BACK WHEN: Life on sea calls to PA-raised sailor

Capt. Gilbert Bown, circa 1937

Capt. Gilbert Bown, circa 1937

MANY OF US have known young people who are a bit lacking in the motivation department. Quite often, they do not know what they want in life, or they lack real clarity. Gilbert Bown was not one of those people.

Gilbert Charles Bown was born June 17, 1887, in Marysville, Ohio. He came to Port Angeles with his family in 1896 and he lived with his parents, Charles and Lucy Bown, and five siblings on West Eighth Street. His father was a teacher in Port Angeles schools for many years. In 1900, Charles Bown taught school in Shuwah, near Forks, for three months. During that time, he had to miss Gilbert’s 13th birthday and asked that his son “do everything you can” for his mother.

Moving to Port Angeles sparked something in Gilbert. It was said he was unable to resist the waves as they lapped the beach, and he became determined to sail the seas and see the world.

Gilbert finished elementary school at Lincoln Heights. Later, he attended Central High School until spring 1903, when he decided to become a sailor at age 16. Thus began his career on sailing vessels.

For the next two years, he sailed to Australia, Chile and Germany aboard the bark Sea King. All the while, he learned the art and science of seamanship.

For Gilbert, life was more than simply seeing the world; he wanted to captain his own ship.

Gilbert’s determination paid off. In 1915, he received his master’s ticket. Master is the highest seafarer rank and the most prestigious of all seafarer jobs. Capt. Bown was then permitted to sail any ocean on any ship of any tonnage.

Meets wife

By this time, Charles and Lucy had moved to Kent, where Charles served as superintendent of Kent Schools. During one of his visits, Gilbert met Lena Olga Ramstead, and, on Aug. 3, 1915, they were married. They started their life together in Hawaii because Gilbert commanded the steamship Marie for the Inter-Island Navigation Co. of Honolulu.

At the start of World War I, Gilbert joined the Navy while in Hawaii. German ships had been interned in Honolulu Harbor and disabled by their crews. Gilbert took the lead in repairing those ships and proudly raised the American flag on their mastheads. He then brought those ships to San Francisco. After that, he was given command of the steamer Western City. He provided transport services in the Atlantic Ocean for the remainder of the war.

In early 1918, Lena became pregnant with their first child. She stayed in Kent, where her family could help with her pregnancy. On Sept. 16, 1918, their only child, Gilbert Lane Bown, was born. After the war, Gilbert worked for Luckenbach Steamship Co. and moved his family to Los Angeles County, since his ship regularly visited California.

The life of a sailor is very hard on families. Merchant sailors may be away from home for a year or more, and before long, tragedy struck the Bowns.

The Lillian Luckenback, circa 1919

The Lillian Luckenback, circa 1919

Gilbert’s ship was loading at Point Defiance Mills in Tacoma when he heard his wife had died in Los Angeles on Feb. 14, 1921. She was only 27. Her body was sent back to Kent to her parents.

In an unusual twist, Gilbert’s ship, the Edward Luckenbach, was being loaded with lumber in Port Angeles on Feb. 19. With heavy heart, Gilbert buried his wife on Feb. 19 and returned to sea Feb. 20. Gilbert was thankful he was in Puget Sound and able to attend his wife’s burial. Their son accompanied his mother to Kent and remained with his maternal grandparents.

In 1922, Gilbert took command of the Lena Luckenbach. It seems ironic that Gilbert took command of a ship with the same name as his beloved wife. By 1926, he was skippering the Lillian Luckenbach.

Tragedy struck again on Oct. 6, 1927, when Gilbert’s son died from polio. Sadly, he was in Los Angeles and had to depart for Boston.

Bown’s character showed through during an incident in December 1937. The Lillian Luckenbach, with six passengers on board, was off Cuba bound for New York.

At 1 a.m., a passenger, Mrs. G. B. Brundett, ran to the bridge crying, “I can’t find my cabin mate. I think she jumped overboard.”

The second mate signaled for the ship to stop and called for the captain.

“It’s Miss Offutt?” Bown asked.

“I can’t find her,” Brundett replied.

Bown ordered his ship to turn back to retrace their course. The crew searched the ship, but there was no sign of Offutt. Bown had been concerned about Offutt from the moment she boarded his ship. She appeared overwrought, depressed and very nervous. Offutt had been seen packing her bags and writing letters.

They were sailing through shark-infested waters, but they continued to search for her. As dawn broke, the ship was about to turn around and continue searching when Offutt was spotted swimming in the water right in front of the ship. She had survived six hours in the water.

Four letters had been left sealed in her room. One was addressed to the captain. In an act of mercy, he returned the letters to her unopened. Offutt was confined to the sick bay until the ship arrived in New York.

People complimented Bown on his seamanship and humanity. The rescue made national news and received a short article in Look Magazine. Bown received the silver medal of the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York for the rescue.

Bown retired from the seas in 1947. He had traveled the globe. Yet, it is not surprising that he chose to retire in Port Angeles where he was active in the community and spent most of his time at Port Angeles Boat Haven working on his fishing boat. He never lost his love for the sea.

Bown died Jan. 18, 1963. He is buried at Ocean View Cemetery.


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.

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