International Ship Masters' Association Records

Identifier: GLMS-0028

Collection Overview


Of interest to those researching the labor history of the Great Lakes shipping industry, this collection presents the records of a benevolent association devoted to the welfare of its members. Files on annual meetings, membership benefits, lobbying interests, and local lodge activities are included. Coverage spans the 1886 to the present. Issues of concern to those actively involved in operating lake vessels are discussed at length providing insights into how these men perceived their roles in the Great Lakes shipping industry.


  • 1886-


26.33 Cubic Feet (15 record storage cartons, 12 legal manuscript boxes, 2 letter manuscript boxes, 6 card boxes, and 3 folders)


Scope and Contents

Of particular interest to researchers studying the development of the Great Lakes maritime shipping industry, the ISMA records are available from the inception of the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association (ISMA's predecessor) in 1886 to the present. Regrettably, documentation on the years before 1960 is sparse. Available in the largest volume are membership files that include, in part, beneficiary certificates and membership information cards reflecting ISMA's interest in providing death benefits to members' families.

Files on the annual meetings provide an extensive set of proceedings with complete coverage from 1934 to 1989. Earlier sets of proceedings are present, but none predate 1906. Programs offer coverage in complete form for 1959-present.

Correspondence files of the principal officers range from 1917-1990, but fall most heavily after 1960. Files of the Grand President, Grand Secetary, and Grand Treasurer comprise most of hte officer files. Primary topics in the correspondence are membership matters, benefit payments, lobbying agenda, and annual meeting preparations.

Correspondence with local lodges provides useful commentaries on the interaction of local members with Grand Lodge officers. Lodges in Cleveland, Ohio and Toledo, Ohio are heavily represented. Files are also present for lodges in Alpena, Michigan; Ashtabula, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Georgian Bay-Huronia, Ontario; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Ogdensburg, New York; Port Huron, Michigan; St. Catharine's, Ontario; Twin Ports (Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin); and Twin Sault (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario). Significant portions of this correspondence pertain to positions taken on resolutions scheduled for discussion at annual meetings.

Financial records contain a fairly complete picture of the conditions of ISMA for the 1940s and for the period 1962-1985. Death claims are thoroughly documented for the period 1907-1976.

Committee records, primarily those of the Navigation and Legislative Committee used in conjunction with correspondence files lead to information on ISMA member reactions to legislation regarding maritime affairs. The increasing emphasis on discussion of technology in navigation after the 1930s is reflected in committee records.

A brief file on the history of ISMA is present that includes a copy of the original charter for the Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association from 1886.

Organization History

The origins of the International Ship Masters' Association lie in the efforts of the professional ship captains to cope with the hardships encountered by their families following the deaths of members of their trade. In late-nineteenth century America, benevolent societies grew with the demand for insurance coverage. The death of the first mate for the freighter BOSTON during the winter of 1886 in Buffalo, New York, initiated a chain of events leading to the birth of ISMA. On finding the widow of his friend to be destitute, Captain John H. Ivors collected money for her relief. Other ship maters contributed and plans were made to create a continuing organization to administer an endowment for their profession.

The Excelsior Marine Benevolent Association was chartered in 1886 with its first lodge in Buffalo. Ship masters in other locations were interested in the concept of a benevolent society that paid benefits to the survivors of deceased members. Lodges in other cities resulted. In 1891 the structure of a Grand Lodge overseeing local lodge activities was instituted and annual meetings were held thereafter with delegates attending from each affiliate to vote on issues raised by the members.

At the 1893 annual meeting the organization's name was changed to the Ship Masters' Association. By 1916 the presence of Canadian members resulted in the adoption of the current name, the International Ship Masters' Association.

ISMA was founded to serve as a benevolent society and not as a labor union. Nonetheless, members developed contracts with legislative bodies and trade associations to lobby for improvements in their working environment.

Today, ISMA is over a century old and remains a vital force in discussions on Great Lakes shipping policies in the United States and Canada. The following lodges are currently in operation:

Lodge 1
Buffalo, New York
Lodge 2
Port Huron, Michigan
Lodge 3
Chicago, Illinois
Lodge 4
Cleveland, Ohio
Lodge 5
Bay City, Michigan
Lodge 7
Detroit, MI
Lodge 9
Toledo, Ohio
Lodge 12
Twin Ports (Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin)
Lodge 15
Georgian Bay/Huronia (Owen Sound, Ontario)
Lodge 16
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Lodge 18
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Lodge 19
Northeast Michigan (Alpena, Michigan)
Lodge 20
Niagara District, St. Catherine's, Ontario
Lodge 22
Twin Sault (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario)
Lodge 23
Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan)

Conditions Governing Access

No known access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers using this collection assume full responsibility for conforming to the laws of libel, privacy, and copyright, and are responsible for securing permissions necessary for publication or reproduction.

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Separated Materials

Membership Directories are available for 1896-1967. These items have been assigned the Library of Congress call number GL HE 565 .V71 S5 (1910, etc.) and are shelved with the HCGL's book collection.

Researchers should note that photographs have been separated from the collection and filed in the HCGL's main photograph collection and printed materials have been separated and cataloged with the book and pamphlet collection.

Related Materials

For records of a former Great Lakes captain and past president of ISMA, see GLMS 68 - G. Victor Chamberlain collection.

The organization's newsletter, ISMALetter, is available via the library catalog.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The records of the International Ship Master's Association were transferred to the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes over the period from 1975 to 1989. The instrument of gift was signed in March 1989. Additional transfers have been made as accumulation of contemporary records occur.

Processing Information

Final processing was completed in 1990 by Mark J. Barnes and A. J. Dufresne with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Guide to the International Ship Masters' Association Records
Mark Sprang
November 2018
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