Stevedores, Dock workers and Longshoremen

HOME - Occupations - Fritz Kettler - Hannah Peters - Johann Bernard Petermann

Collection Maggie Land Blanck, June 2012

Dockworkers, Longshoremen, and Stevedores

Two of my ancestors worked the docks in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey.

Fritz Kettler, born Freisland c 1862, was a longshoreman in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey between 1886 and his death in 1896. Fritz Kettler

Johann Berend Peterman was born in Ganderkessee, Germany in 1843. He spent a number of years at sea in the German Merchant Marines before immigrating to America. He was a longshoreman, stevedore and dock forman in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey between 1887 and 1905. Berend Petermann

In the days before container shipping, stevedores worked inside the ship, packing and securing the merchandise. Dock workers and longshoreman worked on the docks moving merchandise from the ship to the docks and vice verse.

The port of New York, which included the docks in Brooklyn and Hoboken, was one of the busiest ports in the world in the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s when Johann Bernard Petermann, Fritz Kettler and Johannus Jensen (the first and second husbands respectively of Hannah Peters) worked on the docks in Brooklyn and Hoboken.

Longshoremen were said to be stalwart, with brawny arms, broad chests, and sturdy limbs. In the summer their faces were bronzed from the outdoor work.

Many of the men who worked the docks in the New York harbor in the late 1880s to early 1900s were recently arrived immigrants.

In June 1888 the superintendent of the Pinto stores at the Atlantic Basin in Red Hook Brooklyn claimed that times were bad for the shipping trade.

"the fierce sun was pouring down an intense heat on the unruffled surface of the water; from end to end it was almost unbroken by a hull, save two barks, two barkentines and a solitary canaller. Sitting in listless groups wherever there was a little shade or a fresh breeze were hundreds of swarthy, sunbrowned 'longshoremen, able and willing to work' but here was none to be had."
Only twelve men were working whereas at that time of year the normal employment would have been fifty to a hundred. The reasons were unclear but for one thing due to sugar trust tariffs more sugar was being delivered to New Jersey than Brooklyn.

"The unloading, once begun, proceeds rapidly, as any men being employed as can work together conveniently, and the freight being hoisted out by means of tackle suspended from the yard-arm, and operated by steam or horse power. Usually, as fast as it is discharged, the cargo is sent to warehouses near by, and assorted for the owners."
"The longshore-men are among the most ignorant and brutal of men. Their work is very laborious, but requires little skill; their surroundings and associations are all such as tend to degrade them; their pay is smaller than that of almost any other class of workmen, and their prejudices are easily excited. It thus happens that debauchery and murderous fighting are constant among them; extensive strikes against reduction of wages or some fancied imposition are of frequent occurrence; and some of the bloodiest riots New York has ever seen originated among them. Intemperate and brutal in every respect, yet hard workers, and consequently muscular, no class of men gives the police so much trouble as the longshore-men."
Several pages later the tone changes from the contempt of the previous paragraph to one of awe at the ability of the longshoremen to move heavy cargo.
"The ease with which exceedingly heavy bodies are handled by the stevedore's men is remarkable. The hatchways are often just large enough to let the package through, and frequently the space between decks is so circumscribed that the men have hardly room to move; yet by skillfully landing the hogshead, or boxed piano, or granite monument, or huge piece of machinery, as it is lowered to them by the tackle, by bringing it up and twisting it over with iron bars, pulling it with cotton hooks, and pushing it with brawny hands and shoulders, sitting down four or five in a row, against a bulkhead shoving with their feet, they slowly work the unwieldily mass into its corner, and brace it firmly by wedges; until its successor is placed."

Excerpts from Harper's Weekly September, 1877, THE LADING OF A SHIP

The Survey, Volume 36 By Edward Thomas Devine, Paul Underwood Kellogg, Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, Survey Associates review by George McPherson Hunter of The Longshoreman by Charles B Barnes gives the following impressions of dock workers:
"Every human tied that has broken on the shores of America has left its mark on the dock-laboring class. Indeed, it is no more than sober truth that the history of emigration could be written inductively from the water-front.......

Facts have an uncanny way of smashing theories, prejudices and notions, and the first delusions about these men is their moral conduct. Unthinkingly they have been classed as dissolute and shiftless. So strong is this feeling that the best of them deny their calling when in a tight place......

....a longshoreman will handle 3,000 pounds weight per hour. These men carry on their backs for from 5 to 20 hours bags of sugar, flour, beef, coal, weighting from 175 to 350 pounds. How could these loads and weights and the commerce of a great port like New York be carried by a dissolute class of men?

Physically they must be strong, husky muscular men, to perform such feats. Before their work begins, there may be hours of waiting in the cold, when a man cannot afford to jeopardize his chance of being employed by going to a saloon for a snack.

Many of them have testified that a stretch of 20 to 35 hours' work with only occasional stops for meals leaves them impaired for days. The rush to get a ship to sea and working under high pressure is the cause of the high percentage of accidents.

The risks of the occupation are abnormally high. Longshoremen work in ships' holds cramped in narrow spaces like miners where the heat is oppressive in summer. Dust in some cargoes compels them to wear wet sponges over their mouths. Potatoes give off fumes that sometimes prove fatal, bone-dust is dreaded, dried hides cut the hands and blood-poising follows. Cuts, bruises, strains and ruptures are common."

Dangerous Work

In 1875 John Ryan age 25 was severely injured in the spine when a bag of sugar fell on him at the pinto stores.

Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

On South Street, New York- "Longshoremen Waiting For A Job

Harper's Weekly August 13, 1881

Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

A Longshoremen's Retreat, Brooklyn. --- Drawn by L. C. Vogt, 1890

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877


Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

Loading and Unloading, Pier No. 6, East River

Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Scene On A New York Dock --- Stevedores Unloading A Ship--- [drawn by I. P. Pransinikoff]

Harper's Weekly July 14, 1877

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

"A word about the lighters. They are broad, blunt-nosed, sloop-rigged boats, all deck except a little hole of a cabin, and used about the harbor for transporting merchandise to and from vessels at anchorage, or from wharf to wharf. They are thoroughly ill-looking, always in the way, and only to be excused for existence on the score of the great usefulness. The lighters are on the rivers what the carts are on the streets."

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

Loading From A Floating Elevator

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

United States Bonded Warehouse

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Publication and Date Unknown


Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

THE LONGSHOREMAN'S NOON by John George Brown (1831-1913)

From back:

"The scene could be any northern American dock, perhaps one of the Brooklyn docks"

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Harper's Weekly September, 1877

Interior of Bonded-Warehouse

Collection of Maggie Land Blanck, Harper's Weekly November 15, 1873


Coenties Slip was located in lower Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the accompanying article was not included with this image. However, I believe that the men with the T shaped devises on the left are inspecting the flour. There were laws regulating the quality or grade of the flour to insure that it would make a decent bread. The barrels were inspected to determine that they were constructed according to regulations to protect the flour from moisture and bugs. They barrels were also weighed.

I do not know why there are women and children on the dock. They appear to be working at something and may be helpers of the flour inspectors.

Brooklyn Museum Public Library, Brooklyn Collection, George Bradford Brainerd (America 1845-1887), June 2012

Longshoreman, Brooklyn

Ocean steamships: a popular account of their construction, development, management and appliances (Google eBook), French Ensor Chadwick, Albert Edward Seaton, William Henry Rideing, John H. Gould, James Douglas Jerrold Kelley, Ridgely Hunt, June 2012

Loading and Unloading, Coastline Seamen by Eugene Light

The Brooklyn Press, Sunday August 11, 1895

The Working Man's Pay Day in New York Pictures by G. W. Peter*, 1908**, Century Magazine Jan 1908, collection Maggie Land Blanck, June 2012


This is a very interesting scene - on the left are the men lined up to board the pay boat - out of his meager wage the gentleman is donating some change to help those less fortunate than himself.

*George W. Peters America artist 1855-1955

**Another scene in this series is called "Pay Day for Italian Laborers at the Excavation in west Thirty-Third Street for the New Pennsylvania Station. The old Pennsylvania Station was completed in 1910.

Photo Maggie Land Blanck, 2012

This model at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven shows how various commodities were crated and packed. Distribution of weight was very important for the stability of the ship.

Photo Maggie Land Blanck, 2012

This model at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven shows how sacks were stacked onboard a ship.

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Fritz Kettler
Hannah Peters
Johann Bernard Petermann
The Waterfront Red Hook, Brooklyn

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Copyright by Maggie Land Blanck - This page was created in 2004 - Latest update, January 2015