Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Chaplain John David Jones Preached on the Cleveland Waterfront
Chaplain John David Jones moored his gospel ship, the Floating Bethel, to docks on the Cuyahoga River front and rescued sailors from the traditional sailor vices.
The well dressed stranger didn't realize that only the brave or the very foolish ventured into Cleveland's Flats after dark in the year 1868. He wanted a drink, so he went to the section of town where he could get one. The saloons were located on Whiskey Island, where the Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie. They made up the waterfront district of warehouses, saloons, and brothels, lit by gas and oil lamps and whispered about in more respectable quarters of town.
Chaplain John David Jones Rescues the Well Dressed Stranger
The stranger selected a saloon, swung open the door, and walked in. A ragged, shifty eyed man spotted him immediately as a mark with a full wallet and sidled over to the stranger. Just as the well dressed stranger was darting nervous glances over his shoulder, the swinging saloon doors opened and gasps and cries of "It's the Chaplain, it's the one-armed Chaplain," came from all corners of the shadowy room. The shifty eyed man backed away from the well dressed stranger. He walked over and slapped the one armed Chaplain on the back. The one- armed Chaplain had saved one more unsuspecting person from the waterfront penalty for unwariness.
John David Jones was the name of the one armed chaplain and every man round the Cleveland docks knew and liked him. He was a native son, born April 30, 1845, at Cleveland. His father had been a local Methodist preacher, and one of the owners of the first rolling mill built at Cleveland. John Jones went before the mast on the Great Lakes in 1852, with Captain Solon Rummage on the schooner Wings of the Morning. For twelve years he sailed the Great Lakes, then sought salt water, taking service on merchant vessels.
John David Jones Fights in the Civil War and Returns to the Great Lakes
The guns of Civil War echoed down the lakes as well as on land in 1861. John enlisted in the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry and served one year there. Then he followed his true calling and joined the Navy. The Navy appointed him carpenter on the gunboat Yantic and he served on her for two years. During the fighting at Fort Fisher, John took part in the attack under General Butler. A one hundred pound parrot swivel gun burst, killing the gunner and the officer of the division. Although John stood next to them, he was not hurt.
At the second attack under General Terry, volunteers were recruited to go with Lieutenant Cushing to storm Fort Fisher. John Jones went along and he was standing by the side of Lt. Porter when he was shot. A squad of seven or eight men who were with him were all killed and wounded. John Jones said, "This was the most trying moment of my life and I thank God for his great mercy."
After his service in the Civil War, John returned to the lakes and signed on as watchman on the propeller Winslow with Captain Robert Anderson, who was considered in those days one of the most skillful and able navigators on the lakes. John had previously sailed on the bark Pomeroy, which he laid up in Chicago at the end of the season. After his service with Captain Anderson, John served on the schooner N.C. Winslow. He also sailed on the T.P. Handy, William Chase, Champion, C.C. Casper, the bark Bridge and many others.
John David Jones Converts from Carousing to Christianity
In his hitches as a sailor, John David Jones developed a taste for damsels, drink, and devilry, and was one of the wildest sailors of them all. In fact, he said that he never had command of a vessel because he was a "victim" of drink. The transformation of John David Jones from wild sailor to Christian convert took place in 1868, soon after his return to the lakes. He worked for a short time on the railroad and during this time, he fell under the wheels of a freight train and lost his arm. Since his life had been spared, he converted to Christianity and vowed to mend his ways and try to help his fellow sailors.
Chaplain John David Jones preached the gospel to the poor, visited the sick and reclaimed the wayward. Reverend J.S. Reeger, one of his contemporaries, said of him, "Chaplain Jones knows their sorrows, knows their sick fathers and mothers, knows the calamities that have come into their homes; everything connected with their lives seems to have come to the knowledge of this man."
The waterfront men liked the one armed Chaplain right away. He was a short and stocky man with a dignified manner, but he could hold his own in any waterfront fight and the men knew it. His eloquence and persuasive manner made him many friends and his refinement and culture surprised those meeting him for the first time. Many of the sailors thought if religion had helped him, it could do the same thing for them.
Chaplain John David Jones Provides the Floating Bethel to Help Sailors
The one armed chaplain had friends in high places, too, men of means in the early lake shipping trade, all anxious to improve the lot of the sailor. He got to know police officers, judges, politicians, doctors, and clergymen. When city police hurried to a waterfront brawl in high wheeled horse drawn patrol wagons, more often than not, they turned their prisoners over to Chaplain Jones. They reasoned that they would save jail costs, court costs, and the culprit would benefit more from a talk with the one armed Chaplain than a judge.
Most of the time, the police were right. Chaplain Jones provided a safe, secure berth for the sailors and other people of his ministry. The berth was a boat about 60 or so feet long, substantial in beam, and had blunt noise and a square stern. The sailors called her the Floating Bethel, and she became a familiar sight as she lay moored on the Cuyahoga River and in Cleveland Harbor. The Floating Bethel had no means of propulsion, so a friendly tug or bum boat would drag her to various docks around the harbor. Sometimes she would set in one spot for months before she moved.
Some sources say that Chaplain Jones lived inside the Floating Bethel, but if he did it could only have been for a short time. He founded the Floating Bethel in 1868, and he also married in 1868. The woman he married, Miss Lydia Pepperday, happened to be the organist of the old Bethel and he took his courtship from there. The couple eventually had eight children.
Working in the Floating Bethel
The inside of the Floating Bethel was almost as interesting as the chaplain who ran it. There was one large room in its interior with a pulpit sitting near the bow. There were chairs and benches for the congregation to sit in while they were listening to the chaplain's sermons. He preached a sermon that could match any clergyman of the day and for after sermon reading, he provided daily papers and current magazines for the sailors. He also maintained and kept orderly a reading room for unemployed sailors.
The Floating Bethel became a haven for water front transgressors and the Chaplain had many lasting converts. She was a water front fixture in the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland Harbor for years. No one remembers what became of her. Some say that the one armed Chaplain had her hauled ashore and mounted on wheels where she served as a revival tabernacle in the more remote spots of Lake Erie County. Others say that she drifted out into a Lake Erie and was lost in one of the violent storms that Lake Erie brews so swiftly.
The History of the Great Lakes, published in 1899, has a biography about Chaplain Jones and states that his work on the Floating Bethel dated from 1868 to the 1899. The officers for the Floating Bethel in 1899 are listed as Captain Thomas Wilson, president; Captain George Stone, first vice president; Stiles H. Curtiss, second vice president; C.O. Scott, treasurer; H.F. Lyman, secretary; and J.D. Jones, chaplain and superintendent. The biography also says that in 1895, Chaplain Jones received a handsome present amounting to $6,183.75 for the purpose of lifting the mortgage from his home. The reason the Chaplain had a mortgage on his home was his generosity to the poor of Cleveland.
The Gospel Ship on Wheels
In 1897, Chaplain Jones had another idea which seemed to operate separately from the FloatingBethel. He thought that with a boat nicely fitted up and mounted on wheels he could reach many people not in the habit of going to church. He went to Detroit and visited the different boat houses until he found a suitable boat. He paid $50 for his boat, brought it to Cleveland, and mounted it on wheels. As soon as the boat was in commission, he cruised the different parts of the city with a crew of singers and did much good spreading the gospel in this novel manner.
The Floating Betheland the Chaplain's gospel ship on wheels were practical ways that Chaplain John David Jones used to minister to people and a logical extension of his lifelong fascination with ships. Many of his sermons were about the spiritual significance of ships and the sea and Jesus being a "fisher of men."
The fun loving side of the Chaplain Jones also came out in the Bethel. The story goes that he maintained a standing offer for years to vanquish any one-armed man who cared to challenge him. History doesn't record any challengers.
Anderson, Bern, By Sea and By River: The Naval History of the Civil War, Da Capo Press, 1989
Mansfield, J.B., History of the Great Lakes. Chicago: J.H. Beers Company, 1899
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.