Tacoma's First Port
In its infancy, Tacoma, and especially Old Town along the mile-long docks, earned a reputation that was common to waterfront cities of the era: rough and tumble and unsafe to wander alone in. As the end of the nineteenth century drew near, as many as 20 ships a day called at the wheat docks in Old Town. Majestically rigged deep sea cargo ships cluttered the bay waiting their turn to take on thousands of tons of wheat on their way back to European ports. Many of these deep sea cargo boats had already spent a better part of a year working their way east from Europe. Sailors from every walk exited those ships, many off to spend their wages in the numerous saloons across the area. But for sailors seeking comfort, safety and sobriety, there was one harbor for them in Old Town: Seaman’s Rest.
Seaman's Rest opened on North Carr Street in 1897 by Mother Funnemark and daughter Christine, pictured here in the black dresses.
Opened in 1897, Seaman’s Rest occupied a small wooden structure, at what is now a private home on North Carr Street. Operated by Birgitte Funnemark, affectionately known to the sailors as Mother Funnemark, and her daughter, Christine, Seaman’s Rest provided a haven for many traveling sailors. The experiences of Birgitte’s past fueled her compassion for the wandering seafarer and gave Old Tacoma what many considered a beacon of stability in the midst of chaos.
The Funnemark Family
Birgitte Funnemark, born near Oslo, Norway in 1842 was described by her boarders as a highly educated woman who could speak French, German, and English. She was also a gifted musician. She married into a Norwegian maritime family in 1876. Albert Funnemark, her husband, reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his brother and father as a mariner, though he had aspirations to become a doctor. Albert commanded his first boat at the age of 29. As a captain, Albert was known as fair, stern and devout. He employed some of his medical skills to mend injuries during voyages. The crew quickly responded to his leadership. His skills and leadership, however, could not save him or his crew from the angry North Sea. His boat and 16 others succumbed to a winter storm in January 1884. He left Birgitte a poor widow and mother. Out of the depths of Brigitte’s grief, came the impetus for her future vocation.
Grieving with her over Albert’s death was her uncle Henrik Haakenson, the Norwegian/Swedish Consul in England at the time, and an owner of many ships. Henrik erected a chapel dedicated to seamen in the memory of Albert and often shared meals with visiting mariners. In his words, the chapel and the work with the sailors was meant “to relieve their loneliness caused by the separation from their own loved ones.” During this time he employed Birgitte as a live-in housekeeper.
As a wayfarer’s wife, Birgitte must have personally felt the consequences of a life at sea. Albert’s death and her uncle’s tribute seemed to guide her to understand the loneliness of separation from the sailor’s vantage. It was in the far distant American town of Tacoma that Birgitte eventually found the perfect spot for her mission: to honor her late husband by creating a sanctuary for lonely sailors.
Birgitte Funnemark opened Seaman's Rest in honor of her late husband as a haven for sailors in Old Town Tacoma.
A Haven For Sailors
After Albert’s death Birgitte taught languages and music in Oslo. Relatives and circumstances eventually lured Birgitte and her daughter Christine to America. Once in America, she moved her way west, then north, arriving at Tacoma’s shores in 1888. In December 1897, Birgitte and Christine purchased the house and opened up Seaman’s Rest Mission. When asked about her reasons for running such a unique respite, “Mother Funnemark", as she was fondly called, responded, “I do this in memory of my husband who died at sea. I feel that it is my mission in life to comfort lonely sailors far from home, for Albert always impressed on my the urgent need for a good place for sailors to go when their ships were in port.”
The chaos of Old Tacoma’s docks perhaps provided the most compelling argument for Seamen’s Rest. For some seafaring men, the saloons and dangerous boarding houses were no safer than the sea. The saloons would drain a man of his money, while the notorious boarding house managers could forcibly take his pay, knock him senseless and shanghai him onto another boat, sometimes within sight of police. Few people dared walk alone without protection in the vicinity of Tacoma’s docks.
Seamen’s Rest Mission planted itself just outside that storm of violence at the Old Town docks. Exerting their force of conviction and genuine hospitality, the women of Seamen’s Rest actively advertised their home and fought against the boarding practices of their day. Sailors could find Birgitte and Christine either boarding the newly arrived cargo ships inviting them to their Mission, or confronting saloon and boarding house owner’s for their unsavory activities, particularly the shanghaiing of sailors. One newspaper of the day notes that the women “waged war” on the boarding house keepers for their actions.
A Beacon of Tranquility
Upon entering Seamen’s Rest and signing their names and the name of the boat that brought them, in the house register, visitors could expect to find a reading room stocked with bibles, books, magazines and multiple language newspapers. One could enjoy some amusement in a game of pool or checkers or conversation with other visitors. It was also common to find a burly sailor sporting a mop and bucket to assist with the house chores. Sailors of all languages could be found reading or conversing there.
Brigitte’s talent with music and language along with her daughter’s trained voice only deepened the home’s hospitality. The house was opened to all sailors daily from 10:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. and provided religious services two nights a week by a chaplain from the Seaman’s Friend Society. The men also enjoyed evenings of music called “Mother’s Nights”: a time for coffee and cakes while mother and daughter played and sang favorite hymns.
The relationship between seafarers and the Mission extended beyond providing the peaceful house. Christine kept her father’s practice of sending mail to a sailor’s next port of call, usually newsy letters to keep up their spirits. Sailors often sent mail back sharing their news. Sometimes Seamen’s Rest was the repository of photos and family information in case a sailor was lost at sea. Their loss would be noted in the register, and their photos kept. Birgitte never charged the men to stay at the Seaman’s Rest, yet sailors customarily took up a collection on board and delivered their donation to her the night before their departure.
The Seaman's Rest structure in 2009 -- a private home at the original location on North Carr Street.
Over all, more than 170 ships were logged into the Mission’s register while upwards of 500 sailors a month enjoyed the Mission’s hospitality. One of those ships in the Mission’s register, the S.S. Hero of Drammen Norway, belonged to Captain Oscar Tronsen. In 1902, upon docking in Old Town, he immediately found “Mother Funnemark” to inform her that his ship had been in the same North Sea storm that took her husband Albert in 1884.
Among the many entries of a diary found with the House Register from Seaman’s Rest was this quote from a young English sailor who frequented Seaman’s Rest:
“The Rest was a genuine harbour of refuge for me. If you only knew how much like a home the Rest was for me. If all mothers knew their sailor sons could find such a refuge in Tacoma, it would both warm their hearts & relieve their minds. God Bless & prosper your work, Seaman’s Rest & yourselves for all of us whom have come under your influence. Let the Rest be an every gleaming beacon light and incentive to a better life.”
This beacon of tranquility in Old Town lasted 5 years. In 1899, it moved up the street to 311 No. 11th St., where it closed in 1903 due to Brigitte’s heath and finances. “Mother Funnemark” died in 1919. Christine continued her support of wayfarers, not just of the sea, but of all walks of life until her death in 1960. She helped found the Tacoma Rescue Mission and spent her last days working on McNeil Island in the Penitentiary as a missionary
Alcorn, Rowena L. and Gordon D., "Tacoma Seaman's Rest: Waterfront Mission, 1897-1903," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume LXVI, Number 2, June 1965.
Alcorn, Rowena and Gordon, Inventory Form of Historic Places, City of Tacoma Landmark Preservation Commission, April, 1975.
About the Author
James Bentley began volunteering as a docent at the Job Carr Museum in 2009. History is one of James’ passions, having received his BA in History from UPS. He especially enjoys social history which often looks at how ordinary people coped with their lives. While being impacted by different forces in different times, it is people’s response to those events that makes history. James also became fascinated with how history is publicly displayed, marveling at the political influences in public discussion of history as well as the power of a community’s memory and perception of history.