Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Patsy Lenen: Sailor Saloonkeeper in a Violent Town


A sailor from boyhood in his native Scotland, Patsy Lenen in the early 1870s fetched up in busy seaside Port Townsend, Washington.  On its main wharf Lenen founded a saloon that for many years was a favorite hangout for thirsty mariners in a town where “shangaiing” hapless men for sea duty was a common and accepted practice.

The son of Patrick and Mary Mekin Linnin. Patsy (probably a nickname for Patrick) was born in Greenock in March, 1846, a major seaport off the southwest coast of Scotland at the point where the River Clyde empties into an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean.  Shown here as it looked in the mid-19th Century with a mix of sail and steam powered vessels, Greenock was bustling port with a large customs house. 


It was almost pre-ordained that youths like Lenen would go to sea, many forgoing an education. Patsy was among them and remained illiterate throughout his life.  According to his obituary,  “He deeply deplored his lack of schooling and on one occasion when this was under discussion said: ‘Education is one of the finest things in the world;  them that don’t has it knows it best.’”   One result is that Patsy and others spelled his name in a variety of ways.  Lennen, Lennin, Lennon, and Lennan all show up on Port Townsend documents with Patsy attached to them.  Because his obituary has him as Lenen, that spelling has been adopted here.

Apparently blessed with native intelligence, Lenen’s education came from his encounters at sea.  He was thrown in with “tars” of diverse nationalities and visited many foreign ports.  His obituary notes:  “He served his time under men whose word was law and the foc’sale housed sailors who ‘knew their stuff’ and whose life, while at times might be filled with excitement, was fraught with hard work, stern rule, and few of what today calls comforts.”

By the time he reached his early 30s, Patsy had enough of the mariner life and opted for employment on land.  Port Townsend must have reminded him of Greenrock.  Both towns are on peninsulas with deep harbors immediately accessible to major ocean trade routes.  Both had customs houses that drew shipping.  In 1880 Port Townsend was visited by an estimated 1,000 ships.  Lenen could live and work on land and yet be no more than a few feet from maritime life.

Lenen’s first job ashore was working as a clerk at the Central Hotel, shown here.  It was Port Townsend’s premier hostelry, completed in 1875 at a cost of $6,423. The hotel was a large three-story wooden structure with an ornate balcony around two sides.  It was a favorite stopping place for distinguished visitors and politicians.  Among those said to have stayed there were President Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and then-Senator Benjamin Harrison.  It is likely that Patsy met several of those historical personages.

In addition to his employment at the Central Hotel, Lenen earned additional money by working as a boatman, rowing out to ships anchored in the harbor to pick up passengers bound for town and returning them.  As a Scot, he likely was a frugal man and in time accrued sufficient funds to open his own saloon.  Appropriately it was located on Port Townsend’s Union Dock and the first “watering hole” that sailors and other visitors would see as they disembarked.   Called by Patsy “The Pacific Saloon” it is the last building on the right before the Union Wharf.

Although waterfront bars were ubiquitous in Port Townsend, The Pacific Saloon seems to have been a particular favorite with transients and townfolks alike. Shown here is a photo in front of Lenen’s saloon.  Gathered there are several leading citizens, included the bearded Joe Kuhn, an early settler who had served as the town’s mayor, judge, lawyer and photographer.  Standing behind them in the doorway, wearing an apron, is a man I believe is Patsy Lenen himself, the owner showing off his property.

Dimly seen in a window of the Pacific Saloon is a sign advertising rye whiskey.  It signals that Lenen was selling quality liquor being produced 2,600 miles away near Pittsburgh.  Golden Wedding Rye Whiskey was the product of a Pennsylvania distillery operated by Joseph Finch and a series of partners, trademarked in 1882.  The whiskey would have come cross country via railroad or by ship around the Horn.  

Lenen’s career as a saloonkeeper would not have been without tumult.  Port Townsend was a town with a reputation for “shanghaiing,”  that is, kidnapping men to serve as sailors by techniques that included trickery, intimidation and often violence.  The practice was driven by a shortage of labor, particularly of skilled labor on ships on the West Coast.  With crews abandoning their vessels en masse because of the California Gold Rush and other Western mining strikes, a healthy body — or even a damaged one — on board a ship was valuable.

At Port Townsend leading citizens were involved in the abductions, also called “crimping.”  They included a businessman named Max Levy who ran a string of boardinghouse for seaman.  His partner in crime,  Edgar Sims, shown here, at one time was employed as the government official in Port Townsend who qualified men for sea duty.  Sims subsequently became rich owning fish canneries and gained statewide fame for service in the Washington Legislature.


Levy and Sims did not do their own dirty work.  They gave orders to their “runners” and then stood back to collect their money from the ship owners. The runners were thugs, men who did not hesitate to use force when necessary to achieve their quota of sailors, including beating candidates into insensibility.  A 2006 article on Levy by Elizabeth Gibson told of their tactics:  “They waited until a man passed out when he'd had too much to drink. Or if they didn't have time to wait they put "knock-out drops" in his drink. Once the man was out cold, they dumped him into a skiff and rowed him out to the waiting ship. By the time he woke up, he was far out to sea.”

Although no evidence exists that Lenen was involved in “crimping,” an incident occurred in his Pacific Saloon involving a “big fellow from Butte” who had been shanghaied by Levy and Sims and loaded on a ship to Hong Kong.  Returning two years later, the man disembarked from the steamer Alice Gertrude, shown here, at Port Townsend and went looking for the pair.  When he found them at the Pacific Saloon, each had a runner with him and the four men attacked and beat the sailor thoroughly.  Although police were notified, they refused to interfere, leading to speculation they had been bribed.

A second incident recorded at his Pacific Saloon suggests that Lenen was someone interested in keeping the peace.  Following an altercation in another bar, a man named Jack Moran swore revenge against Second Mate McDonald of the ship Benjamin E. Sewell and followed him and First Mate Page of the tug Wanderer to Lenen’s saloon.  There Moran threatened the pair in such violent language that Patsy summoned the police.  Again they refused to do anything.  Given a second chance, Moran later attacked the the pair with a 15-inch bolt, striking Page in the head, severely injuring him.  This time he was arrested, tried and sent to prison for three years.

These were just two of what must have been multiple incidents Lenen dealt with at the Pacific Saloon.  At some point before Washington voted statewide prohibition against the sale of alcohol in 1916, he sold the establishment and by then in his late sixties continued to work at odd jobs in the shipping trade.  The 1920 census recorded Patsy, now 74 years old, employed as a watchman at a launch office.  His home was just off Water Street with good views of the Port Townsend bay.   One observer has opined of Lenen:  “It is doubtful if he ever traveled more than a few miles inland.”  

Characterized as a man “whose mind was rich in memories, kind and generous in thought and action,” Patsy was consulted by townsfolk and local reporters for his knowledge of ships, sailors, voyages and happenings of days gone by.  In his early 80s, Lenen began to fail physically and in November 1929, at the age of 83, he died in Port Townsend’s St. John’s Hospital.  After funeral services at a local mortuary, he was buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, with a local priest officiating.

Lenen’s obituary in the Port Townsend Leader described him as a “well known sailor man of old days” and “one of the well known characters of this part of the country.”  I prefer to think of Patsy Lenen as a man who, although denied the benefits of literacy, nonetheless succeeded as a saloonkeeper and whiskey man while keeping his humanity in a town where violence was common.

Addendum:   During my visit in May 2018 to Port Townsend, a community that today is trying to make the most of its rich history, I was highly amused, given the town’s reputation during its seafaring days, of the sidewalk signboard shown here that advertises a local Chinese restaurant.  The chopstick eatery might more appropriately have been named “The Peking” or “The Nanking.”

Notes:  The information on Patsy Lenen came from several sources.  Thanks go to the Jefferson County Genealogical Society and Joan Buhler, my contact there, for their assistance in obtaining a copy of Lenen’s informative 1928 obituary in the Port Townsend Leader.  Other important sources were the book “Port Townsend:  An Illustrated History of Shanghaiing, Shipwrecks, Soil Doves and Sundry Souls,” by Thomas W. Canfield, published in 2000, and Elizabeth Gibson’s essay on Max Levy posted on HistoryLink.org on December 5, 2006.































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