1801 Serving Elderly Sailors in America’s First Secular Charity
Robert Randall, a founder of the Chamber of Commerce and heir to a maritime fortune, signed a remarkable will that left his property as a bequest to establish America’s first secular charity—benefiting aged sailors. It took decades to defend the will against family members trying to break it, but by then the original estate was producing enormous rental income. Once the legal challenges were fended off the trustees purchased a 130-acre farm on Staten Island overlooking the sea and erected a main building and two dormitories, leaving other land for farming that would provide the sailors’ food. The complex known as Snug Harbor grew quickly until by century’s end over 55 major buildings served 1,000 retired seamen. They enjoyed hospitals, churches, and a music hall in an operation that presaged modern-day elder care. From the start, the harbor served sailors of any race, religion, or background.
In 1976 the trustees moved the retirement home to a new facility in North Carolina. The endowment now assists elderly individuals who served at least ten years at sea with “living needs” that public programs don’t cover. The original campus and Greek Revival buildings are a historic landmark district and city park now considered the “crown jewel” of Staten Island.
- Gerald Barry, The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (Fordham University Press, 2000)
- Snug Harbor Trust, thesailorssnugharbor.org