They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, lead a life of peril, hardship and excitement . . . When the storms have been weathered, and the harbors reached they are usually ready for whatever good things the land has to offer, and when old age overtakes them to settle down about a quiet fireside . . . among them none holds so high a place as Sailors’ Snug Harbor . . . unquestionably the most famous sailors’ retreat in the world . . . One thousand old men, gathered from all quarters of the world under a single roof, make a curious and sometimes querulous collection . . . They may walk on the lawn, sit in the sunshine, dream under the trees, and there is nothing to disturb. When they become weary and are laid to rest, a little cemetery whose white tombstones may be seen back of this pastoral abode receives their bodies and then they are left serene. (Theodore Dreiser 1904)
Founded by Robert Richard Randall’s 1801 bequest to create a retirement home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors,” Sailors Snug Harbor opened in 1831 on Staten Island’s north shore overlooking the Kill Van Kull. The 150-acre facility was a self-sustaining community that included dormitories, a working farm, dairy, bakery, chapel, hospital, and cemetery. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 residents, called “Snugs,” who were admitted without regard to nationality, race, age, or religion. By the mid-20th century, the population at Snug Harbor had significantly dwindled and in the 1970s the retirement home was moved to Sea Level, North Carolina, where it is still in operation today. Most of the Snug Harbor property was transferred to the City of New York for a cultural center.
Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery is located just beyond the facility’s old south gate on Henderson Avenue. Funeral processions went down a tree-lined road that led to the back of Snug Harbor grounds and passed through the south gate on their way to the graveyard, which is situated today near the corner of Devon Place and Prospect Avenue, adjacent to Allison Pond Park. The six-acre site contains the graves of 7,000 mariners who died at the retirement home between 1833 and 1975. The L-shaped graveyard, dubbed “Monkey Hill” by the Snugs, comprises a flat open field and a small hill and is enclosed by a red brick wall.
At one time in the cemetery’s history, each burial was identified with a gravestone stamped with the four-digit identification number issued when a resident was admitted to the retirement home. As the cemetery became too crowded for stone grave markers, the gravestones were replaced with metal plates, which deteriorated over time and disappeared. Old marble tombstones were also removed from the cemetery to save them from vandals; hundreds of gravestones from the cemetery are now in storage at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
While most of the Snug Harbor property became part of the Cultural Center or was sold for development, ownership of the cemetery was retained by the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The graveyard has been neglected and vandalized since the retirement facility relocated to Sea Level in the 1970s and the few headstones found sprinkled around the site today are the only evidence of the thousands of men who are buried here.
Most of the tombstones still standing in the cemetery are for residents who died in the early 1900s; one of these is enigmatically inscribed “Edward Leiter Alias James Martin, 1840 – 1914.” Why this mariner used an alias is unknown; his registration shows that he was a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was admitted to Snug Harbor in 1899 after serving 36 years at sea.
The men at Snug Harbor were veterans of hard and dangerous lives at sea and even the modern residents had astonishing tales to tell. One of the most recent markers at the cemetery is for Rudolf Ozol, who died in 1975 at the age of 87. On November 8, 1959, Ozol was a boatswain on the tanker Amoco Virginia that exploded and caught fire while docked at Hess Terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The accident, which caused the death of a fireman and seven crewmen, was reported in newspapers around the country. Ozol, who was described as 71-year-old bearded Latvian, said he went to sea at age 12 but had never learned to swim until that day when he jumped in the channel to escape the blaze. “It was sink or swim and I learned fast,” he said. “I paddled just like a dog the 50 feet to shore. That’s a long way for a man my age but a man will do many things under pressure.”
Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; “Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Home for Aged Skippers,” (T. Dreiser), New-York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1904, p3; Sailors Snug Harbor, 1801-1979 (B. Shepherd 1979), p62; “By Will of a Sea Captain: Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery,” (D. Lane), FACSI Newsletter, 15(3) Fall 1998; The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (G. Barry 2000); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (P. Salmon 2006), p145-148; Gravestones from Monkey Hill, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (Noble Maritime Collection display); “8 Dead in Tanker Blaze as Blasts Rock Houston,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov 9, 1959 p14; “Clues Hunted in Blasted Hulk of Tanker…,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), Nov 9, 1959 pp1-2; NYCityMap.