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Pride Of The Seas
Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
Both bore the name American Line. The earlier, a Philadelphia-Liverpool line underwritten by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, built four 3,000-ton iron steamships in 1871. The Pennsylvania, the first, took her maiden departure on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the Savannah’s sailing for the same destination. Though unsubsidized, these steamships managed to survive in the transatlantic passenger-and-cargo trade for a quarter-century, gaining a modest fame as the only regular liners under the American flag on that ocean. But they were not profitable; the Pennsylvania built no successors and finally sold them to the International Navigation Company of Philadelphia.
This American company already owned the Belgian-flag Red Star Line and was about to acquire the British Inman Line. Though it kept the American Line fleet under U.S. registry, it ordered from England under the Inman name the 10,000-ton British-flag City of New York and City of Paris, the finest and fastest ships on the Atlantic when launched and the first twin-screw express liners.
Meanwhile, Congress had at last acknowledged the dismal condition of the merchant marine. New “postal aid” measures were passed, under the general terms of which the American owners of the new Cities obtained their admission to U.S. registry in 1892, on condition that two equivalent ships be ordered from American yards. The latter entered service in 1895 as the St. Louis and the St. Paul, 11,000-ton twin-stacked ships and the first truly first-class American-built tonnage on tlhe North Atlantic since 1858. With the handsome three-funnelled New York and Paris, as the naturalized ships were renamed, these were commissioned as armed naval cruisers during the Spanish-American War—the New York and the Paris being temporarily renamed the Harvard and the Yale—before settling down to two decades of service on the Atlantic shuttle.
These new postal-aid measures were a plain instance of too little, too late. No resurgence of the merchant fleet followed in the wake of the St. Louis and the St. Paul. Rather, all the indicators continued their descent, and from 1900 through 1914, foreign ships carried over ninety per cent of American trade.
Since these opening years, the century has been marked by a few signs that the American public realized the gravity and importance of their merchant marine problem, and by serious, if sporadic, legislative attempts to revitalize the maritime establishment. But the overriding phenomena have been two world wars. To win them, heroic ship-construction efforts were expended, but these miracles simply left aggravated problems in their wake. The possibility of solutions has been made increasingly remote by the expanding cost-of-living gap between this country and its maritime competitors, and by the emergence of labor as a powerful fourth factor in the already intricate industry-government-public equation. Above all, we have continued to demonstrate our by now historic indisposition to follow up maritime starts well made, and our boundless capacity to forget lessons learned.
The first lesson came when war broke out in Europe in 1914, and the United States found itself with practically no ships in foreign trade. The alien ships we had corne to employ as our carriers (Robert Albion notes that in 1913 only 119 of 1,855 “departures foreign” from New York were made by U.S.-flag ships) had disappeared overnight. Our imports were cut off, and our export cargoes backed up in a stupendous traffic jam all the way to the Mississippi Valley. Desperate measures were called for, and for the first time in this century a shaken nation vowed never to neglect the merchant marine again.
By rifling the domestic fleet, building what we could, and admitting foreign-built ships to U.S. registry, we weathered the neutral years; but as actual belligerency approached, it was clear that a vast ship and shipyard building program was inevitable. We were, as in most other things, unprepared. Yet under the newly created United States Shipping Board and its construction arm, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the yards were constructed (notably the huge one at Hog Island, below Philadelphia), labor and materials were obtained, and a total of 2,300 ships were delivered (mostly after Germany’s unexpected collapse in 1918). It was history’s largest shipbuilding program to date, and it cost more than three billion dollars.
The new fleet included about seven hundred large steel ships usable to make up our tonnage deficit; they were primarily of two standard cargo types, the 7,800-ton, square-lined “Hog Islander” and an 8,500-ton class bearing names starting with West. There were also twenty-six transports, a sturdy if unglamorous nucleus for our postwar passenger fleets on both oceans.