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The history of the schoolship JOHN W BROWN echoes the history of maritime training in New York City. For all practical purposes the concept of the training given on the JOHN W BROWN got its start in 1874 aboard the schoolship ST. MARYS. At that time the U.S. merchant marine had declined to the point where American ships were largely officered and manned by crews of foreign citizenship.

Responding to this, Congress passed an act for the establishment of state nautical schools. The New York City Board of Education, realizing that New York City was one of the great ports in the world and that a training school would be beneficial to the welfare of the city, opened the New York Nautical School.

The school taught boys to become sailors on the schoolship ST. MARYS, a former sloop of war obtained from the U.S. Navy.

The school originally trained unlicensed personnel but gradually changed to a training school for merchant marine officers. In 1908 ST. MARYS was replaced by the auxiliary barkentine USS NEWPORT. In 1913 the school was transferred to the control of the state of New York and evolved into what is today known as SUNY Maritime College, also known as Fort Schulyer, in the Bronx.

From this point until 1936 there was no formal training for for unlicensed personnel on American ships. The U.S. merchant marine had also fallen into deplorable condition. War clouds were now building in Europe and something had to be done, so Congress enacted into law the Merchant Marine Act of 1936.

Among other things this new law recommended that a comprehensive system be established for the training of citizens of the United States to serve as licensed and unlicensed personnel on U.S.-flagged ships.

In 1937 the New York City Board of Education once again responded by organizing a maritime training course to be given at Metropolitan Vocational High School for high school boys with an interest and aptitude for a seafaring career. The first course was given in the autumn of 1937 with one instructor and 18 students in the deck department. The course was extended to engineering training and later to the steward and radio departments. The classes were taught at the main building of Metropolitan Vocational High School but a ship was needed to teach the practical aspects of the maritime trades.

Some time thereafter permission was obtained from the New York City Department of Marine and Aviation to use Pier 32 on the East River and the old city ferryboat BROOKLYN that was tied up there. During World War II the U.S. Coast Guard arranged to use the ferry for the training of machinist mates, carpenters and firemen-watertenders. The Coast Guardsmen trained alongside the students on BROOKLYN.

At the end of World War II BROOKLYN was returned to the city. The school was once more without a training vessel for its maritime students, but the maritime program was still alive at Metropolitan Vocational High School.

In 1946 the Liberty ship SS JOHN W BROWN was made available to the Board of Education by the U.S. Maritime Commission. In August of 1946 a letter of agreement was entered into between the Maritime Commission and the City of New York. The ship was to be loaned to the city for educational purposes without charge, thereafter all expenses for maintenance and upkeep were to be assumed by the city.

On December 13, 1946, after completing a grain run to Europe, JOHN W BROWN was towed to Pier 4, East River, and there began its schoolship career.