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Sail On
The Story of the Merchant Marine

Allan Nevins

The Author and the Work

Allan Nevins was a historian and journalist who taught for thirty years at Columbia University and published more than 50 books, mostly on 19c American history: he is best known for his biographies of Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish, Lincoln, and John D. Rockefeller and for his 8‑volume work on the War Between the States. Good detailed information on his career can be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of course.

The book before you, while solid and pleasantly written, runs only a hundred pages and is one of his lesser works; it appears to have been commissioned by the United States Lines for the specific purpose of highlighting the importance of the merchant marine — something which continues to be very relevant today, when once again the United States relies on foreign shippers to supply the country, a dangerous situation as pointed out by Nevins thruout the book.

My transcription is dedicated to my friend Scott,
whom I never think of as a former merchant mariner. . . .

[p3] Foreword

Every American knows that World War II could not have been won without the great merchant fleet built in our country and manned by American seamen. The men and materials carried by these vessels to every fighting front were decisive factors in bringing complete victory.

An adequate merchant marine is no less necessary to our country in peace than it was in war.

The economic well-being of our nation depends upon the size, speed, and modernness of the ships in the merchant fleet we maintain.

To protect our high position among nations and meet our share of responsibility in building a lasting world peace a strong American merchant marine is essential.

Unless they are fully informed concerning this vital subject, it is unreasonable to expect, now or in the future, that American citizens will demand that an adequate peacetime merchant fleet be maintained.

Much information concerning current developments is made available in daily newspapers and magazines. But such information is incomplete and sometimes biased. It tells us little about the achievements and failures of the past. Few of us have the time to dig through thick and dusty tomes for information.

p4 Therefore Professor Allan Nevins of Columbia University has written this book on the history of America's merchant marine. He has winnowed the mass of material on the subject that crowds our libraries and has gathered for us the fascinating and illuminating facts of our maritime past. It is a story crowded with odd, but revealing sidelights, heroic episodes, examples of courage and skill, all the ingredients that have made sea stories compelling reading ever since Homer chronicled the adventures of Ulysses.

But it is more than exciting reading. In its pages we find demonstrable proof that our merchant marine is both a source of our prosperity and a guardian of our security.

[image ALT: The very readable signature of Basil Harris.]

[Basil Harris]

Chairman, Board of Directors,
United States Lines Company




In the Good Old Colony Times


The Young Republic


The Half-Century of Neglect


The First World War Emergency


At Last: An Adequate Policy


Frontiers of the Seven Seas


A Shelf of Nautical Books


(The printed book has no Table of Illustrations. This one is mine.)

[Frontispiece] The American Clipper David Crockett


Early Print of Small Craft Entering Boston Harbor


Old Print of Arctic Whaling


The Triangular Trade


Shipyards on New York's East River


Paul Jones shooting a Sailor who had attempted to strike his Colours in an Engagement


South Street, New York, 1800


The Constitution and the Java, December 29, 1812


From the New York Tribune, April 26, 1841


The American Packet Ship Roscius, 1838


The British Steamship Great Western, 1838


The American Clipper Sovereign of the Seas, 1859


One of the Perils of Whaling


San Francisco, 1851


Western Railroad Construction Scene


The Steamship Baltic When New


President Harrison Raising the New House Flag of the American Line, February 22, 1893


The S. S. City of New York, 1893


President and Mrs. Cleveland at the Launching of the St. Louis


The Liner Vaterland as the U. S. Troop Transport Leviathan


Shipyard at Hog Island, Philadelphia, World War I


War-Built Ships Rotting in the Hudson River in 1920


The Turbo-Electric Liner, California, Built in 1927


The Cabin Liner, Washington, Launched by the U. S. Lines in 1932


Three Freighters Designed and Built Under the Maritime Commission Program of 1937: C1 (top); C2 (middle); (C3 (lower)


The S. S. America, 1940


The S. S. America as the U. S. Troop Transport West Point, 1945


The First Liberty Ship, the Patrick Henry


A Victory Ship, an Improvement over the Liberty Design


"The success of overseas operations . . . has depended upon the availability of shipping and the ability to keep it moving."


Technical Details

Edition Used

The edition followed in this transcription was that of my own hard copy, published by the United States Lines, 1946. The 1946 copyright was not renewed in 1973 or 1974 as then required by law in order to be maintained. The work is thus in the public domain; details here on the copyright law involved.


The 33 illustrations (14 photographs, 18 engravings and lithographs, and a sketch map) were all printed in sepia-toned monochrome, matching the mid-level headings and the occasional decorative delimiter; I've recolorized them in navy blue like the images elsewhere on my Maritime History site.

The captions, which of course I've reproduced verbatim, include no provenance; but on the colophon page (where we are also told that the book was designed and printed by Green, Dunn & Company, New York, N. Y., and printed in the U. S. A.) provenance is given for some of the illustrations. I've folded that information into the captioning.

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line); p57  these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the authors' own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

My transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The printed book was very well proofread; three minor typographical errors are marked with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet or the underscored words to read what was actually printed. Similarly, bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

A number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

[image ALT: A quick sketch of a convoy of three mid-20c freighters, and above the lead ship, the ghostly image of a sailing ship. It depicts the merchant marine of 1946 guided by the ghost of its sailing-ship ancestor, and serves as the icon on this site for the book 'Sail On', a history of the American merchant marine.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is the vignette on the cover of my copy, depicting of course the modern merchant marine of 1946 guided by the ghost of its sailing-ship ancestor.

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Site updated: 19 Dec 21