The Alcorns, Seaman’s Rest, and an Unknown Young Seaman

By Spencer Bowman & Ruth Keller

The Rowena and Gordon Alcorn Seaman’s Rest Records and Research Files include photographs, papers, letters, and other research materials compiled by Dr. Gordon and Rowena Alcorn. The Alcorns were a were collaborative authors who wrote articles on Northwest history, Native Americans, biology, and other topics (1). Their separate careers were in the visual arts and biological sciences.

Born in Tacoma in 1905, Rowena Alcorn began drawing while young, sketching Native Americans at age 7 as her family camped at Browns Point (1). By age 20, she had joined her sister in Santa Barbara, California, to study art (2). At the time of their marriage, Gordon was a biology professor at the University of Idaho in Boise, and it was there she began painting portraits of the Nez Perce people (2). After they returned to Tacoma, she taught art at The University of Puget Sound, Grays Harbor College, and Pierce College (1). A portrait of Henry Sicade, Puyallup tribal leader, was commissioned by the Tacoma Public Library, where it hangs as of this writing in 2023 (3). A concurrent interest in writing led to her founding the Tacoma branch of the National League of American Pen Women in 1956 (2). She died in Tacoma May 3, 1996 at age 91.

Gordon Alcorn was born in Olympia in 1907 and graduated from Lincoln High School in Tacoma in 1926 (4). He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Puget Sound and his doctorate from the University of Washington (4). He began teaching full-time at UPS in 1946 and was named chairman of the biology department in 1951 (4). He helped found the Slater Museum of Natural History there and was its director for 20 years (4). The campus of the University of Puget Sound was named the Gordon Dee Alcorn Arboretum in 1976 (4). An environmental activist, he was instrumental in preserving Nisqually Delta as a wildlife refuge, as well as Swan Creek in Pierce County and three Grays Harbor County islands (5). He died age 86 in Tacoma on March 25,1994 (4).

The Alcorns together wrote over 100 articles (1). Seamen’s Rest was of particular interest. Seaman's Rest was a mission for sailors maintained by Mrs. Birgitte Funnemark and her daughter Christine. Birgette's husband, Albert Abelseth Funnemark, was a sea captain who had lost his life in the North Sea in 1884 (6). "As a result of her personal loss, Birgitte had a deep compassion for those lonely men of the sea", the Alcorns wrote in the June 1965 Oregon Historical Quarterly. After saving and planning Birgitte decided to open a non-denominational mission at 2802 North Carr Street in Old Town. The building, which still stands, housed the mission was not large, but a special room was set aside as a reading area. Here were always bibles, plenty of newspapers, books, and magazines printed in foreign languages -Norwegian, German, French, Danish, Italian, Finnish, and even Russian. Non-denomination religious services were held on Sundays and two nights during the week. The other evenings were called "Mother's Nights". Coffee and little cakes were always served. The Rest was open daily from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. For six years the Seamen's Rest opened its doors to sailors from all across the world, however, with Mrs. Funnemark's failing health the doors closed in 1903. 

Within these research documents is a file titled "Log of an Unknown Seaman and Associated Material" that includes a sorrowful account of a young sailor's end. The paper details a curious unsigned diary kept by a young British seaman. The passages of the diary, transcribed by the Alcorns in their article, recount his work at sea, interactions with fellow sailors, life in port cities, and his developing depression.  "It is a mystery", the Alcorns wrote, "how the diary come in possession of Mrs. Funnemark". There is no account of a sailor meeting his description in the Seaman's Rest's register and, according to the Alcorns, Christine never mentioned the diary in her later years. 

These materials assembled by Rowena and Gordon Alcorn provide us with a fascinating look into the women behind the Seamen's Rest, Tacoma in the turn of the century, and the life of sailors at that time. If you are interested in seeing any of the records from this collection that have not been digitized let us know. You can always see the material in person by making an appointment. Give us a call at (253) 280-2814 or visit this link.

(1) “Rowena Alcorn, painter of Nez Perce Indian life, dead at 91”, Tacoma News Tribune, 5/11/1996, p.5
(2) “Rowena Lung Alcorn, 91,’Victorian Bohemian’ Artist”, Seattle Times, 5/11/1996
(3) “Northwest History Told in Art”, Tacoma News Tribune, 6/26/1974, p.48
(4) “Noted UPS biologist, conservationist Gordon Alcorn dies following stroke”, Tacoma News Tribune 3/29/1994, p.8
(5) “Gordon Alcorn, 1907-1994”, Tacoma News Tribune, 3/30/1994, p 20.
(6)  "Tacoma Seamen's Rest: Waterfront mission, 1897-1903" by Rowena L. and Gordon D. Alcorn, Oregon Historical Quarterly 67:101-131, June 1965