A History of the USCG’s Merchant Mariner Licensing and Documentation Program

Early 1800's - 1939

Steamboat travel in the early 1800s was dangerous due to the nature of the propulsion machinery which was powered by steam under pressure. Boiler explosions were catastrophic causing huge losses of life. Adding to the danger were poor hull construction methods and often untrained ship officers and crew regarding navigation and safety. In 1817 Philadelphia’s City Council was the first municipality to investigate a steamboat explosion, but no regulatory action followed. Federal lawmakers at the time did not want to regulate private industry. The ideology was best summarized by the Secretary of the Treasury: “Legislative enactments are calculated to do mischief rather than prevent it.” But in 1824, the Supreme Court ruled “the power to regulate commerce, so far as it extends, is exclusively vested in Congress.” With public safety and welfare becoming a bigger influence that could not be ignored, Congress now must regulate private industry.


 A Congressional committee conducts a report that recognizes Congress’ role in regulating commerce, but cannot conceive of a manner to regulate steam boilers to protect the public.


Steamboat Pulaski explodes off the coast of North Carolina with loss of over 100 crew/passengers. Though dozens of previous steamboat casualties occurred with losses of many lives, the lack of a shore organization after the Pulaski casualty convinces Congress to create a new federal agency instead of giving the regulatory functions to the existing Revenue Cutter Service. Congress creates the Steamboat Inspection Service under the control of the Justice Department to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.” Federal hull and boiler inspectors (a.k.a. marine inspectors) enforce their own local firefighting, manning, lifesaving, and boiler standards on passenger vessels, freightboats, ferries, and tugboats/towboats.


The number and severity of steamboat casualties increases. Most are due to boiler explosions, but fires, collisions, and groundings are responsible for hundreds of fatalities. Congress passes the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852 which places the Steamboat Inspection Service under control of the Treasury Department. Local marine inspectors now report to nine regional supervisory inspectors, but each region uses its own standards. The Act also authorizes the issuance of licenses to engineers and pilots of steamboats carrying passengers.


Marine inspectors for the District of New London renew the engineering license for John C. Smith. While not historically significant, this is an interesting example of the format of licenses issued by the Steamboat Inspection Service. Each inspection office contracts with a local printer for the licenses. So there is no standard nationwide format in the era. Note the Internal Revenue tax stamp, and that the wording of the oath administered to mariners remains similar a century and a half later.


Congress passes a law that establishes a Marine Safety Code to protect crew as well as passengers on steamboats. It establishes a Supervisory Inspector General to report directly to the Secretary of the Treasury, extends licensing requirements to all masters and chief mates, provides for the revocation of licenses, prescribes periodic vessel inspections, and authorizes nautical Rules of the Road. This is a major step to more uniform federal standards.


The Steamboat Inspection Service and the existing Bureau of Navigation are both transferred to the newly-formed Department of Commerce and Labor.


Fire aboard the Steamboat General Slocum in New York Harbor causes loss of nearly 1,000 lives. This disaster leads to additional safety regulations including lifesaving equipment.


Congress enacts the Motor Boat Act to extend federal safety requirements to recreational vessels. And for those vessels that carry passengers for hire, operators are required to be licensed.


The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is created by combining several federal agencies, including the U.S. Lifesaving Service and U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. The USCG has no marine safety responsibilities, which are still being carried out by the Steamboat Inspection Service.


Congress empowers the USCG to control domestic shipping to ensure safety on navigable waterways. As a result, the USCG creates and designates a Captain of the Port (COTP) in major ports. These USCG officers have separate responsibilities and authorities from the Steamboat Inspection Service’s Officers in Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI). In general, COTPs enforce Title 33 U.S. Code “Navigation and Navigable Waters” and OCMIs enforce Title 46 U.S. Code “Shipping.” Only OCMIs have licensing authority. Many ports have both a COTP and a separate OCMI.


The Steamboat Inspection Service and the Bureau of Navigation are combined to form the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection (still under control of the Commerce Department).


Steamship Morro Castle burns off the New Jersey coast with loss of 124 persons.


The Morro Castle casualty prompts Congress to reorganize and rename the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection as the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation (still under Commerce Department). The law also requires structural fire protection on passenger vessels and requires passenger vessel plans to be approved by the Bureau prior to construction.

The United States is a signatory country to the Officers' Competency Certificates Convention, 1936 that is an International Labour Organization Convention that will enter into force in 1939. Each signatory maritime country agrees to minimum requirements of professional capacity for masters and navigating and engineering officers in charge of watches on board merchant ships.


Mariners have been required to hold Merchant Mariner's Documents (MMDs) to serve on board most U.S.-flagged merchant vessels of 100 gross tons or more. An MMD is a wallet-sized ID card. Because there is no fee, drug testing, or professional examination associated with an entry-level MMD, many apply only to obtain a desirable form of identification with no intention of seeking employment as a merchant mariner. The Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation imposes a new requirement for an applicant of an original (first) MMD endorsed for service only in entry ratings to produce satisfactory proof of commitment as a member of the crew of a United States merchant vessel. This requirement for a “letter of commitment” is established as a means to ensure that those persons obtaining MMDs are actually to be employed as merchant mariners.