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The "Big Five” of the United States Shipping Board

Our Bid for the Transatlantic Passenger Trade

IF you should drop into the headquarters of the Shipping Board in New York seeking information, or on a business call, you would probably hear more than once the phrase, "The big Five." It is the Shipping Board's generic term for the largest and choicest of the transatlantic passenger steamers that were shut up in American ports and held there by the blockading force of British cruisers outside, and upon our entrance into the war were seized by the United States Government.

After the Armistice we obtained permanent possession of these ships, which form the leading members of a fleet whose total tonnage amounted to some 600,000 tons.

Although it is an old story, we cannot forbear making reference just here to the very able work which was done by our Navy Department in repairing the wreckage which had been wrought upon the engines of most of these ships by their German officers, just prior to our entrance into the war.

Steam cylinders and steam chests, from which the Germans had smashed large fragments, were repaired by electrically welding new sections in place and reboring and refacing them. The repairs were so efficient that we were able to put the whole of the fleet, or as much of it as we wished, into our transport service, and the vessels did yeoman work in carrying our Army across the Atlantic.

After the Armistice the various transports, or most of them, were tied up to different docks until the Shipping Board was able to, overhaul the engines and re store the interior passenger accommodations. Much of this work has been done, and some of the largest of the ships are today in operation. Upon others, the work of reconditioning involves so much expense that it has not yet even been commenced. Conspicuous, of course, among these is that great ship, the “Leviathan.” In the order of their size and importance, the “big five“are: the "Leviathan," the "George Washington," the "America," the “Agamemnon," and the "Mount Vernon." In addition, for the particulars of these vessels, reference is made to the accompanying table.

Particulars of the Shipping Board’s “Big Five”



George Washington


Ex-Kaiser Willhelm II

Mount Vernon
Ex-Kronprinzessin Cecile

Length of Deck, feet






Beam, feet






Depth, feet






Gross Tons






Speed in Knots






Passengers, First Class






Passengers, Second Class






Passengers, Third Class






Leading particulars of the five large passenger ships with which the United  States Shipping Board will compete for the transatlantic passenger trade

The “Leviathan"

With the single exception of the “Majestic," which has been assigned by the Shipping Board to the International Merchant Marine for operation, the “Leviathan” is the largest ship afloat, the “Majestic,” (ex “Bismark") is six feet longer.

These two liners were built side by side upon the building way of the firm of Blohm and Voss at their celebrated Hamburg yard, from the designs of Dr. Foerster, the chief naval architect of the Hamburg-American Company, for whom the ships were constructed.

The “Leviathan” then the "Vaterland," made her maiden trip to New York in the early summer of 1914, and after two or three voyages,  the war found her at the Hamburg-American dock at Hoboken, where she remained until the Spring of 1917.

The “Leviathan" is 927 1/2 feet long on deck; her beam is 100 feet; and her molded depth is 57.1 feet. The gross tonnage is 54,292 tons, and the four turbines of 90,000 horsepower, driving four shafts, were designed to give her a speed of 23 knots, which she is able to make today.

The ship was most sumptuously furnished and decorated in the German style, the special features being a large assembly room about 75 x 55 feet and about 25 feet high, which is entirely free from supporting columns, the great roof being carried by overhead plate girders, extending from side wall to side wall.

Another remark able feature is the Ritz-Carlton restaurant of about equal width and height and about 55 feet wide. There is also a main dining room, which measures about 115 feet by nearly 100 feet. Below decks is a Pompeiian swimming pool and a series of electric baths, massage rooms and other equipment of the same character.

In preparing the ship for transport service a large number of her elaborate private cabins were torn out to make way for pipe berths for the men; and so far as her decorations were concerned. she was subjected to that all-around wrecking which is involved in turning a passenger vessel of this kind into a transport.

The “Leviathan” Well Cared For

Contrary to the popular impression, which has been created by irresponsible newspaper reporters, the “Leviathan" has been very well cared for during the three years in which she has lain at the Hoboken docks.

A force of some 200 men has kept the machinery, including the main engines, auxiliary pumps, et cetera, in first-class condition. They have been periodically inspected, turned over, and protected against deterioration; and, thanks to the excellence of this care, the ship at a few hours ‘notice would be able to steam out of her dock and make her maximum speed of 23 knots.

In addition, the talk about this valuable ship rusting at her moorings is sheer nonsense. The International Merchant Marine under a contract with the Shipping Board has cared for her, and the patches of red lead paint with which she is disfigured are evidence of the fact that rusting is just the one thing against which the caretaking crew are guarding. The hull is in fine condition, for the ship was built of the best materials and with the careful workmanship, which characterizes the best German shipbuilding yards.

At the same time, it must he confessed that the “Leviathan” is something of a “white elephant;" for it would take between six and seven million dollars to reconstruct the interior passenger accommodations of the ship and refit her to meet American ideas of comfort, decoration and sanitary arrangements.

The work would be enormous, involving the construction of many miles of electric cables, the complete overhauling of her baths and sanitary and general plumbing arrangements, and the redecoration of her great assembly and dining halls and the vast suite of private cabins. She stands as a monument to the folly of the Shipping Board during the early part of its administration; for it is a fact that the International Merchant Marine Company made a bid of four million dollars for this ship—a reasonable offer if we bear in mind the enormous cost of her reconditioning.

This was turned down, and Heaven alone knows what will become of the ship! Any firm that bought her would have to spend six or seven million dollars upon her and would be hard put to it, even with full cabins, in get any profits out of the venture.

The "George Washington"

The next largest ship, the well-known “George Washington," in which the President of the United States so frequently crossed to France during the peace negotiations, has been entirely renovated and is now in service. The engines and general mechanical plant are in first-class condition, and she has been entirely rebuilt and redecorated throughout.

This ship belongs in that class which used to be called “intermediate express steamers,” in which a large freight-carrying capacity is combined with commodious passenger accommodations. The “George Washington," according to the American register of ships, is exactly 699 feet in length; her beam is 78.2 feet, and her molded depth, 50.1 feet, gross tonnage is 23,788 tons, and her engines of 20,000 horsepower, drive the ship at a sustained sea speed of 17 knots. She has accommodations for 485 first-class, 440 second-class and 1,771 third-class passengers—a total of 2,696. The cost of renovating the interior of the ship was $2,000,000.

The “America”

Another fine vessel of the same class, built by Harland and Wolff, of Belfast, but older than the “George Washington,” is the “America.”  Her dimensions are: Length of deck, 669 feet, beam 74 feet, molded depth, 47 feet.  Her gross tonnage is 21,144 tons, and she is capable of a sustained sea speed of 16 knots. 

She can carry 450 first-class, 250 second-class and 1,500 third-class passengers.  The engines of the “America” have been partially rebuilt and subjected to a thorough overhauling, and today are in excellent shape.  Passenger accommodations have been entirely rebuilt and redecorated and this part of the work is attractive, highly artistic and very restful to the eye.

The “Mount Vernon” and “Agamemnon"

These two ships, built for the North German Lloyd Line, in their day held the blue ribbon of the Atlantic conjointly with the “Deutschland" of the Hamburg American Line. They are practically sister vessels, and under the German flag they were known as the “Kaiser Wilhelm II” and the “Kronprinzessin Ceciiie." "Kaiser Wilhelm II” equaled the record speed of 231-3 knots made by the “Deutschland” for the whole crossing of the Atlantic, and both ships were exceedingly popular in their day.

After they came into the possession of the Shipping Board, they were overhauled. The work on the “Mount Vernon” (formerly the “Cecilie”) was done at the Boston Navy, where the engines were overhauled from the engine foundations up; they are now in first-class running order, Work on the “Agamemnon" was done at the New York Navy Yard. Renovation of the cabin accommodations in these two vessels is not yet complete; but we understand it is to be put through by firms acting under contract with the Shipping Board.

The dimensions of the “Agamemnon” are: length 684.3 feet: beam, 72.3 feet; depth, 40 feet; gross tonnage, T9360 ions, and the engines today are capable of driving her at a speed of 23 knots. She has accommodations for 600 first-class, 320 second-class, and 663 third-class passengers.

The five ships mentioned above, with the exception of the “Leviathan,” have been operated under contract with the Shipping Board by the lately defunct United States Mail Service. At present, they are being operated by a company of patriotic officials, who are giving their services for nothing, the company receiving a certain sum from the Shipping Board to cover the expenses of running the ships.

The “Majestic” and “Homeric” of the White Star Line

When the war broke out, the “Bismarck,” sister ship to the “Leviathan," then known as the “Vaterland," was under construction at the Blohm and Voss yards at Hamburg. Little was done upon her during the war; but since the Treaty representatives of the White Star Line and of the German builders are working together to outfit her with stores and minor equipment.

She will be operated for the Shipping Board who will pay the company a certain sum for that service. On taking her place in the New York-Cherbourg-Southampton service, she will conform in the details of her passenger fittings to the standards of the “Olympic," with which she will ply in that service.

She is about 10,000 tons larger than the “Olympic,” and about 2,000 tons larger than the “Leviathan,” or 56,000 tons. The increase in size is due to the fact that after she was designed, it was determined to introduce two additional frames amidship, giving her an increased length of six feet, so that, according to the American Maritime Register, her length on deck will be 938.6 feet.

This great ship will have 1,245 staterooms, including 472 first-class, 212 second-class and 561 third-class cabins. The dimensions of the vessel are enormous. The tops of the three smokestacks are 144 feet above the Water line of the ship and 184 feet above the keel, which is about equal to the height of an ordinary 14-story building.

There is a great suite of halls on the boat deck, including a lounge 26 feet high, with floor dimensions 76 by feet. The main dining room is 117 feet long by 98 feet wide, and its ceiling is 31 feet high. The flrst-class restaurant is 110 feet long by 54 feet wide, with a ceiling 23 feet high. There is an unbroken view through the center of these halls of 250 feet. This is made possible by the arrangement of the uptakes to the smokestacks, which are brought up, from the boiler rooms, near the sides of the ship in two parts, which unite above the saloon deck.

The grand staircases are also built on the sides instead of in the center of the vessel. These arrangements insure a clear sweep unimpeded space throughout the great public rooms. The estimated sea speed of the ship is about 23 knots, though it is probable that, in common with all big, fast passenger steamers today, that in order to economize fuel, she will be run at a lower speed. Her crew of over 1000 men, the full complement of the ship will be more than 5000 souls.

Another fine ship that will be operated by the International Merchant Marine is the “Homeric" (formerly the “Columbus"), which was practically completed for the North German Lloyd Line at the outbreak of the war. She was designed to be an improvement on the "George Washington,” which she resembles in general appearance. She is 775.6 feet long; her beam is 83.1 feet and draft 33.8 feet. The gross tonnage is 32,000.

“The Big Five,” in the Scientific American: The Monthly Journal of Practical Information, Volume 125-A, Number 17, New York, November 1921, P. 9-10


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