Shanghaiing in Port Townsend

by Tim Rensema, Staff Writer

I would like to tie three different but related events together that occurred in Jefferson County at the time of the boom- and-bust era of the late 1800s. These events are “ship jumpers,” shanghaiing, and “death ships.”

Articles have been written in the past about “ship jumpers.” John Cooper and Horace Hawkins, two of the first residents of Port Ludlow, are said to have jumped into Port Ludlow Bay and swum for shore. William Bishop and William Eldridge also jumped ship for a better life.

Shanghaiing was the involuntary enlistment of landsmen and drunk sailors into the crew of ships that did not have the required complement of a crew.

The third component of this article is “death ships.” Here in Port Ludlow, we had many that fit the description of a “death ship.” They normally carried sawtimber from here to other parts of the US and world. They were under- manned with shanghaied men and conditions on these ships were very poor, especially with a harsh captain. The Reaper was a well-known bark, or “death ship” built in Bath, Maine in 1876. It was docked in Port Ludlow in 1906 for a load of lumber when it caught fire. The ship was towed to the other side of Port Ludlow Bay and abandoned, eventu- ally drifting into the bay and sinking. If you have walked down to the Port Ludlow Marina, you’ve probably seen its anchor displayed there (from Gordon Newell, ed. The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle Superior Publishing Co. 1966).

Edgar Sims. Picture taken from Port Townsend: An Illustrated History of Shanghaiing, Shipwrecks, Soiled Doves and Sundry Souls by Thomas Camfield, 2000, p.117. Submitted photo

Partners Max Levy and Ed (Edgar) Sims were well known for shanghaiing in Port Townsend. Levy ostensibly was a merchant, but his main line of work was providing men for the sailing ships mooring in Port Townsend. He and Sims ran a boarding house in Port Townsend to which sailors became indebted (for liquor, tobacco, room and board). These men were the first to go to the waiting ships. However, if more crewmen were needed, then farmers and loggers were taken from the saloons, only to wake up at open sea. No Indians nor local townsmen were “enlisted.” Levy and Sims not only received $30 per head but also the first three months’ wages of the seaman. To really get a good understanding of the situation, read Peter Simpson’s City of Dreams: A Guide to Port Townsend (page 24) for some good character references and colorful language. Normally these “enlistees” were drunk, but if the “runners” (thugs) for Levy and Sims could not convince these men to go peaceably, then brute force was used. An urban legend was that shanghai tunnels were dug between the saloons and the waterfront to smuggle the unconscious landsmen to the waiting ships. However, the merchants of Port Townsend, who for the most part supported supplying ships with men, turned a blind eye to this practice. Once Levy physically took three full crews off the ship America before it was able to clear harbor with a well-guarded crew, and provided them to other merchant ships (Simpson, Peter. City of Dreams: A Guide to Port Townsend, 1986, p. 242).

Some great stories of shanghaiing are included in Thomas W. Camfield’s Port Townsend: An Illustrated History of Shanghaiing, Shipwrecks, Soiled Doves and Sundry Souls (Ah Tom Publishing, 2000). Camfield writes of an incident where runners for Max Levy boarded moored ships and made off with crewmembers. The lead runner was Charles “Gunny” Gunderson. Once, Gunderson and his accomplice, Stubley, took three men from the British bark Morven, but were stopped by officers of the Morven and fired upon. Stubley was killed and Gunderson sustained a minor head wound. The shooter from the Morven, Seaman Benjamin Fransen, was found not guilty because of the known poor character of Gunderson, being “turbulent and disposed to lawlessness,” and also the testimony of the officers and men of the Morven (to include the three that went with Gunderson). Gunderson died in Port Ludlow at the age 42 in 1932. By this time, he had lost the use of one of his arms from when he was stabbed by a sailor who had been shanghaied by Gunderson four years earlier (Camfield, Thomas. 2000, p. 353).

Eventually shanghaiing was outlawed. Max Levy’s wife divorced him and married Ed Sims. Sims went on to found a very successful fish canning factory and serve in the legislature of Washington State. Sims Way in Port Townsend is named after Edgar Sims. Levy successfully expanded his boarding houses to Seattle, teaming up with another well know shanghai businessman named Evans before the practice was outlawed. Many a farmer found himself learning the ropes by becoming an unwary seaman.