Kelvin White and the maritime precincts of lower Manhattan

A view of South Street at the end of the Age of Sail. Alan Littel worked in the area in the 1940s, when lower Manhattan’s waterfront retained vestiges of  that bygone era.
A view of South Street at the end of the Age of Sail. Alan Littel worked in the area in the 1940s, when lower Manhattan’s waterfront retained vestiges of
that bygone era.

In the long summer of 1947, a few months shy of my 18th  birthday, I went to work in the historic shipping parish of New York’s lower Manhattan for a purveyor of charts, chronometers and nautical instruments. The company was called Kelvin and Wilfrid O. White, known familiarly in the trade as Kelvin White, on Water Street. I worked a five-and-a-half-day week and my salary was $25. I loved that job.

On any given day, my duties included trotting over to two other nautical instrument shops—Negus Brothers and John Bliss & Co. — both on nearby Pearl Street, to complete, for ships about to sail, orders of charts missing from Kelvin White’s inventory. In the pre-electronic era, those paper charts of the watery part of the globe published by the U.S. Hydrographic Office, the British Admiralty and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey were obviously essential to the safe navigation of merchant vessels. A ship could not sail without them. And Kelvin White would, of course, return the courtesy for charts missing from the order books of its two friendly competitors.

The three firms were similar in their stock, histories and locations. Lower Manhattan as late as 1918, the year of Kelvin White’s founding, had centered on a warren of twisting lanes within sight and smell of the North and East Rivers and of New York’s upper bay. Commerce had to do with cargoes, charter parties, bills of lading. It was a bustling dockland of shipping companies, chandleries, warehouses, grog shops, drays and cart horses, and, especially on South Street,  the last of the surviving windjammers — all overhung with the pungent odors of dung and hot dust, hemp, rubber and wool and  the more fragrant Eastern scents of turmeric, cinnamon and lac.

By my day, the sailing ship had all but disappeared and with it those aromatic cargoes from the South China Sea and the Malabar Coast of India. But pervasive still was the haunting odor of roasting coffee. And when I think of Kelvin White and the mariner’s New York, the smell of coffee is what I especially recall.

Kelvin White of Water Street was an exciting place to work. The shop was a temple of sorts, hallowed ground to generations of sailors. All the magic of the seven seas graced its shelves. Glass cases displayed chronometers, sextants, compasses, barometers, dividers and parallel rules. 

There were low, wide drawers full of charts laid flat. Racks of books bent under the weight of tide tables, sailing directions and nautical almanacs, and of manuals of seamanship, knots and splices, naval architecture and maritime law.

Here a seaman could buy the latest editions of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator and Commander Dutton’s Navigation and Nautical Astronomy. And tucked away in a dusty corner might also be found Captain Lecky’s 19th-century classic, Wrinkles in Practical Navigation, and perhaps an antique copy of Robert White Stevens’s On the Stowage of Ships and Their Cargoes, known famously to mariners as Stevens on Stowage. Today both are collector’s items.

I began my workday by winding and time-checking by telephone the dozens of chronometers that had come to us for cleaning or repair. But the best part of the job was delivering charts and instruments to the liners docked at North River piers—those magnificent ships of the Cunard-White Star Line, French Line, United States Lines, Moore-McCormack, American Export, many others. It was on those vessels, laden with my parcels and packages for the bridge, that I had free run of the ship and I jostled on sailing days with white-jacketed stewards scuttling busily in the passageways. 

Farther afield, my route took me to less-exalted outliers. These were the sea-weathered, rust-stained freighters and tankers moored at terminals along the breadth of the city’s sprawling waterfront. Boarding these ships I entered a world that by now had become familiar to me: the marsh-gas stench of bunkering fuel; the rumbling of engine-room machinery. My business was always with the navigating officer—second mate. And once my delivery chit had been signed I would invariably be sent down to the galley with a note for the cook: “Give the kid a sandwich.”

This, then, is the story of the maritime precincts of my youth. It bears witness to a vanished age, a singular tale of rambles along the shipping byways of old Manhattan. It is, for this writer, a saga of romance—an irrecoverable past. 

Alan Littell is an author, journalist and former merchant mariner.