Captain Harold A. Cunningham: Mariner
“…I myself remember that a Norwegian barque bound out with a cargo of pitch-pine had been given up as missing about that time, and it was just the sort of craft that would capsize in a squall and float bottom up for months – a kind of maritime ghoul on the prowl to kill ships in the dark. Such wandering corpses are common enough in the North Atlantic, which is haunted by all the terrors of the sea, -‑fogs, icebergs, dead ships bent upon mischief, and long sinister gales that fasten upon one like a vampire till all the strength and the spirit and even hope are gone, and one feels like the empty shell of a man….” [Chapter 14, paragraph 3; Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)]
In 1991, my mother (Gertrude Adrian Cunningham Cunningham Van Atta) gave me a six-volume set of books, The Story of the Leviathan, “The World’s Greatest Ship” by Frank O. Braynard and published by the American Merchant Marine Museum, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY. This was about twenty years after Mr. Braynard visited our house in Binghamton, NY to interview my mother about her father Captain Harold A. Cunningham and to borrow some of her family photographs for the book series.
A few years ago Cousin Mary Alice gave me two books that she produced from family albums that her father, Uncle Jack, had put together titled, “Adrian-Cunningham family: 1840 – 1940.” The books are a treasure trove of photos, marginalia, letters, newspaper clippings, obituaries, etc. about our mothers’ parents, Cecelia Adrian Cunningham and Harold A. Cunningham and their respective families.
Grandpa Harold’s maritime career spanned several decades with the following highlights: during WWI, he served in the U. S. Navy as Navigator of the Leviathan, a German passenger ship re-outfitted as a troopship that
carried over 100,000 soldiers across the Atlantic, skirting through German submarine and mine-laden North Atlantic waters, to Europe and “brought home” over 120,000 survivors; after the war, he served as Captain of the George Washington; in 1928 he returned to the remodeled (to the tune of $8 million) passenger ship Leviathan as Captain and Commodore of the United States Lines; three years later, he retired from the U. S. Merchant Marine and went to work for the Marine Department at Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, initially as Port Captain and then Manager of the company’s Port of New York Office at 115 (today 26) Broadway. My mother remembers his office address as being at 45 Rockefeller Center.
A September 1945 obituary from Standard Oil Company’s newspaper states, “Captain Cunningham held a prominent place in America’s maritime affairs. He had an enviable reputation as a ship-master and his opinions on nautical matters were frequently sought and highly respected. His remarkable personality and proven abilities won him a host of friends who deeply mourn his passing.”
For years, Cousin Mary Alice Reddy Fassl had wondered, “What would our seafaring grandfather, Captain Harold A. Cunningham (1884-1945), have seen each time he sailed out of and into New York Harbor?” She wanted to see and experience the New York City skyline from what would have been his nautical perspective: the water. To that end, last September (2012), Mary Alice and her husband Steve booked a seven night round-trip cruise on the Caribbean Princess that sailed out of Brooklyn (NY) Harbor east along the coast of Long Island, rounded the bend of Rhode Island and headed north to Nova Scotia and back. While other shipboard guests were wining, dining and gambling, she and Steve explored the entire ship to learn how it worked and to imagine our grandfather’s shipboard life. They thoroughly enjoyed themselves. As the ship cruised back into New York harbor at sunrise, Mary Alice photographed these two stunning views.
In the fall of 2011, and again this spring (2013) I’d done a similar thing, albeit not nearly as adventurous as she. Along the Westside Highway, across from Jacob Javits Center, in lower Manhattan, NY, I scoped out the United States Lines Terminal located in New York Harbor and imagined how my grandfather may have moved on the land to get to work. If he took the train from home in Glen Ridge, NJ, he would have taken the ferry from the Erie Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken NJ across the Hudson River. Then, a trolley or subway to his office at the United States Lines until 1931 when he went to work for Standard Oil until he died in 1945. My mother remembers that when her father went to sea [two weeks on, two weeks off], her mother drove him into New York.