Portal To Great Maritime Collections
By James Shuttleworth
Although it is the preeminent maritime history research library for the U.S. West Coast, the J. Porter Shaw Library in San Francisco contains far more than just West Coast maritime history materials. Considering that many vessels, from many places around the world, visited or ended up in San Francisco and other West Coast ports, it is understandable that many and varied historical maritime materials would be located in San Francisco. The Library was established in 1959 with the J. Porter Shaw collection. J. Porter Shaw was the leading collector of Pacific Coast maritime books and materials in the 1930s.
Also known unofficially as the San Francisco Maritime Museum Library, the J. Porter Shaw Library is more than a building full of books. It is your portal to the vast collections of maritime related documents, plans, photographs, objects, and visual records. The library is your starting gate to thousands of records and physical items relating to things maritime. The Library is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park (SFMNHP), better known as the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
A bonus is the setting. San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. You can gaze out the windows of the Library upon the Bay. From the walking path on the hill behind the Library there is an incredible view of the Golden Gate. The Library is located in a former US Army Quartermaster warehouse (Building E) on Fort Mason. U. S. Army Transport ships, such as the Sheridan, Logan, et al, docked at the adjacent piers in years past. Add to this, the knowledgeable and extensive services supplied by the Library staff, and you have the best of all research worlds.
The following descriptions of the research materials are not a complete picture of what is available in this wonderful research facility, but will give you an idea of the range of materials. This Library is a stone you should not leave unturned, regardless of your maritime research subject. And remember the Library is separate from the other collections at the SFMNHP, but is your portal to them.
The Library, and other associated SFMNHP collections, contain over 35,000 books; 500 periodical titles (some going back many years); 200,000 forms of images, 50,000 pieces of ephemera; 600 oral histories; and 5,000 cartographic items (charts and maps).
The John Lyman Collection, the Barbara Johnson Whaling Collection, the Dean Maudsley Collection of WW II US Navy Cruise Books (said to be one of the best in the world); and the Donald V. Reardon Maritime Library are a few of the main collections included in the Library's holdings.
The Library contains various sets of shipping registers including Lloy's Register of Shipping, List of Merchant Vessels of the U.S, The Record of American and Foreign Shipping, and American Lloyd's. The various register sets cover the period 1764 through the 1990's, although some of the early Lloyd's are reprints. Interested in signal codes or house flags? You'll find numerous older signal code flag references, including Marryat's, Reynolds', the Commercial and International Codes, and various house flag references, in the collection. West Coast house flags are well represented in a collection that J. Porter Shaw started. Historic Documents Collection: "This collection documents the maritime trades, technology, traditions, and lifeways, from the Gold Rush through the post-World War II era." It consists of 1,500 linear feet of business records for large and small shipping related concerns, personal papers, personal collections, 120,000 vessel and shipyard marine architectural drawings, plans for ships and other maritime structures, maritime photographs and motion pictures. These collections cover people, ships, ports, places, and occupations. For example, the Alaska Packers Association (1876-1945) records, the last American sailing ship company, the American President Line (APL) records, and the David W. Dickie Shipbuilding records (1878-1966) are included in this collection. A recent acquisition is the Sallie K. Braun Papers 1941-1993. Sallie was a Marine Transportation Specialist for the US Army Transport Service during a portion of the period covered. While born on the West Coast the collections are not limited to West Coast subjects.
Looking for an image of a vessel? This collection may have it - if not, perhaps an image exists amongst the thousands of photographs. There are some 200,000 forms of images, including 30,000 glass plate negatives in the photographic collections. The superb Wilhelm Hester Photograph Collection (1893-1905) of Puget Sound shipping and vessel crews is one of the finest maritime photographic collections in the world. In addition to photographs of the vessels and crews, Hester photographed paintings of vessels that he found aboard, usually in the master's cabin or saloon. About 100 photos of the paintings (8 x 10 inch glass negatives) are included. A researcher identified one these photos, of the British Ship Pythomene, as being of a painting that he owned.
Little known, is the J. Porter Shaw Collection of about 150 real photo post cards of all types of vessels and harbor scenes from around the world. There are 14,000 images in the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. Collection covering the period 1889-1979. This historic Bay area shipyard was formerly the Union Iron Works, until 1903. The John W. Proctor Photographs (1900-1936) of the San Francisco waterfront and Bay area shipping; the Alfred T. Palmer Motion Picture Films and Photographs (1931-1979) of West Coast shipping and passenger liners; and the Fireman's Fund (Marine) Insurance Compan's Photographic Scrapbooks are a few of the very special collections. The Fireman's Fund photographs cover the world and range from the 1860s to about the 1920s and are heavy in British and US merchant and Navy vessels, including famous vessels like the Clipper Ship Young America. Alfred Palmer worked for the Matson Lines. His films include rare footage of the Esther Johnson, a wooden steam schooner, loading war supplies, during World War II.
The Object Collection: Need to know what a ship fitting looked like or how it worked? The 30,000-piece maritime Objects Collection is strongest in materials relating to sailing ships of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but steam is also represented. For instance, I am interested in the four-masted bark Annie M. Reid (ex Howard D. Troop). Her figurehead is in this collection along with many other figureheads. Numerous models, rope making equipment, carpenter tools, ship's bells, instruments, flags, diving helmets, and more and varied artifacts are included. The bell from the Clipper ship Noonday, recovered from a San Francisco fisherman's net in the 1930s, resides in the collection. My personal favorites are the paintings and prints collections. The painting collection contains some 400 paintings and drawings, fully inventoried and described.
Historic Ships and Small Craft Collection: Although not accessed thru the Library, the historic ships include the Ship Balclutha, 3M Schooner C.A. Thayer, San Francisco Car Ferry Eureka, Steam Tug Hercules, and scow schooner Alma, along with numerous small craft. They are accessible at the Hyde Street Wharf, about a quarter of a mile from the Library. The Visitors Center has numerous displays that are well worth seeing too. It is located at the head of the Hyde Street Pier, corner of Hyde and Jefferson.
You can see the current National Park Service (N PS) Museum Collections online via the NPS Museum Collections Catalog at www.museum.nps.gov/ or for books and library references use www.library.nps.gov. Note: This searches all NPS libraries. You'll have to note the locations. You can browse many of the items in the collections online at the SFMNHP website http://www.nps.gov/safr/historyculture/catalogs.htm then follow the links that interest you. Items are added continually. But this isn't the best way to research these collections. Make the journey! Visit the Library! Get the full benefit from these maritime collections. You'll be glad you did. Come prepared to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave (Tsunami) of information.
The Library is fully staffed to assist you. All researchers, professional or amateur, are welcome. The staff is not only professional, but also personally interested in maritime matters; many of them authors or historians. Complete copying services are available for most needs, to include photography and large plan reproduction for a reasonable fee. There is no charge, however, for the self-service copying machine, but donations are appreciated. Most all the collections are inventoried and have indexes for locating your subject along with other finding aids.
The Library and most of the collections are located in Building E, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco CA 94123. The Library is accessible by appointment. It is a public institution open to all, free of charge.
James Shuttleworth is an Engineering Geologist and member of the Board of the Friends of the San Francisco Maritime Museum Library. He is a past President of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Foundation and a founding member of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Society. He was also very active in the group that established the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, in the late 1970s, as well.