The Great Atlantic Liners
Ships that are floating palaces and monstesteamers of fifty years ago, the " record holders" of today, and the racers of the future.r machines of the ocean -- The pioneer
THE ocean greyhound of today, with its luxuries, its marvelous speed, its spacious quarters, its comparative stability, makes a run over to England or
" the continent " a journey to be taken for its own sake. Every year people who have a short holiday spend it in taking a round trip on one of the great steamers, knowing that they will be nearly as well served as in the best hotel, and practically as safe -- for serious accidents on the Atlantic ferry are less common than hotel conflagrations on shore -- with the additional advantage of the invigorating sea air, and that exhilarating sense of movement that comes from flying through the waves.
It is almost entirely due to Americans that the Atlantic steamship has grown to its present estate from the modest beginnings of half a century ago; for of the hundred thousand cabin passengers who annually land at the New York docks, not more than twenty thousand are strangers. The rest are Americans coming home.
When the Cunards opened their line between Liverpool and Boston, in 1840, they started with four ships. Today there are fourteen or fifteen steamship lines sailing out from New York alone, and something like ninety ships that carry saloon and passengers between European ports and the gateway of the New World.
The first steamship to cross the ocean was an American boat, the Savannah, fitted out in New York by a Mr. Scarlborough, of Savannah, Georgia. This was in 1819. It is difficult to realize now what a venturesome undertaking the voyage seemed in those days, only a dozen years later than the Clermont's pioneer trip from New York to Albany. The doubters who had sneered at Fulton's new fangled monster were positive that the Savannah would never finish her voyage.
To a certain extent their predictions were justified. Eighteen days out, her engines burned the last of her pitch pine fuel; but she made the rest of the distance with her sails, entering the Mersey on the thirty second day. The river's banks were lined with crowds eager to see the American wonder, and the captain had to turn his vessel over to the sightseers for a week. But financially the experiment was a failure, and it was not repeated for a dozen years. Then, in 1831, the Royal William of Quebec, using both steam and sails, crossed to England, where her owners sold her to the Spanish government to be turned into a warship.
The regular Atlantic steamship service dates from 1838, when two English vessels made the first race across the ocean. On the 5th of April the Sirius left Queenstown Harbor, carrying seven passengers, and bound for New York. The Great Western started after her from Bristol on the 8th, and nearly succeeded in overtaking her, both ships reaching Sandy Hook on the 23d of April. The Sirius would have had to be ignominiously towed up the bay if her captain had not been on his mettle to the extent of burning his spars and part of the cargo.
The arrival of these ships made about as much stir as the settling down of two flying machines would make today. There were long editorials in the New York newspapers over the " excitement," and it was seriously debated whether the volume of travel would ever be great enough to make such ventures profitable. Old inhabitants still talk of the day when the Great Western sailed out of the harbor, on her return voyage, with more than a hundred thousand people crowded in the Battery Park to see her off. Evidently New York curiosity has always held its present characteristics.
The Great Western afterward improved her record to 12 days, 7 hours -- a great advance upon the speed of earlier boats. She was of 1,340 tons burden, and 750
horse power -- figures regarded as remarkable at the time, puny as they look when compared to the 12,950 tons and the 30,000 horse power of the present monarch of the Atlantic, the Lucania.
The builders of the Great Western next launched a still larger ship, the Great Britain, which was wrecked on its third voyage -- a disaster that ruined its owners. The company to which the Sirius belonged was equally unlucky, being unable to survive the loss of a new steamer called the President, which left New York in March, 1841, and was not heard of again.
There never was a successful steamship line until Samuel Cunard, the Halifax merchant, conceived the idea of promoting a company which should receive a handsome premium from the British government for carrying the mails. His idea was carried out through English influence, an annual subsidy of sixty thousand pounds being granted to the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which we know today as the Cunard Line. The Britannia, one of the four ships built to carry out the fortnightly mail contract, sailed front Liverpool on June 2, 1840, carrying the unprecedented number of ninety passengers, and the regular mail route between England and America was opened. It was the Britannia that brought Dickens here in 1842.
In 1847 American capitalists organized the famous old Collins line, to which the United States government paid nearly a million dollars a year to carry the mails and make better time than the Cunarders. The Collins ships were widely advertised as models of comfort and beauty. Their owners were the first to pay much attention to interior decoration, and to give a foretaste of the beauty of furnishing which all ocean travelers know today. They made better time, too, than their English rivals, their average passage being from ten to eleven days, while the Cunarders could not do better than twelve days. But the high rate of speed ruined the line by its enormous expense, and in 1856 the American flag disappeared from the Atlantic ferry.
A curious incident in the story of ocean travel was the building of the monstrous Great Eastern, which still, forty years after her keel was laid on the Thames, remains the largest ship ever constructed. She was far too heavy for her engines, and proved a total failure as a passenger ship. Later, she did memorable service in laying the first Atlantic cable, and went all over the world as a bearer of submarine wires, until she was bought at a bargain by a dry goods firm in Liverpool, who used her for a time as a floating bazar, and finally broke her up in 1888.
About the time when the Collins company sent its ships across the ocean, another line was founded in England -- the Inman, which has now hoisted the Stars and Stripes and become the American line. But though the growth of competition led to increased attention to the comfort of passengers, accommodations were still primitive. A passenger who went to England in the early forties draws a picture of his experiences that makes us realize why our grandfathers considered a trip to Europe one of the terrors, as well as delights, of a lifetime. The state rooms were little more than closets, lit with smoky oil lamps, and provided with two berths, two feet wide, one above the other. They were situated in the after part of the ship, where the vessel's motion, and the noise of the machinery, made pandemonium in a sensitive brain, and rendered sea sickness almost inevitable. And this misery had to be endured for ten, eleven, or twelve days.
The clipper ships still continued to carry immigrants to America. It was the managers of the Inman line who first saw that room could be made for third cabin passengers on steamships, and tried the experiment with such success that the clipper disappeared from the seas. Then the White Star company built the earliest steamers modeled upon lines that have since been more or less closely followed, with the state rooms in the center of the ship.
The Baltic, a White Star liner, first brought the " record " below eight days, crossing from Sandy Hook to Queenstown, in 1873, in seven days, twenty hours. From that date the contest of speed has been so keen that in twenty one years the record has been broken seventeen times. It was the Guion liner Alaska that marked an era in the struggle with time and space by bringing the voyage within a week, in 1882.
Seven years later, after the Alaska, the ill fated Oregon, the America, and the twin Cunarders Etruria and Umbria, had successively reigned and been deposed as ocean monarchs, the Paris reached another milestone by crossing in less than six days. For three years more the Paris' only rivals were her sister ship, the New York, and the pair of White Star liners, the Teutonic and Majestic. Then the Cunard company launched its latest giants -- also twin vessels -- the Campania and Lucania, and the latter now holds the record -- five days, seven hours, and twenty three minutes.
This wonderful progress has been achieved in the face of repeated assertions that no further advance was practicable. It is true that each slight addition of speed involves an expense that swells in rapidly ascending ratio. To drive the Lucania and Campania through the water more swiftly than the Paris by one knot in an hour necessitated an increase of horse power from the latter's twenty thousand to the colossal figure of thirty thousand for the Cunard giants, the most tremendously powerful and costly machines ever built by the hand of man. It seems, today, as if the limit has been quite or nearly reached, at least for the present.
The newest pair of great ships -- the St. Louis and the St. Paul, now being built upon the Delaware for the American line -- are to excel all their predecessors in luxurious equipment, but not in speed. Yet it may be set down as certain that sooner or later the inventive force of human ingenuity will attain results which now seem impossible, and that the ships of some future day will be speedier than anything now afloat.
It is only a favored few who are ever allowed down into the pulsing, naked heart of an ocean greyhound to see how its enormous power is produced. Here the record well cared for on land. The handsomest of the state rooms are made in suites, with bed room, sitting room, and private bath. There are single and double beds, and except for their tiny dimensions, the apartments might have been lifted from one of the new hotels. Dining rooms where music plays through dinner, libraries with the newest books and magazines, little alcoves where windows look
breaking speed is the price of torment to human beings. Whatever the luxury of the cabins, the men who drive the ship still live in an inferno, where a ton coal has to be shoveled into the red mouths of the furnaces every five minutes, day and night. The heat and darkness, the roar and rush of flame at each opening of the iron doors, the moving figures, half naked, grimy with ashes -- all this makes a scene that is like a nightmare. Not long ago a young German, who tried to work his way from Hamburg to New York in the stoke hole., was driven insane. He fled to the deck, stood for an instant cowering as if he feared he would he carried back, then sprang overboard.
The life up stairs gives no hint of this throbbing tension below. Here, on the ships of the great lines, is the restful elegance that is found wherever people are out over the sea, make some of the comforts of a modern ocean voyage. Electricity twinkles everywhere, more than a thousand electric lamps being the ordinary equipment, and fresh air is pumped through the ship by patent ventilators.
One of the latest inventions is a contrivance which has been devised to keep vessels from rolling. Just behind the engine room there is a " rolling chamber." It is shaped something like a curved hourglass lying on its side across the ship. It is partly filled with water, a hundred tons being its capacity. When the steamer begins to roll, the water starts toward the side that is lowered, but the narrow neck keeps it from rushing through at once. Its momentum, however, drives the water on, even while the vessel rights itself, and the same thing occurs on the opposite roll. The weight of a hundred tons of water will do a little toward counteracting the roll of even a great liner.
The officers of a ship have a great deal to do with its personality. On many of the foreign steamers you may find that your captain is a naval officer. In case of war and the pressing of his ship into the service, he would retain its command. On the French line, each member of the crew must have served for a time on a man of war. But generally speaking, the officers are sailor men who have made many a voyage and fought their way up inch by inch. To reach the captaincy requires not only good seamanship, but proved courage and capacity, a first rate personal record, and a thorough knowledge of every part of the mechanism under the commander's control. There is no passing by on account of favoritism in these great companies.
The steward's accounts of a liner like the New York, or the Lucania, or the Fürst Bismarck, makes very interesting reading.
Twenty thousand pounds of fresh beef, two thousand pounds of fish, two hundred pounds of green turtle, twelve hundred eggs, and fifteen hundred pounds of ice cream, are among the items.
And it is not only the voyage which the steamship company will look after. Today you can leave New York and have your baggage checked on the dock here to any part of England, France, or Germany. When you land on the other side, special trains will whisk you to London or Paris. Such a system could not have been created a dozen years ago. Modern inventions, the growth of the taste for luxury, and the capital and the enterprise that stand ready to supply it, have brought the Old and the New Worlds close together, and made the journey between them a delight instead of a penance.
While New York has more and more established its position as the western terminus of the Atlantic ferry, on the other side of the ocean the supremacy that Liverpool long held has in recent years been challenged by other ports. A couple of years ago, after the Inman line hadbecome the American, its ships deserted the Mersey for Southampton. That is also the point at which the vessels of the two great German lines call on their way to Hamburg and Bremen; and these continental ports, and also Havre, are now of first rate importance in the commerce of the Atlantic.
In the building of great steamers, too, the same tendency is noticeable. The racers of the past were launched from British yards; today Germany, France, and America are turning out their own ships. The Normandie, twelve years ago, was the last vessel for which the Compagnie Transatlantique went to English shipwrights; its later boats have been built at Toulon and St. Nazaire.
The Hamburg-American line, whose fleet is of the very largest and finest, and whose earlier steamers were British built, ordered the Fürst Bismarck and the Augusta Victoria from the Vulcan company, of Stettin.
The North German Lloyd took the same course with the Spree and the Havel. And this year will be memorable for the reappearance on the Atlantic of steamers designed and constructed by Americans, when the St. Louis and the St. Paul, now nearly completed by the Cramps, of Philadelphia, shall take their places with the New York and the Paris.
Learn more about the ships presented in this article:
Holme, George, "The Great Atlantic Liners", Munsey's Magazine, Volume 12, Number 8, May 1895, pp. 118-126