SS John W. Brown is a Liberty ship, one of two still operational and one of three preserved as museum ships. As a Liberty ship, she operated as a merchant ship of the United States Merchant Marine during World War II and later was a vocational high school training ship in New York City for many years. Now preserved, she is a museum ship and cruise ship berthed at Pier 13 in Baltimore Harbor in Maryland.
John W. Brown was named after the Canadian-born American labor union leader John W. Brown (1867–1941).
The other surviving operational Liberty ship is SS Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco, California, US. A third Liberty ship, SS Hellas Liberty (ex-SS Arthur M. Huddell) is preserved as a static museum ship in Piraeus, Greece.
The United States Maritime Commission ordered John W. Brown as an ECS-S-C1 Maritime Commission Emergency Cargo Ship, the type of ship that would become popularly known as the "Liberty ship", hull number 312 on 1 May 1941. She was laid down at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland, on 28 July 1942 and – sponsored by Annie Green, the wife of the president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers – was launched on 7 September 1942, the third of three Liberty ships launched at the yard that day. She completed fitting out on 19 September 1942, making her total construction time only 54 days. She required about 500,000 man-hours and cost $1,750,000 to build and was the 62nd of the 384 Liberty ships constructed at the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard.
The Worthington Pump & Machine Corporation of Harrison, New Jersey, built John W. Brown's vertical triple expansion steam engine, which cost $100,000.
During and right after WWII the John W. Brown completed 13 voyages described in detail here.
New York City's Metropolitan Vocational High School had been without a ship for the training of boys interested in seafaring careers since its school ship, the New York City ferryboat Brooklyn, had been returned to the city at the end of World War II. In August 1946, the Maritime Commission and the City of New York signed a letter of agreement under which the Maritime Commission would loan John W. Brown – whose tweendeck modifications to carry troops gave her a large amount of internal space suitable for classroom use – to the city for educational purposes at no charge, with the city responsible for all expenses related to maintaining the ship and operating her as a static training ship. After John W. Brown completed her final voyage in November 1946, she was towed to her new berth at Manhattan's Pier 4 on the East River on 13 December 1946 to enter service as SS John W. Brown High School, the only floating nautical high school in the United States. The ship served in that capacity as a static training facility from 1946 to 1982, graduating thousands of students prepared to begin careers at sea in the merchant marine, the United States Navy, and the United States Coast Guard. By 1950, she had moved to a new berth at Manhattan's Pier 43 on the East River at the foot of East 25th Street.
Training aboard John W. Brown began in December 1946, many of the early students being men who had dropped out of classes at the Metropolitan Vocational High School during World War II to serve as merchant mariners or in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard. Students studied standard academic subjects and took boat building, marine radio, marine electrician, and maritime business classes in the high school's main building ashore; aboard John W. Brown they learned their seafaring trade, either as deck hands, engine room personnel, or stewards, and they also performed all maintenance and repairs the ship required. Students at first spent a week at a time in the building and a week at a time on the ship; later, the schedule changed so that they spent half of each school day in the building and the other half aboard the ship. The Maritime Educational Advisory Commission also met regularly aboard the ship and worked closely with the school's staff.
Graduates enjoyed an excellent reputation in the maritime industry. Between 1951 and 1955, 80 percent of the school's graduates gained employment in the maritime industry or in seagoing agencies and forces of the United States Government, a record rivaling that of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, while 40 percent of those who did not complete the course of study and left school at age 17 also secured such jobs. The U.S. Coast Guard also granted additional credit to the school's graduates toward earning a Lifeboat Certificate.
By late 1956, the decline of the American merchant marine, budget problems in New York City, the expense of maintaining, repairing, and operating John W. Brown, and the cost of busing students between the school's main building and the ship had created financial difficulties for the high school that it would never fully overcome. New York City officials gave thought to ending the maritime vocational training program and closing the school, but cost-cutting measures were instituted, such as returning in September 1957 to the schedule of having students study in the school's building for a week at time and aboard ship for a week at time, eliminating the expense of busing. However, continuing budget problems finally led to the school closing in mid-1982, and John W. Brown remained idle in New York Harbor for the next year.
When John W. Brown's school-ship days ended, the first Project Liberty Ship was formed in New York City to preserve her. It did not succeed in finding her a berth in New York, and instead she was towed to the James River Reserve Fleet near Norfolk, Virginia, in July 1983 with her future in doubt.
In August 1988, Project Liberty Ship found John W. Brown a berth in Baltimore, Maryland, near where she was built and had her towed there. In September 1988, she was dedicated as a memorial museum at ceremonies at Dundalk Marine Terminal in Dundalk, Maryland.
After three years of restoration effort, on 24 August 1991 John W. Brown steamed under her own power for the first time in nearly 45 years, and completed sea trials in the same waters in the Chesapeake Bay where she had completed her original sea trials in 1942. Four weeks later, on 21 September 1991, two days after the 49th anniversary of her completion, John W. Brown carried about 600 members and guests on her "matron voyage," her inaugural cruise.
In 1994, John W. Brown received U.S. Coast Guard certification for coastwise ocean voyages. In April 1994, she made her first offshore voyage since 1946, steaming to New York Harbor, and in August 1994 she made her first foreign voyage as a museum ship, steaming to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, then stopping at Boston, Massachusetts, and Greenport, New York, on her way back to Baltimore.
John W. Brown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 17 November 1997. In 2000, she visited the Great Lakes for drydocking and hull work in Toledo, Ohio.
In addition to her floating museum role, John W. Brown still gets underway several times a year for six-hour "Living History Cruises" that take the ship through Baltimore Harbor, down the Patapsco River, and into the Chesapeake Bay. Each cruise includes tours of the ship, discussions of the role of the U.S. merchant marine, Liberty ships, and American women in World War II, reenactments of the activities of the ship's World War II U.S. Navy Armed Guard, flybys and simulated attacks on the ship by World War II aircraft, and entertainment by a barbershop quartet and singers, comedians, and actors imitating such World War II figures as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Andrews Sisters, and Abbott and Costello. As of the end of the 2013 cruising season, she had completed her 97th Living History Cruise and had visited 29 ports along the United States East Coast and the Atlantic coast of Canada and in the Great Lakes. She is the largest cruise ship operating under the American flag on the United States East Coast.