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Thomas F. Gates

Thomas F. Gates, New York Times, 1934
Gates was born in Suffolk in 1863 and served his apprenticeship on the sailing ship Dorset. He joined the Atlantic Transport Line in 1883 and became second officer on the Suffolk in 1887. He was first officer of the Missouri when she went to the aid of the stricken Danmark in 1889 and was in charge of the superb boatwork required to pull off this justly famous rescue. He was promoted to captain of the Missouri in 1890, and by 1894 he was master of the Mississippi. By 1897 he was captain of the Mohawk, and he was master of the Marquette when she lost a propeller blade in February 1901. Gates was captain of the Minnewaska (III) at the time of the fire on board in October 1914 and remained with this ship until she struck a mine in 1916 and was lost. Gates saved the lives of 1,800 troops and seamen by beaching Minnewaska (III) on the Island of Crete after she struck the mine and for this was decorated with a C.B.E. by King George V himself.

By 1918 Gates was in command of the Minnekahda, returning American servicemen to New York, and he retained that command when the ship was transferred to the American line late in 1920. He was appointed captain of the new Minnetonka in 1923 and remained with her until he was placed on half-pay when she was laid up in 1932. He retired in 1933 when she was sold for scrap.

He was very sociable pipe-smoking teetotaler "who danced two hours every night of clear weather" according to Time and was very popular with passengers. He was known affectionately as "Tommy," and as "Giggles Gates" — the "laughing skipper" because of his infectious laugh. His endless energy, his powerful voice, and that laugh were "known in ports all over the world" according to an obituary in the New York Times. It was said that when his ship docked he never needed a megaphone from the bridge. In 1932 when Minnetonka encountered fog for 48 hours Gates remained on the bridge throughout, while junior officers on duty for half that time became exhausted. On arrival in New York Gates sauntered down the gangway and while his juniors slept it off and joked with waiting reporters that it was, "Only a bit of fog, boys!" Gates was described by the New York Times as "dean of the shipmasters of the seven seas," and although he was 72 years old at the time the paper reported that he, "does not look a day over 55 and carries himself as erect as any seagoing officer half his age." According to the London Times, he had "never known a day of sickness."

Gates was described in the New York Times when he retired as having been "an American citizen for 30 years." He had served 58 years, 45 of them in command, and was commodore captain on the North Atlantic. He served 45 years with the Atlantic Transport Line, commanded 18 Atlantic Transport Line ships, and was described as "one of the most popular commanders in the merchant fleet." Gates died at his home the following year "after a brief illness," aged 74.


For more information ...

Kinghorn "The Atlantic Transport Line 1881 - 1931" McFarland, 2011

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