When the legend becomes fact print the legend – Part V – The Song of the Stevedore


Pay day for the longshoremen from photograph in Library of Congress archives

To begin with, for those of you who are not life-long habitue’s of the wharves, we need to explain the difference between a longshoreman and a stevedore. A longshoreman is the man who does [did] the physical labor of handling cargo as it came across the wharf and into the hold of the ship – and vice versa – primarily in American usage.  Stevedore was originally a term meaning the same thing coming into English usage in the late 18th century from Spanish estivador, from estivar ‘stow a cargo’, from Latin stipare  ‘to pack tight’. From these came the noun ‘steeve’, which was a derrick consisting of a long pole with a block at the end. By the late 19th and early 20th century – continuing to this day – the longshoreman has been the laborer and the stevedore has been the contractor supplying the laborers to the ship.

The screwmen were originally hybrids in the sense that they were very highly skilled labor and not part of the longshoremen but neither were they independent contractors. They worked in small crews and any given member of the crew could be the foreman – who worked alongside the rest of the crew in the ship’s hold – on any given job often rotating the foreman’s job among themselves. Certain screwmen developed relationships with individual stevedores because of reputations for speed or efficiency and may have found themselves requested to act as ‘permanent’ foreman and since it meant more regular employment their crews they generally acquiesced. Even with this arrangement very few screwmen made the transition from labor to management and became stevedores in their own right.  In fact, as a group, they eventually became part of the longshoreman’s union in Galveston choosing to be part of labor.

One of the few who made the transition was John Young and in his obituary the Galveston Daily News recorded the story thusly, “He gained employment with C. C. Sweeney & Co., predecessor to the present John Young Co.. Capt Young was president of the latter from its organization in 1888 until his death. After serving his first employer as a cotton screwman, Capt. Young was made superintendent of the firm when Mr. Sweeney accepted the post of United States customs collector for this district. About 1885 Mr. Sweeney died and his wife took over the ownership of the firm. Capt. Young purchased a half interest and for three years was in partnership with Mrs. Sweeney. In 1888 he bought out her share and founded the John Young Co. with himself as president.” It was not quite this simple and the real story brings in a large cast of characters, starting with the Sweeney’s, and tells us a good deal about Galveston in the late 19th century.

Before we begin with the history proper a few words are in order about the mechanics of a port call. A ship is loaded with a cargo for discharge, or sent to load a cargo, or waiting in anticipation of a cargo when she arrives at a port. Having passed quarantine – and these were still the days of yellow fever and quarantine was strictly enforced – she may swing on the hook – wait at anchor – for a pilot, a berth or a cargo. Captains are on the one hand not great fans of port calls – there is too much that can go wrong that is beyond their control and there are too many people who know little or nothing about ships cluttering their decks and looking for some advantage. Near the opening of Conrad’s Lord Jim is a passage that outlines the danger of a port’s siren song:

 A water-clerk need not pass an examination in anything under the sun, but he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically. His work consists in racing under sail, steam, or oars against other water-clerks for any ship about to anchor, greeting her captain cheerily, forcing upon him a card–the business card of the
ship-chandler–and on his first visit on shore piloting him firmly but without ostentation to a vast, cavern-like shop which is full of things that are eaten and drunk on board ship; where you can get everything to make her seaworthy and beautiful, from a set of chain-hooks for her cable to a book of gold-leaf for the carvings of her stern; and where her commander is received like a brother by a ship-chandler he has never seen before. There is a cool parlor, easy-chairs, bottles, cigars, writing implements, a copy of harbor regulations, and a warmth of welcome that melts the salt of a three months’ passage out of a seaman’s heart. The connection thus begun is kept up, as long as the ship remains in harbor, by the daily visits of the water-clerk. To the captain he is faithful like a friend and attentive like a son, with the patience of Job, the unselfish devotion of a woman, and the jollity of a boon companion. Later on the bill is sent in. It is a beautiful and humane occupation. Therefore good water-clerks are scarce. When a water-clerk who possesses Ability in the abstract has also the advantage of having been brought up to the sea, he is worth to his employer a lot of money
and some humoring.

There was an old joke in my day that in order to be a captain you had to be able to type 75 words a minute and with instantaneous communication – even while at sea – today the master who can make decisions may be considered a liability by most shipowners. Communication was not so immediate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the master of a vessel may have well had the authority to negotiate cargo terms as well as matters relating to the provisioning and, if necessary, repair of his vessel. In addition to, and possibly in lieu of, any wages he may have received he was probably in line for a percentage of the profits of the voyage. In a port as busy as Galveston the owner’s of large lines calling there probably had their own local representatives but in the case of shipowners who had only one ship, or very few ships, in their fleet the captain may well have stood in their place during a port call.

Charles C. Sweeney was born in Boston about 1834, was married to a woman who had been born in England, and had lived with her in Texas since 1856 with their four children and his sister-in-law. During the War for Southern Independence he served with company B of Cook’s Artillery. His brother, Thomas H. Sweeney, had his own firm of stevedores located two doors down on the Strand. Thomas would move to Houston and open an office under a merged aegis of Sweeney & Co. As was common, his son worked in the shipping business, for Jens Moeller of J. Moeller & Co., steam and sail ship agents, importers of coal, salt, etc. with an office on 21st between Strand and Mechanic. Moeller was also the vice-counsel for Imperial Russia and had a home at the northwest corner of 10th and Church Streets which was certainly the silk-stocking district. Due to its size and limited population – to say nothing of cultural insularity  which led my father to refer to it as ‘the United States and Galveston’ – Galveston has always been a society where most could count in the dozens fellow islanders  related by blood, marriage or business affiliation and sometimes the last trumped the first two which made it a very interesting place.

Richard Coke, the first post Reconstruction governor of Texas and three-time United States Senator from Texas. A member of the Secession Convention and a former Confederate officer he was a stalwart supporter of Charles C. Sweeney as the local Democratic choice for collector of customs at Galveston.

Charles Sweeney employed John Young as a ‘permanent” foreman for one of his crews of screwmen. Whether this was Sweeney – an Irishman – using the Irish crews or Sweeney – the Democrat – using the ‘son-in-law’ of leading Democratic activist Maurice Coffee we do not know. It may have been either, a combination of both or neither but we do know that all of the relationships would be well-known. But our story really begins after they had been working together for a while with the prospect of Sweeney becoming the Collector of Customs in Galveston. The Galveston Daily News was neither non-partisan nor squeamish about expressing its opinions and these were not strictly reserved for the editorial page as this item from the 25th of September of 1885 illustrates:

It was reported on the streets yesterday that C. C. Sweeney was to be appointed was to be appointed collector of the port of Galveston immediately. Mr. Sweeney has the warm support of Congressman Cain, and was endorsed by Senator Coke. It does not appear that Mr. Sweeney is the first choice of the business people of Galveston and Houston, who have direct dealings with the custom-house; still there is no reason to doubt that Mr. Sweeney will make a good officer if appointed. It will not be doing Mr. Sweeney an injustice, however, to say that as collector of customs he will not be, prima facie, a striking illustration of the best civil service in the world.

This was the denouement of a long and sometimes amusing struggle for the post. The opening salvo was fired by the Galveston Daily News on the 24th of May 1885 with an article under the headline The Collectorship of the Port of Galveston:

The NEWS learned, from its esteemed contemporary, the Texas Farmer, that “a very strong endorsement of Hon. W. H. Nichols has gone to Washington looking to the appointment as collector of the port of Galveston.” The collector of the port of Galveston is an officer that not only the people of Galveston but the people  of the entire State are properly interested in. There are now two candidates for the office in the field, namely Charles C. Sweeney and Wm. H. Nichols. It is understood that during the recent visit of Congressman Jones of the Third district to Galveston he kindly offered to relieve Galveston of all embarrassments consequent upon two local candidates, by providing one of his own in the person of the affable, able and earnest Sam H. Cundiff of Longview.  From all accounts however , the Galvestonians did not care to be relieved of any responsibilities in the matter. Therefore, so far as is known, there are now but two candidates in the field and both are amiable gentleman, and no doubt either could discharge the function of the office ably and to general satisfaction. Mr. Sweeney was first in the field and has a petition on file in Washington signed by a number of prominent people in Galveston [including Nichols]… Mr. Nichols entered the field for the office a couple of weeks ago and he, too, has a petition in his favor which the News, without prejudice in the matter, must declare the strongest,  most representative and most complete in its endorsement by the business world of Galveston that could well be offered.

PRINCIPAL (NORTH) SIDE - Strand Historic District, First National Bank Building, 2127 Strand, Galveston, Galveston County, TX from the Library of Congress archive

In order that you may understand the dynamics of the competition Charles C. Sweeny was a first generation American who had come to Galveston and started a small business. William H. Nichols was one of the seven sons of Ebenezer B. Nichols who had come to Texas in 1838, before statehood, had been a partner of William Marsh Rice in Houston and had moved to Galveston about 1850 where he became a cotton factor and commission merchant representing the Peirce and Bacon line of vessels, which operated between Galveston and Boston. He advanced money, received deposits, and performed other banking services which would eventually grow into Bank of Galveston, which later merged to form the National Bank of Texas. His political credentials were impeccable having served as a delegate to the Secession Convention, as a captain in the Galveston rifles and a member of the staff of General John B. Magruder. After the war he dealt in Galveston real estate, was president of the Galveston City Company, and took part in forming the Galveston Gas Company, the Galveston Wharf Company, the Texas Ice and Cold Storage Company, and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad. That was the father and although we can find no accomplishments on record for any of the sons, including William, and even though he had been dead since 1872 his ghost apparently still cast a long shadow.

Nichols, being a “gentleman”, could only put forth his own candidacy and allow his friends and allies to promote it. Of course he could also allow his friends and allies to do their best to defeat Sweeney and the following article out of the Galveston Daily News, dated the 19th of May 1886, gives the details of their efforts in Washington:

There seems to be nothing more to detain Col. Jas. G. Tracy here. The confirmation of Captain Sweeney for collector of customs at Galveston which was made public today winds up the business in which he seems to have been mostly figuring of late… it was ascertained that he was diligently at work to secure the defeat of Sweeney before the Senate. He filed charges alleging that Sweeney still held an interest in the business in which he was engaged prior to his appointment, and that the sale of his interest in the business was not genuine: also, that since his appointment as collector Sweeney had removed ex-union soldiers to make places for ex-Confederates. .. It appears that he completely failed to impress the committee to any extent whatever and there seems to have been no member of the committee or senator opposed to the nomination. Ex-collector Malloy has been here for some time , and it was thought he was taking some stock in the matter, but he earnestly disclaimed having anything to do with it. Be this as it may, the defeat of Tracy and his supporters is not less decisive in this last struggle against Democratic control in Texas than it has been in former contests.

Galveston County Courthouse of 1882 - the locus of real political power on the Island

To put it another way the federal troops may have been withdrawn in 1877 in the nominal end of the subjugation of the South ironically called Reconstruction but there was still an ongoing battle for the control of the government by local interests rather than the radical republicans and their carpetbagger allies who still viewed the South as a fiefdom to be looted.

Tracy may have at least had a point about the sale of the business being less than genuine as the Galveston Daily News reported on the 21st of October 1885, “A bill of sale has been filed in the office of the county clerk by which Mr. C. C. Sweeney disposes of all his stevedore business consisting of screws, posts, trucks, blocks and mouthpieces, to Messrs. Sweeney & Co., a firm composed of Thomas A. Kirk and George W. Sweeney [his son who would have been 22 at the time]. Thus Mr. C. C. Sweeney retires from the stevedoring business to devote himself to his duties as collector of the port.” There is no mention of John Young – yet.

The U. S. Customs House at Galveston, Texas where Charles C. Sweeney served as collector in the 1880's - photograph by author

Some of you, especially those familiar with the mind numbing mountains of paperwork that are the hallmark of today’s customs service, may be wondering why there was all of this controversy over being head clerk of a bunch of pencil pushing bean counters. While the job certainly had that element to it the customs service in the 1880’s comprised far more than a clerical empire. Not only were the pencil pushing and bean counting jobs in his gift – this was an age of patronage – but the following plumbs could be picked at his discretion:

  • At the U. S. Cutomshouse the northwest corner of East Strand and 22nd Streets
  • Robert A. Burney, special deputy collector
  • Fred K. Sturgis, chief clerk
  • Leon W. Fields, cashier
  • Daniel M. Baker, entrance and clearance clerk
  • William E. Evans, liquidating clerk
  • John Foth, acting appraiser
  • William H. Seaman, weigher and gauger
  • Theodore A. Stubbs, storekeeper
  • Albert M. Barney, special agent U. S. Treasury dept.
  • Dr. Eugene Wasdin, U. S. marine surgeon
  • Lewis C. Hershberger, U. S. local inspector steam boilers
  • Robert G. Murray, U. S. local inspector hulls
  • George Balfour, janitor U. S. customhouse
  • John Smith, messenger U. S. customhouse
  • Max Wolf, clerk U. S. marine surgeon
  • Michael Burke, laborer storekeepers department
  • At the Inspectors office , Brick Wharf, north end of 20th Street
  • John J. Delaney, chief inspector
  • Daniel Sachs, day inspector
  • Theo. C. Ayers, day inspector
  • John C. Kelly, day inspector
  • Edward C. Coleman, day inspector
  • James Moore, day inspector
  • Elphage L. Hawkins, day inspector
  • Stafford Smith, day inspector
  • John Crook, night inspector
  • Joe Pentony, night inspector
  • W. P. Emmet, night inspector
  • Edward Lynch, night inspector
  • William Willis, night inspector
  • Edward Whitebread, night inspector
  • Anton Peterson, night inspector
  • John Niland, inspector Quarantine station
  • John M. Weston, inspector Velasco
  • Chas. D. Cain, inspector Sabine Pass

There is of course the irony of the inspector’s office being located at the Brick Wharf which belonged to the Nichols family to say nothing of the fact of the preponderance of Irish names on the list and then there is the last name – Chas. D. Cain a son of the congressman who shepherded Sweeney through the process, remained loyal to him in the face of powerful opposition and was rewarded with a job for his son.  Mind you he was assigned to an outpost where he couldn’t report the daily political operations that emanated from the customs house but a job is a job and being ‘in charge’ at a small port is in some ways more prestigious than being a senior clerk at a large one, besides fewer questions would be asked.  While the “new” civil service is very much more circumspect with its procedures very little seems to have changed in the past 130 years.

U. S. Corps of Engineers train being used to construct the jetty that allowed Galveston harbor and approaches to be dredged from 14 feet to 23 feet and remain in the forefront of American ports thanks in part to the efforts of Charles C. Sweeney.

Two incidents may shed a little more light on exactly how politically involved the collectorship could be. When Sweeney took office the maximum draft alongside a wharf at Galveston was 14 feet. There wasn’t much point in dredging beyond this because there was no protection from the sea and incoming tides could deposit as much and wreak havoc on the channel – especially during the frequent storms that finally rendered further dredging a labor for Sisyphus. The answer turned out to be the jetties that protect the channel outside of Bolivar Roads and Sweeney was active in both their local promotion – it took local bonds before the state or federal governments would help – and in lobbying in both Austin and Washington to get the project underway.

The other incident relates to much more partisan politics. In 1884 Sweeney had supported Thomas F. Bayard of Delaware, who had supported secession in 1861, for the Democratic presidential nomination against Grover Cleveland – ultimately both the nominee and the winner of the election.  Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, and subsidies to business, farmers or veterans. His battles for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era and while he won praise for his honesty, independence, and integrity critics complained that he had little imagination and seemed overwhelmed by the nation’s economic disasters, depressions and strikes.  Cleveland relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism and soon after taking office was faced with the task of filling all the government jobs for which he had the power of appointment. These jobs were typically filled under the spoils system, but Cleveland announced that he would not fire any Republican who was doing his job well, and would not appoint anyone solely on the basis of party service. This was not how business was done in either Texas or Galveston and Cleveland so alienated Texas Democrats that by the time William McKinley ran for president they bolted the party for the first time to vote for a Republican. Sweeney was in the forefront of anti-Cleveland Democrats and the News is full of stories of his excoriating the president – to receptive audiences.

Ironically it was Cleveland who appointed Sweeney to the post – through the usual mechanisms of state and local vetting – in no small part for services rendered to the Democratic party. He would hold the post throughout Cleveland’s first term and lose it when Benjamin Harrison took office in 1889 and appointed a Republican to the post. Sweeney died suddenly of a stroke on the 22nd of August 1892 so again we find that Captain Young’s obituary didn’t quite get its facts right. The real facts are that he worked as a screwman from 1878 through 1883, probably most of the time for Sweeney who had a virtual monopoly on stevedoring at that time. From 1884 to 1892 he worked for Sweeney as a foreman supervising stevedoring operations. After Sweeney’s death in 1892 he opened his own firm in 1893 and there we will leave him until our next entry.

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