of character, culture and refinement” would be on board to chaperone any young woman without a partner.17
One of the most bizarre contrivances was a portable fishing tank, a large boat on davits that could be lowered to selected fishing grounds, filled with fish, then hoisted again to the ship’s side, while a stream of saltwater was pumped into the boat to keep the fish alive. Passengers were given fishing poles and allowed to catch one fish apiece, which were cleaned, cooked, and served so “the fortunate fisherman will have strictly fresh fish.”18
But soon after regular excursions commenced, problems arose. Passengers complained that the sleeping berths were too narrow, and the four-person berth arrangement made things too crowded. Also, the small size of the portholes (a mere six inches diameter) excluded all but a small stream of air, which often included small swarms of mosquitoes from the Jersey Shore that would “make miserable the night of those aboard.”19 In April of 1902, the U.S. government sued Arbuckle for $2,500 in damages, after the Stamler broke free of her Staten Island moorings and drifted against the U.S. steamship Manises, crushing the Manises’ cabin and part of her deck. Ticket sales for the pleasure trips didn’t take off as expected, either. Although Arbuckle had advertised journeys as distant as Cape May and Newport, it appears the Stamler rarely voyaged beyond Sandy Hook, off the north Jersey shore.20
After the government’s libel suit in 1902, little news was reported of the Stamler for the next three years. In February 1905, she found a new home near today’s Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex. Rather than cruising as a pleasure ship, however, the Stamler opened as a stationary hotel. She kept the moniker “Deep Sea Floating Hotel,” though she stayed tied to the piers.21
Her “guest list” was now restricted to young, working class men and women. Lodging for women was forty cents per day, and men were charged ten cents more. A circa 1906 advertisement distributed by Arbuckle’s Deep Sea Hotel Company makes no mention of any minimum age or income level, only that “we do not accommodate people past middle age, or in ill health.” The ad boasted that a hundred people could receive accommodations while enjoying “home-like cooking; comfortable well-ventilated bed-rooms…reading room, Piano, daily papers and monthly magazines for free use.” Alcohol was still forbidden, and security was maintained by a night watchman who made “frequent rounds after 10 p.m. to see if ‘All is Well.’” The advertisement assured that the Stamler’s guests comprised “one large happy family, enjoying all the conveniences of a modern Hotel.”22
Despite several scares that Arbuckle would close his novelty, the ship remained open, although she shifted her moorings to Brooklyn, then East 23rd Street on the East River.23 In July 1905, she made headlines again when Wall Street workers filed a complaint, asserting that music from a steam calliope on the Stamler’s new tug, the Wise, was disturbing them. However, not everyone was upset. The Times reported that neighboring yacht owners actually enjoyed the calliope, and the disgruntled tenants “were prompted by their love for the classic and their contempt for such tunes as ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘The Wearing of the Green.’”24
For the next ten years, the Stamler remained open to her working class guests (they were eventually restricted to girls who made less than seven dollars a week). On March 27, 1912, John Arbuckle died after a long bout with malaria, probably contracted while in South America on coffee business.25 In its obituary header, the New York Times pointedly noted that Arbuckle had “Built a Home Afloat for Workers.”26
Although Arbuckle’s surviving relatives assured everyone that the Jacob A. Stamler would remain open, the sun was setting on the former immigrant ship. A headline in the Times on August 6, 1915 announced that seventy girls would soon be homeless, because the Stamler was scheduled to be torn apart. The ship had been constructed almost sixty years previous, and the city’s fire department was concerned about fire hazards, leaks, and the fact that the Stamler’s doors opened inward rather than outward.27 There was a short reprieve when wealthy sympathizers offered to finance the hotel – “All Gay Over a Hot Supper” read one headline – but the final curtain fell on November 10, 1915. The Fire Prevention Bureau shut down the Stamler as a hotel for good, evidently in response to a fire in Williamsburg the week before.28
Fortunately, the thirty-eight girls still living on the Stamler were found new homes on land. Arbuckle’s sisters “had investigated all the other hotels and found them suitable,” according to the Times, “and would pay the expenses of moving for each girl.” The vessel’s captain, cook, and other employees were promised new employment. The paper reported that “many girls who used to live on the Stamler and have moved out because they got married or earned more money, came back for a last look at their old home, to laugh a little and cry a little with the girls who were leaving.”29
There are no extant records describing the Stamler’s ultimate fate. It’s rumored that she did ultimately burn in a fire, in 1916, at the foot of North Henry Street, but this is still unsubstantiated.
But for her fifteen minutes of fame/novelty as a floating hotel, the Jacob A. Stamler made few headlines during her sixty-year lifespan – a frenetic period of constant change, encompassing the Civil War, the great migration to Ellis Island, the dawn of the automobile and aviation ages, and the sinking of both the Titanic and Lusitania. She lived forty years longer than the average wooden sailing vessel, and repeatedly cheated the hangman during that time. Thomas Stack undoubtedly selected strong timber when pounded together her hull.
The Jacob A. Stamler will forever be linked with John Arbuckle and his beloved adopted New York City. Early on, the ship was considered a joke, another of Arbuckle’s eccentric, philanthropic follies. But it proved a victory for visionary humanitarianism, and a philanthropic tribute to Arbuckle’s beloved pastor and mentor, Henry Ward Beecher. The Stamler was Arbuckle’s gift to those “tired brain workers” who had assisted in his success – hard-luck and hardened New Yorkers, many undoubtedly the children and grandchildren of the exiles who once sailed on the ship. The floating hotel crystallized two favorite maxims of Arbuckle’s. The first was a Thomas Carlyle quote found in an open notebook next to Arbuckle’s bed the day he died: “Only workers with hand and brain are worthy of respect; all else is chaff and rubbish.”30 The second was less hard-edged: “Politeness is the cheapest commodity on God’s earth. It costs nothing, and will carry you farther and pleasanter through life than any other ticket you can travel on.”31
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