The men of Marcus Hook have been making honest livings by going off to sea ever since the seven-masted tall ship Thomas W. Lawson glided up the Delaware River in 1905 and docked here with a cargo of barrels.
The seafarers' jobs, largely in the coastwise trade, have been protected by cabotage laws such as the Jones Act, assigning coastal lanes to U.S.-flagged and U.S.-built vessels. But as coastwise shipping has declined, Marcus Hook saw jobs vanish to foreign sailors.Now, like the very town that it helped to prosper, the Jones Act is under fire - both in Washington and throughout the industry. While the industry debates the law in New York this week under the auspices of the Containerization and Intermodal Institute, congressional infighting has kept a bill to repeal the act locked in committees.
Seamen from Marcus Hook and nearby towns along the Delaware took their place in history alongside Nantucket whalers and Cape Horners out of Salem. They helped respond to the SOS of the Titanic. They defied U-boats on the Murmansk Run in World War II. They ran cargo to Vietnam and Desert Storm.
But their mainstay runs took them back and forth to the U.S. Gulf, down the Chesapeake and throughout the Northeast. They carried oil, chemicals, finished goods, sand, wood, containers, steel, fruit and bulk.
Seafarers from the ''Hook'' region used to jokingly remind one another, ''This ship doesn't need a helmsman. She knows her way home.''
Marcus Hook is a showcase borough, despite the odds. The 3,000-resident town is sandwiched between oil refineries and chemical plants. East are the ship docks of the Delaware. On the west is Amtrak's northeast corridor and the chaos that distinguishes this stretch of Interstate 95. Upstream is the tired city of Chester. Downriver is the bustling container terminal at Wilmington, Del.
The borough is only a mile square. Marcus Hook's streets are clean. Homes show fresh paint and trimmed grass. Rare is a downtown window that says ''Store For Rent.'' A lush, waterfront park features concerts during summer's twilight.
''The town and the maritime industry are intertwined. They are one, and the Jones Act has made a difference. It's been very helpful,'' said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Mr. Weldon grew up in Marcus Hook and attended schools there, which he says was another bonus of the Jones Act. Big companies operating shipping lines foot the tax bill for schools and libraries, said Mr. Weldon, who served Marcus Hook as fire chief and mayor. What else specifically did the act do for Marcus Hook?
''A Journal of Commerce publication has ranked Marcus Hook the 16th-largest port on the East Coast, in tonnage,'' said Mr. Weldon. ''And I think that's ahead of Boston.''
Marcus Hook and its maritime-based prosperity became so synonymous that regional steamship offices in the 1950s and 1960s saw applicants walking in from Appalachia and the Deep South. Word had gotten out. The same was true at the nearby shipyards. Welders' torches glowed nonstop, building ships, many of which were for the coastwise trade protected by the Jones Act.
Then in 1968, Marcus Hook's back-fence telegraph reported a mainstay local line was building a new ship. More ships meant more work. But the vessel was being built overseas. This seemed odd. The line was part of a larger corporate structure that owned a famous shipyard right next door in Chester.
That very yard held the world spotlight in 1968, building the icebreaking tanker Manhattan, which would try to open the Northwest Passage to Alaska's North Slope.
But why, wondered the people of Marcus Hook, go abroad for a ship?
Few in Hook sensed it, but this event began the slow morphing over to the downside of the Jones Act.
If the new ship was never intended to run coastwise in U.S. waters, as men of Marcus Hook were so accustomed to doing, why build it in a more costly U.S. yard? And then why bother crewing it with U.S. seamen? The pay of a Marcus Hook sailor was a third more than a Dutchman, double that of a Filipino.
''An upside to the Jones Act were the salaries. Another side is that the good jobs in Marcus Hook gave people the economic capacity to move away, to Aston, Bethel and Concordville, to bigger homes with bigger lawns. The borough began to suffer,'' Mr. Weldon said. ''We had benefited, but then came a decline.''
When coastwise shipping vanished, lines that now called foreign ports were able to flag foreign. This is one reason the Jones Act is being debated in New York this week.
Marcus Hook is not the lone example of how communities win and lose. Sea traffic from Seattle to Alaska boosted Vancouver as a shipping port, because lines could avoid the Jones Act by loading just across the Canadian border in the British Columbia capital.
Marcus Hook's decline roughly paralleled the falloff in coastwise shipping from this port, and the slide in local shipbuilding ran right alongside. Without coastwise shipping, and without its built-in Jones Act protections, Marcus Hook men ceased going to sea.
''Marcus Hook has seen both sides of the act,'' Mr. Weldon said.
Now, for the first time since the 1600s, no one is building ships on the Delaware. The once-thriving coastwise trade has virtually vanished.
What's left of Marcus Hook's ships are whittled down to a few smaller vessels still protected by the Jones Act. Locals now use a somewhat derisive term for these ships, in a patois stressing the small.
They call the ships the ''mosquito fleet.''