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The Last Voyage

March 2023
1min read

The end of an era in United States maritime history was marked in the quiet twilight of last January 8, when the Prudential-Grace Lines ship Santa Rosa slipped from her pier in Manhattan on a cruise to the Caribbean with 187 passengers on board. She was the last regularly scheduled American-flag passenger ship to sail from an Atlantic Coast port. Her final run left only four American liners in the ocean passenger service, and they all operate from ports on the West Coast.

Most historians date the beginning of scheduled passenger service to January 5, 1818, when the packet ship James Monroe set out from New York for Liverpool. She carried mail, cargo, and eight paid fares. Thus started the first venture of the famous Black Ball Line, a shipping company founded by a group of New York merchants who hoped to provide transatlantic runs once monthly, on a fixed day, no matter what the weather, time of year, or how full the cargo holds. Until then, vessels sailed only when they were full up with freight. As the New York Gazette reported after the James Monroe set sail that auspicious day in a snowstorm: “Rich cargoes once a month, breasting the surge at all seasons of the year.”

Because the packets were primarily cargo ships, other historians say the first “real” American transatlantic liner was the Great Western, which was built in Great Britain for the Great Western Railroad. A steamer, she arrived in New York with only eight passengers but plenty of coal on April 26, 1838. Actually, she was bested by four hours by Sirius , a steamer originally intended for ferry service across the Irish Channel. Sirius carried ninety-four passengers, but her captain had been forced to burn cabin doors, furniture, and even one mast to keep her boilers going, so the Sirius could obviously not be operated by any certain timetable.

By 1855, the peak year, there were fifty lines operating in the Atlantic service, and passenger traffic continued high through the First World War. The record was reached in 1913 when both American and foreign ships carried 1,714,000 persons, many of them immigrants, across the Atlantic. The downturn set in in 1921 when a restrictive immigration law was passed. Then, inexorably, came rising labor and shipbuilding costs, and the airplane. Even so, in the 1960'$ the American flag continued to be flown with pride from such heavily subsidized ships as the Constitution and the Independence . In 1969, the superliner United States , holder of many world speed records, was forced into retirement because of operating losses amounting to more than four million dollars a year. That same year, transatlantic traffic dropped to barely over a quarter of a million passengers, aboard both domestic and foreign ships, while airlines were carrying nearly six million travellers.

You can still take a cruise or cross the Atlantic from the East Coast, but only aboard a vessel flying the flag of a nation other than the United States.

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