Great Atlantic Passenger Ships Of The Past


Since I was a young boy I have always been interested in passenger ships. My father would take me to the docks at the port of Los Angeles and I would watch the ships come in and dock and discharge passengers. Often we would witness these same interesting ships depart for ports usually in the Pacific. They sailed to Hawaii, the Orient and South Pacific. On a few occasions each year the ships would head south to sail through the Panama Canal and then go to England and Europe. This was a period before the jet plane and passenger ships were the main method of transportation for many.

The most famous ships however, were those great liners that sailed the Atlantic. Norwegian America Line’s Stavangerfjord was the first post Second World War commercial Atlantic crossing in August of 1945, and began the most successful 12-year period the Atlantic passenger ship business has ever experienced. Soon thereafter, other liners followed right out of ship yards, having been refitted from war duties or new builds, and the Atlantic tourist business was soon in full swing until the jet passenger aircraft appeared in 1959.

Some of those liners that had seen war service and which re-entered commercial passenger service included the popular Queen Mary as well the Queen Elizabeth, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile de France. American companies entered the business with new ships such as the Constitution and Independence. In the early 1950s the fastest passenger ship to sail the waters was the United States Lines 53,000 gross ton S.S. United States. Only recently did we discover the ship could move at speeds of over 40 miles per hour if it had to. It is 990 feet long and generally traveled the Atlantic doing over 30 miles per hour. It traveled from England to New York in four days — other ships took five-and-a-half to seven days for the same voyage. The ship was very popular with both Europeans and Americans. The interiors were very modern for the period and some say it was virtually fireproof. The only wood onboard was a butcher’s block in the galley. Even the pianos were made of plastic.

The S.S. United States was laid up in 1969 and never saw commercial service again. It still exists, however. Some years ago the vessel was sent overseas to have asbestos removed and was virtually gutted. It was returned to the States and has been tied up at various docks since, awaiting a buyer with a purpose for the old ship. Recently a preservation society purchased the ship and hopes to have it placed perhaps in New York Harbor or Miami for use as a maritime museum, hotel, convention center etc.

Cunard Lines Mauretania resumed service after the war. It was simply a smaller version of the Queen Elizabeth. Cunard also commissioned the building of its first new ship after the war to be named the Caronia. This 34,000-ton liner could carry more than 900 passengers in two classes. It was painted in three tones of green and was soon known as the “Green Goddess.”

It was sheer luxury for the period with large public rooms, fine cuisine and large staterooms in first class. During the winter months it also offered cruises to warm destinations during which only the first class section was used for 600 guests. Within a couple years of service the Caronia became the ship with the most snob appeal. It was truly the country club at sea for the rich. It would take tourists on voyages of 30, 40 and 50 days visiting many ports of call and spending time in some to allow for overland trips of three to five days while the ship remained at the dock. This great ship continued in service until 1967.

Canadian Pacific Steamships served between England and Canada with their Empress of England and Empress of Britain and Empress of Canada. These fine ships did so until the late 1960s. They were sold off to other companies for cruise ship duties and were converted for that trade. An example would be the Empress of Canada, which became the Mardi Gras, the first ship for the new Carnival Cruise Lines.

Cunard built four sister ships for the trans Atlantic Canadian trade to be named the Saxonia, Ivernia, Sylvania and Franconia. These 21,000-ton ships served well until the late 1960s. Two were sold to the Russians and used as cruise ships and two were sold to Sitmar Lines and converted to very modern cruise ships named the Fairwind and Fairsea. These two were very successful and based in Los Angeles and Miami.

The French were not to be outdone with their famous Ile de France and purchased the very large S.S. Bremen from the Germans, completely re-did the ship and placed it in service as the Liberte. France also commissioned the building of one of the most perfect ships afloat, the S.S. France, which served the Atlantic trade for many years. It was the longest passenger ship in the water until only recently, when two new cruise ships entered service in the last couple of years. The S.S. France served its later years as NCL’s popular Norway and proved to the cruise industry that the public could accept large cruise ships.

After the war, the Italians built some of the most handsome liners of the period. First were the Giulio Ceasre and its sister, the Agustus, both very modern mid-size ships of 27,000 gross tons. Two other twins, the Andrea Doria and Cristoforo Colombo at 29,000 tons, later followed these. The Andrea Doria was hit by a Swedish Liner after one year of service and was sunk and lives were lost. Its replacement was the splendid Leonardo da Vinci, which was larger at 33,000 tons.

In the mid-1960s the Italians built two very large and modern ships that many say should have never been built. They were the Michelangelo and Raffaello. Being 900 feet long with a capacity of over 1,200 one-class passengers they were unprofitable from the beginning and were the cause of the Italian Line going out of business. The jets were already flying the Atlantic when they were still in the builder’s yard.

As I review ship books in my library I must say none other surpassed these Italian beauties aesthetically.

Because of the high cost of American crews, the United States was not a major player on the Atlantic. We did offer the liners America, the United States, the Independence and Constitution along with a lesser liner named the Atlantic and a couple others.

The Greeks were also in the Atlantic business, mostly with used ships. They did offer one new build known as the Olympia, which was 23,000 tons and mostly served the tourist, economy trade between Mediterranean ports and New York.

The Dutch have always had a sterling reputation for ships. After the war they re-entered their successful Nieuw Amsterdam and then came the popular Rotterdam and Statendam. Several of their passenger/cargo ships were popular, which took more days at sea and were more relaxing. These were the Prinses Margriet, Noordam and Westerdam. Holland America Line also introduced the tourist twin ships, the Ryndam and Maasdam providing low fares with comfort.

The Germans entered the transatlantic trade later with the Berlin, the Bremen, Europa, Hanseatic and a couple others. They always offered luxury, fantastic service, cuisine and perfectly kept ships. The Germans had their following also.

The Swedish played a minor but import role with transportation from Scandinavia to the United States with mid-size ships such as the Gripsholm, Stockholm, Kungsholm and these fine ships also offered warm weather cruising in the winter months. Norwegian America Line did the same with their Oslofjord, Bergnsfjord, Sagafjord and Vistafjord. Again, mid-size ships that catered to a select clientele on cruises as well as summer Atlantic sailings. Later, the Swedes and Norwegians gave up the Atlantic business and offered cruises only with their deluxe ships.

I have omitted some ships and lines that played a lesser role in the Atlantic passenger trade. Some by design and others I have just plain forgotten to mention. If I missed your favorite, please forgive me. The Atlantic passenger shipping business was big business and an important one between the period of 1945 and the end of the l960s. The jet plane simply offered the passage between America and Europe in a few short hours at much less cost. That killed the Atlantic passenger shipping business. However, it’s fun to recall those great times and liners.


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