Felix Riesenberg: Maritime Renaissance Man

by Andrew Goldberg, Archival Intern

Felix Riesenberg (1879–1939) was a prolific sailor, author, and educator. In his lifetime, he undertook many extraordinary voyages, held numerous distinguished positions in maritime service and education, and authored dozens of volumes of fiction and nonfiction. He is perhaps the most broadly accomplished seaman of the 20th Century despite working only in its first half. As an archival intern at SUNY Maritime College’s Stephen B. Luce Library this semester, I had the privilege of organizing his papers and creating a finding aid for the collection to make it accessible to the public.

Riesenberg was born in 1879 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Emily (née Schorb) and William Riesenberg. His maritime education began on the Schoolship St. Mary and continued at the New York Nautical School (now SUNY Maritime), graduating in 1897 with a degree in civil engineering. He also earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University in 1911.

In his professional life, Riesenberg held high-ranking positions in multiple organizations. He served as an officer for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, Chief Officer of the US Shipping Board, a chief engineer for the New York City Department of Parks, and twice as the Superintendent of the New York Nautical School. He made record voyages to Svalbard and the Canary Islands, and around Cape Horn. In 1906 and 1907, he participated in two of Walter Wellman’s unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by airship.

Photo album, Wellman’s Polar Expdition 1906–1907

Riesenberg wrote constantly throughout most of his professional life and well into retirement. His first book, Under Sail, was published in 1915. His works of fiction mostly concern life at sea, although he also published a satire, P.A.L., in 1925. His nonfiction works include histories, memoirs, and instructional volumes. His autobiography, Living Again, was published in 1937. His last publication, The Pacific Ocean, was published posthumously in 1940. He was working on two new books at the time of his death.

In addition to publishing many works, Riesenberg kept a personal archives of notes, letters, and news clippings throughout his adult life. This became our central guide to his life, illuminating his diverse interests and achievements. One of the most striking of our discoveries was a scrapbook containing sketches of an engine that he co-designed with fellow Columbia University engineer Douglas J. Martin.

A view of Riesenberg’s scrapbook

Considering how prolific Riesenberg was, it is strange that so little information on him exists either in print or on the web. I believe this small collection of personal papers will help researchers expand on his many contributions to nautical education and maritime culture.

This portrait by Felix’s brother Sidney Riesenberg hangs in the Luce Library.

Contact the archives and special collections at the Luce Library for more information.