Passion for Transatlantic Passenger Liners


Famous Four-Stackers: Honorable Mention…SS Great Eastern

There has only been one five funneled ocean liner built in all of history, and rightfully so. Even before this monster of a ship was completed in 1858, she was already a legend thanks to her designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Her enormous size was left unchallenged for over forty years, and her cost bankrupted more than one company. The biggest ship in the world would become the biggest financial flop of her time.

On March 25, 1852, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of Britain’s foremost mechanical engineers, had an idea for a ship that could run from England to Australia without stopping to refuel. It would need to be large. Six times larger than any other ship afloat. The idea was to have enough space to carry enough coal to make very long voyages without stopping. Using steam and sail, the ship would need fewer crew members than the average clipper, and could carry passengers as well as cargo. Once a suitable place to build the ship had been selected, they approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to assist. Brunel, already known for his other two successful ships, Great Western and Great Britain, was appointed chief engineer. The keel was laid on May 1, 1854.

Great Eastern was the first ship to utilize a double hull, which would become required for safety eventually. She used three different types of propulsion. Screw, paddlewheel, and sail. Sails could not be used at the same time as sail, as the exhaust from the steam engines would set the sails afire.

Several attempts were made to launch the ship (sideways due to the fact that she was many times larger than any existing ship at the time), the first being November 3, 1857. Despite an attempt to launch without much public attention, the huge ship under construction couldn’t be ignored. Also, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company sold tickets for the launch. The first launch failed, as the equipment used couldn’t handle the load of such a massive ship. A second attempt was made and also failed. The ship finally entered the water on January 31, 1858.GreatEasternBeforeLaunch

The Great Eastern began her maiden voyage on September 6, 1859, several months after it was planned. She had just entered the English Channel and there was a massive explosion that ripped through her forward decks and launched one of the funnels into the air. The hot steam killed five, and five others jumped overboard. Now Great Eastern had four funnels.

Despite being constructed for an easterly route, it was determined there was not enough of a need for the ship to head to India and Australia. Instead, she was assigned the transatlantic trade. Her first voyage to North America was scheduled for June 14, 1860. However, once she was boarded by passengers and crew, the trip was postponed until the 17th. The crew was drunk. Great Eastern crossed the Atlantic in 10 days 19 hours.

In 1863 Great Eastern made three voyages to New York, with 2,700 passengers being carried out and 970 back to Britain along with a large tonnage of cargo. One of her paddle wheels was damaged on the last outward trip and she completed it using her screw, while on the return journey she ran down and damaged Jane, a small sailing ship. The company lost nearly £20,000 on the voyages due to a price war between the Cunard and Inman shipping lines, and ended up with debts of more than £142,000, which forced them to lay up Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern Steamship Company was formed, and Great Eastern was chartered to the newly formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company for £50,000 of shares, and would be responsible for carrying out the necessary conversion work for the ship’s new role, laying the Atlantic Cable.

So it would come to be that the Great Eastern’s real claim  to fame would be the telegraph cable running from Europe to North America. After the cable voyage was completed, she was put up for sale. She became a floating billboard. Brunel’s folly Great Eastern may not have been a successful passenger ship, but she did leave her mark on history.

SS Great Eastern 1




Atlantic Speed Queens: RMS Queen Mary


Starting at the beginning, construction on the ship, then known only as “Hull Number 534”, began in December 1930 on the River Clyde by the John Brown & Company shipyard at Clydebank in Scotland.

Bremen and Europa were being planned by Germany’s Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL). White Star was planning their largest liner yet, the Oceanic. Cunard needed to up their game and planned a slightly larger and much faster ship than Oceanic. However, all was not right in the world. The year before a massive stock market crash began the Great Depression. Work stopped on hull 534 in 1931 and what was built sat idle.

In 1933, Cunard applied to the British Government for a loan to complete hull 534. They leaned on the idea of national pride and a history of Britain ruling the Atlantic. The loan was seriously considered, but there wasMaryLaunch

a condition. Cunard would merge with the White Star Line, which was Cunard’s chief British rival at the time and which had already been forced by the depression to cancel construction of its Oceanic. Both lines agreed and the merger was completed on 10 May 1934. Work on Queen Mary resumed immediately and she was launched on 26 September 1934.


To sail first class (or Cabin class) aboard Queen Mary was to mingle with some of the most famous people in the world. Dignitaries, politicians, film stars and directors…the list was quite extensive.
People like Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, Judy Garland, Marlene Deitrich, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Walt Disney all came aboard. Remember, from 1936 when Mary entered service to 1967 when she was retired, the ocean liner was the only way to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

DietrichJust a few years after Queen Mary made her debut, the European international situation was turning dire. A madman had risen to power in Germany. QM&CuracaoIn August of 1939, Queen Mary was at sea, heading to New York. When she arrived, she was given strict orders to stay at port on the Hudson. Hitler had begun his invasions and a neutral country was the safest place for her to be. Also stuck in New York was her rival, Normandie. When France surrendered to the Nazis, Normandie was seized by the US government. February of 1940, another monster of a liner would join them. This was Mary’s running mate, RMS Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Mary was painted battleship gray in preparation for the inevitable call to duty. The three giants lay at their piers until March 20, 1940. On that day, Queen Mary had orders to sail for Australia. She became His Majesty’s Troop ship, Queen Mary and the world’s fastest transport. Her sumptuous interiors were removed and replaced with bunks. The woodwork was covered up. Sailing in a zigzag and at top speed, no German submarines could catch her. Even with her speed, she was given strict orders not to stop for any reason. She was following her orders when she collided with her escort HMS Curacao on October 2, 1942, killing 239 people.qmwargreyghost-QE

Queen Mary and her partner Queen Elizabeth were invaluable to the war effort. Over the course of the conflict, Queen Mary had sailed 339,000 miles and carried 105,000 troops. On top of the troops, Queen Mary also carried Sir Winston Churchill who conveyed orders from his stateroom. Sir Winston actually stated the he believed the cooperation of Cunard’s queens shortened the war by two years.

Following the end of the war, Queen Mary had the distinguished task of delivering war brides to the US and Canada. QMwarbridesMore than 13,000 brides were ferried across the sea to meet their husbands after their duties were finished. It was during these voyages that Queen Mary beat her best speed to that point, at just under 32 knots.

Following her final repatriation voyage in September 1946, Queen Mary was released from military service and returned to Southampton for a complete refit. She would be returned to her pre-war magnificence. On 31 July 1947 Queen Mary sailed on her first post-war voyage, in service with Queen Elizabeth as was originally planned. They were the only two ship weekly transatlantic runners. Both ships were very popular.

In 1952, Queen Mary finally had to give up her title of Atlantic speed queen to the brand new SS United States, which was the flagship of her namesake. The record is still held by the United States to this day.

In 1958, the Boeing 707 made its first commercial flights across the sea. This meant certain doom for fast ocean liners. MaryFastEven the fastest ship can’t outrun a passenger jet. Cunard tried cruising with their large liners. In 1966, a seamans strike cost Cunard ₤4 million. At the rate Queen Mary was losing revenue, this made keeping her in service no longer economically feasible.QueenMaryDC9

After the realization that the age of the ocean liner was coming to an end, Cunard opened bidding for the venerable Queen Mary. The city of Long Beach, California won the bidding and plans were made to have her moved to the Pacific. This required one very long final voyage. Queen Mary was too large to navigate the Panama Canal, so she had to sail the long way around the tip of South America.

The final departure from Southampton on Halloween of 1967 for the Queen Mary was an enormous send off. The Royal Air Force and Navy gave a roaring send off. It was a somber celebration for an icon of the Atlantic. FinalDepartureQueen Mary visited a few ports along the coast of South America, such as Rio de Janiero. Rounding Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, passengers paid one pound to round the horn on a double deck bus brought on board from London. Most of the time, rounding Cape Horn is dangerous. The weather is often horrible and rip currents fierce. However, everything was calm for the Queen.

While approaching Long Beach on December 9, hundreds of small pleasure craft came to meet her. It was a celebration just as big as the one that saw her depart Southampton for the final time. Queen Mary moved into position and her engines were stopped, this time for good. Now was the task of converting the ship into a static attraction. Hotel, gathering place, museum. These were the plans.arrival

Per agreement with the city of Long Beach and Cunard, machinery was removed. This meant removing her funnels and going in from the top. This resulted in much of her interior being rearranged. Queen Mary Hotel opened November 2, 1972.Whitmeyer_QMslides016W

Since her establishment in Long Beach, Queen Mary has been used as a filming set for several movies, a few television episodes and music videos. One of the most memorable uses was the 1972 movie The Poseidon Adventure where a large ocean liner named Poseidon was hit by a rogue wave and turned upside down.94QM02MakingPoseidon


RMS Queen Mary


Famous Four Stackers: RMS Arundel and Windsor Castle

RMS Arundel Castle


Arundel Castle was built for the British based Union Castle Line to be operated on the Southampton – Cape Town route. This was the largest ship built for the South Africa trade and the one of two four funneled liners not built for the transatlantic route. She was launched in 1921, due to a delay caused by the First World War.

The Arundel Castle’s maiden voyage took place on April 22, 1921, and had Cape Town, South Africa as final destination. The ship was truly a remarkable sight. She was the first vessel in the world since the Aquitania to sport four funnels. This perhaps seemed a bit outdated, but when the ship was laid down in 1915 the design was not quite that old. This was also something Union-Castle had wanted in order to resemble the larger, North Atlantic liners.
Construction had halted due to the Great War.

The Union-Castle Line served as a link between Britain and South Africa, and since the Arundel Castle and her sister Windsor Castle were the prime ships in its fleet, they often had to be the only link.

The four funnel design of the ship was now outdated at the time of her entry into service. In 1937, she returned to the shipyard for a refit and redesign. She emerged with only two funnels and a more modern bow. Her speed was also increased.

During the second world war, Arundel Castle was put into trooper duty and served without incident. She completed 211 more voyages before being scrapped.


RMS Windsor Castle


Windsor Castle was built for the British based Union Castle Line to be operated on the Southampton – Cape Town route. This was the largest ship built for the South Africa trade and the one of two four funneled liners not built for the transatlantic route. She was launched in 1921, due to a delay caused by the First World War.

The Windsor Castle’s maiden voyage took place in April 1921, and had Cape Town, South Africa as final destination. The ship was truly a remarkable sight. She was the first vessel in the world since the Aquitania to sport four funnels. This perhaps seemed a bit outdated, but when the ship was laid down in 1915 the design was not quite that old. This was also something Union-Castle had wanted in order to resemble the larger, North Atlantic liners.
Construction had halted due to the Great War.

The Union-Castle Line served as a link between Britain and South Africa, and since the Arundel Castle and her sister Windsor Castle were the prime ships in its fleet, they often had to be the only link.

The four funnel design of the ship was now outdated at the time of her entry into service. In 1937, she returned to the shipyard for a refit and redesign. She emerged with only two funnels and a more modern bow. Her speed was also increased.

ArundelCastle 2

During the second world war, Arundel Castle was put into trooper duty and on March 23, 1943, she was hit by a torpedo launched from a German aircraft while in the Mediterranean Sea as part of convoy KMF-11. She took two hours to sink.





Famous Four Stackers: RMS Aquitania



After White Star’s  Olympic proved successful even though she was not intended to be fast, Cunard planned a third four funneled liner which entered the water in April 1913. This was intended to give Cunard their own trio of large transatlantic liners, however Lusitania was sunk in 1915. Now this new ship would replace Lusitania and continue the tandem crossings from Europe to America and back.

The name Aquitania was derived from a Roman division of southwest Gaul extending from the Pyrenees to the Garonne River known as Aquitaine.

There was great sucHMHS_Aquitaniacess with Mauretania and Lusitania. This new, larger ship was ordered to compete with White Star. This ship was not intended to hold any kind of speed record. She was built for stability and luxury. Her dimensions slightly exceeded those of White Star’s Olympic trio. 

Her maiden voyage came the day after the disaster that sank the Canadian Empress of Ireland, so the world’s gaze was not completely focused on the first voyage of this great ship. A month later, Europe was at war. She made only three round trips across the sea before being requisitioned by the Admiralty. She was painted wartime gray and sent out to transport troops. In 191hmtaq5, she was converted into a hospital ship and became HMHS Aquitania. After the Britannic struck a mine and sank, Aquitania returned to trooping duty with a brief lay-up in 1917. Aquitania was repainted with the odd ‘dazzle’ paint scheme as a type of camouflage. On one single voyage, she transported over 8,000 soldiers.

By 1919, the war was over and Aquitania was sent for a refit. Her coal burning engines were converted to burn oil which was much less dirty and much more efficient. She was also fitted with a new wheelhouse located directly above the original to increase visibility.

As time progressed, Aquitania proved to be a very popular and profitable liner. The 1920s proved to be the time for this heroic ship. During the prohibition years, she took Americans on ‘booze cruises’ to nowhere to allow Americans to escape the laws. (A British ship does not have to abide by American laws.) Open immigration in the US had ended by the 1920s but ocean liners were still the only means of travel between continents.  Celebrities and politicians favored Aquitania over other ships, nicknaming her ‘the ship beautiful.’

Cunard had plans for a new liner to replace Aquitania in the late 30s. These plans were thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Queen Mary has entered service and has been repainted gray and has began transporting troops. Aquitania was enlisted to perform the same duties. Aquitania_in_her_twilight_years

This ship began transporting American and Canadian troops to Europe, but then she was called for trooping service between Australia and North Africa. When the focus of the war moved to the Pacific, Aquitania was again called upon to serve. She transported Australian troops to New Guinea and Netherlands East Indies. Aquitania sailed more than 500,000 miles, and carried nearly 400,000 soldiers, to and from places as far as New Zealand, Australia, the South Pacific, Greece and the Indian Ocean.

When the war was over,  Aquitania transported warbrides and their children to Canada under charter from the Canadian government. After this, Aquitania was removed from service. Her hard use during the war had worn out this grand lady. She was too expensive to be refit in order to comply with safety codes and was sent off to the scrap yard in 1950.



FAMOUS FOUR STACKERS: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic




Postcard for RMS Olympic in 1911

RMS Olympic:

In the early 20th century, there was quite the competition on the Atlantic shipping immigrants from Europe to the United States. Ships were considered national symbols and stood for technological might. Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Canada and the United States all tried to one-up each other. It was a battle of ship building on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States began the competition much later than the European countries. Great Britain ruled the waves on and off for about fifty years. The great Cunard Line was Britain’s national pride. White Star began as a British company, but was bought by the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company which was American owned.

When Cunard introduced their two ocean greyhounds as a response to the German four funneled liners, White Star saw the need to compete. They would plan not two, but three very large four funneled liners of their own. They were not to be focused on speed, but size and luxury. Their names would have Greek influence and they were to stun the world. They were to be called Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic. They were to be the epitome of style on the seas.

Passenger accommodations aboard were greatly improved over any other Atlantic liner of the day. There was much publicity about this massive project undertaken by White Star.

Olympic passed her sea trials with flying colors, and set sail on her maiden voyage in June of 1911. On the very day she left for that first trip across the ocean, her sister was launched.

Olympic suffered damage after  a harrowing collision with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. Both ships were required to be removed from service for repairs. The damage to Olympic wasn’t severe enough to keep her down for long.

When the Great War erupted, many ships were called into wartime duty. Olympic was no exception. She was painted in a dazzle color scheme meant as a sort of camouflage and was used as a troop transport.


Dressed for war

During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel. She gained the nickname ‘Old Reliable’ by the troops and was considered a celebrated war hero.

After the war, Olympic returned to her peacetime service as a transatlantic liner. First, she would undergo a refit and there were changes to her interiors.

With the loss of two sister ships, Olympic needed Atlantic running mates. Germany was forced to give White Star two of their liners as repayment for sinking dozens of British ships during the war. The Columbus became Homeric, and Bismarck became Majestic.

The Olympic class liners were different from other liners of the day as the third class passengers were not forced to sleep in dormitory style rooms with dozens of people occupying one space. There were individual rooms with two to ten beds. This allowed for more privacy and boost morale of the class. The accommodations aboard were a vast improvement over other ships in each class aboard. The first class was quite opulent and posh. Second class was as first class aboard other ships.

Although she was the most successful of the three ships designed, Olympic’s career was not without mishap. In September of 1911, Olympic collided with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. The British cruiser was designed to sink other ships by ramming them, so the damage to Olympic was decently severe. There was no loss of life in this incident, but questions were raised about the liner’s size. An inquiry stated that the suction current produced by Olympic’s massive hull pulled the Hawke into her side. The completion of Titanic was delayed to allow for the repair of her sister.

A woman named Violet Jessop was aboard Olympic when the collision with the Hawke occurred. She also survived the sinking of Olympic’s sister Titanic, and their sister Britannic later during The Great War. A biography of Miss Jessop’s life has been released and it is quite the read.

RMS Olympic in NYC

RMS Olympic in NYC

In October of 1912, Olympic was removed from service due to the sinking of her near twin, Titanic. This was needed to upgrade the safety features which included more than doubling the number of lifeboats. Water tight bulkheads were extended up to B deck instead of the D or E deck as originally designed. This configuration had spelled doom for Titanic and correction was required.

Another incident for Olympic happened in 1934 during a period of heavy fog. The sea lanes approaching the American shore were marked by light ships. Olympic rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship killing 7 of the 11 crew members aboard. The survivors were rescued by Olympic, but the others could not be saved.

Olympic enjoyed a decently long career, being loved by many despite her similarity to her doomed sister. Her service went on through the merger of White Star with Cunard. The introduction of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth meant that the older White Star ships had become obsolete. Olympic was withdrawn and sent to the scrap yard.


RMS Titianic

This particular ship is so widely talked about, that I will only touch on the most important aspects. Resources about details are widely found in books and on the internet. Titanic is iconic because of many reasons. Her demise was a world changing event.

The second of the Olympic class liners planned for the White Star Line was highly celebrated as she would be larger than her slightly older sister Olympic. This ship was advertised as nearly unsinkable and attracted the quite wealthy and ostentatious American and European travelers. Aboard the fateful maiden voyage were the likes of Isidor Strauss, founder of Macy’s department stores, the Countess of Rothes, Sir and Lady Duff-Gordon,  Colonel Gracie, Mr. and Mrs. John Astor (one of the wealthiest men in the world), Benjamin Guggenheim, and a variety of other extremely well to do people.


Titanic at Southampton


Fourteen years before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, a book was published called Futility. In this book, a ship, the largest the world had seen, carrying the rich and famous, hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank. Thousands of people died because there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Who was to know that this exact event would actually take place. The name of the ship in this book: Titan


As Titanic was preparing to leave Southampton on her first voyage on April 10, 1912,  there was a near-collision. The Titanic’s engines created a suction that pulled the SS New York from her moorings. The two ships came within feet of hitting. There was a fire in one of the coal bunkers as the ship left port. There were a variety of things that attempted to keep Titanic from beginning her maiden voyage to New York. After this near mishap, quite a few people left the ship when it stopped in Cherbourg.


On the fourth night of her maiden voyage, April 14, Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank bow first in just under three hours. The lack of lifeboats for all passengers and people not believing the ship would actually sink cost the lives of 1,517 people.

New York Times reports Titanic disaster

New York Times reports Titanic disaster

The aftermath of this great disaster brought about changes in regulations. Now it was required that a ship carry more than enough lifeboats for every person on board, the look out crew must have proper equipment to see ahead of the ship, watertight bulkheads must extend above the waterline and the International Ice Patrol was founded to keep track of drifting ice in the commercial sea lanes. A very long and drawn out investigation revealed many problems with the operation of the ship and not only the White Star Line, but all other shipping lines were required to change. Never again would the sea take the lives of so many people due to oversight and negligence.


From James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ 1997

Over the years, the sinking of this ship has been debated and talked about all around the world. Theories developed that seem absurd. One of these is that because of the collision between Olympic and Hawke, the Olympic was swapped with Titanic. The theory states that the damage to Olympic was worse than conveyed and was swapped with her sister and purposely sunk.

World interest in the wreck of Titanic was sparked again in 1985, when famed oceanographer Robert Ballard located the sunken ship two miles beneath the Atlantic’s surface. It was then confirmed that the ship had broken in two at the surface. 73 years after that fateful night, lights were shined on the RMS Titanic. Conversations and debates were sparked again about that night in April of 1912.

Public fascination with the story of how the great ship went down has led to books and movies. ‘A Night To Remember’ was a very popular book written by Walter Lord based on the eyewitness accounts of survivors. This book was later turned into a very popular motion picture in 1958. Other films would include several films called Titanic before 1958, ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ in 1964, ‘Raise the Titanic’ in 1980 based on a fictional novel by Clive Cussler, ‘Titanica’ narrated by Leonard Nimoy which was a documentary film made in the IMAX format, ‘Titanic’ in 1997 directed by James Cameron and winner of 11 Academy Awards, ‘SOS Titanic in 1979, ‘Ghosts of the Abyss’ which was another IMAX documentary based on the underwater dives by James Cameron to film 1997’s ‘Titanic’, and ‘Titanic II’ about the rebuilding of the ship and another untimely demise (not a very good movie). There have been several miniseries made for television on the subject as well.

Clive Palmer, and Australian billionaire announced his plans to recreate Titanic as accurately as possible but still falling within the newest safety guidelines set by SOLAS. I believe this to just be a massive and expensive rumor. As of 2015, not a single part of this ship has been constructed. No other ship disaster in all of history has stayed in the attention of society.


HMHS Britannic

After the sinking of the now legendary RMS Titanic in 1912, the final Olympic class liner required many changes. Most of these changes were made before this ship ever entered the water. Her hull was wider than the previous Olympic liners partly due to a new double hull design and redesigned expansion joints.


HMHS Britannic painting by Ken Marschall


It was finally launched on 26 February 1914 as the Britannic. White Star announced that it would begin sailing the Southampton-New York route in the spring of 1915. The outbreak of World War One changed this and it was converted into a hospital ship with over 3,300 beds. On 13 November it was fitted out medically and on 8 December commissioned as a hospital ship and handed over in International Red Cross livery. The Britannic arrived at Liverpool, from Belfast, on 12 December 1915, but it did not leave on its maiden voyage to Mudros until 23 December.


On November 21, 1916, Britannic was in the Mediterranean sea just off the coast of Italy when a huge explosion rocked the ship. It is still debated whether this was a torpedo strike, or a mine. The nurses had opened the portholes to bring fresh air into the wards. The damage to the ship wasn’t immediately fatal, but the opened windows caused water to pour in. As it settled by the head abandon ship was ordered. Two boats were lowered and slashed by the still rotating propellers killing 30. One hour after the explosion the ship keeled over to starboard and sank. The survivors were picked up by the escorting destroyers Foxhound and Scourge and the armed merchant cruiser Heroic. Two of the survivors had also been aboard the Titanic. The light cruiser HMS Foresight berthed at Port St. Nikolo and the French tug Goliath also assisted in the rescue. Captain Bartlett was the last to leave the ship and only 30 people died from the large number on board. The Britannic was the largest ever, 48,158 tons, British Merchant Service war loss.The ship lurched to a pronounced list to starboard causing many of the lifeboats to become unusable. 30 lives were lost in this sinking, the largest ship lost in WWI. Violet Jessop, who was serving aboard as a nurse, wrote her account of the mayhem.





Lusitania (right) and Mauretania (left)

In the early 20th century, the passenger trade on the Atlantic was booming. Immigration from Europe to the US was most of the cause of the rise in transatlantic travel. There were many major players on the Atlantic lines. England’s presence with the Cunard Line and White Star Line inspired other nations to build fast liners of their own. Germany flexed its muscles with their four very quick, very large liners with the soon to become iconic four funnels. Cunard saw these ships as a threat, and planned their own superliners. These ships would be large, fast, and luxurious. They would also be fitted with the latest engine technology called turbines. Steam turbines were first tested by a very small ship called Turbinia. The success of the trials of Turbinia led to this new type of propulsion to be fitted onto Cunard’s two new superships. These new engines would be able to drive a ship at much higher speeds with much greater efficiency.   American financier J. P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Co. was attempting to monopolize the shipping trade, and had already acquired Britain’s other major transatlantic line White Star. In the face of these threats the Cunard Line was determined to regain the prestige of ocean travel back not only to the company, but also to the United Kingdom. In 1903, Cunard Line and the British government reached an agreement to build two superliners, Lusitania and Mauretania, With talks of war in Europe, the English government agreed to subsidize Cunard’s new builds with the stipulation that if Europe did come to war, their ships could be turned into troop ships and armed merchant cruisers. Little did anyone know how important these ships would become as tension mounted on the world stage. lusitania-dining-1441the largest ship the world. Enter Lusitania in June of 1906. Lusitania was named after an ancient Roman province including approximately all of modern Portugal south of the Douro river and part of modern Spain. Built in Clyde Bank in Scotland by John Brown and Company, she was at the time had yet seen. Following the success of the German greyhounds, ships would continue to increase in size over the next several decades. Lusitania was tested at speeds in excess of 24 knots, easily making her the fastest liner yet. Lusitania was 31,550 GRT and 787 ft long. Her interiors were sumptuous with a First Class dining room rising three decks and topped with an ornate dome. Her interiors were considered brighter than most liners due to the extensive use of plaster instead of wood. She was designed to carry 2,198 passengers and 827 crew members. The accommodations in third class (or steerage) were markedly improved compared to immigrant liners previous. This larger ship design meant more room for the masses of third class passengers making their way to Ellis Island.

RMS Lusitania

Lusitania was Scottish built. Other significant Cunard liners would be as well. Lusitania did not break the speed record on her maiden voyage due to fog, but she did later on. Her fastest recorded speed was 26.7 knots.  She was immediately popular.



The next year, Lusitania’s running mate Mauretania was completed in 1907. Mauretania’s 31,938 GRT was slightly larger than Lusitania’s 31,550 GRT. Mauretania was also faster, after installing new propellers. Mauretania and Lusitania ran opposite each other on the Atlantic passenger trade, with one ship heading to New York while the other headed to Southampton. This was an efficient way to have continuous trade between the US and Europe. The reduction in travel time by use of high speed made both of these ships quite popular with the immigrants and Americans traveling to Europe. It was a momentous time for Great Britain with these two ships dominating the Atlantic service.

Hostilities between Germany and the rest of Europe came to a head in 1914 and Germany declared war on Great Britain. Mauretania was called on by the Admiralty to be transformed into an armed merchant cruiser. Eventually, she and Lusitania were released from duties and Mauretania was laid up due to falling immigrant trade during the war, while Lusitania resumed passenger service. The decision to have Lusitania run passenger trade during war-time would have dire consequences.

Lusitania was painted dark gray and black to mask the nation she belonged to, but was still required to fly the British flag. In November of 1914, Germany declared the North Sea a war zone. Without warning, Germans would sing ANY Allied ships. On 17 April 1915, a warning was published a warning in Allied newspapers:

Notice! Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. Imperial German Embassy Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.

This warning notice was printed opposite the advertisement for Lusitania’s return voyage back to the UK. A few passengers heeded this warning and cancelled their crossing. However, 1,959 boarded the ship for the voyage.

The Germans decided to break out of the tradition of warning non-military ships and allowing people to escape. This marked the first time human beings would engage in all out war. Even civilians were targets. The U-20 was patrolling the North Sea off the coast of Ireland on May 7. Lusitania was headed past the Old Head of Kinsale. There had been telegraph warnings of enemy activity nearby, but Lusitania was not running at top speed. The British Admiralty ordered six of her boilers to be shut down due to coal rationing for the warships. Lusitania was also not granted an armed escort to the Irish shore. 

Just before 1:30pm, the German submarine spotted something in the distance that appeared to be smoke. As the Lusitania drew closer, it became obvious they had spotted a very large ship. U-20 was ordered to dive.

U-22There was one torpedo shot. Lusitania’s survivors tell of seeing the torpedo come at them through the water. The torpedo hit on the starboard side, just behind the bridge. Passengers and crew were shocked that the Germans would have the gall to attack a ship that wasn’t part of the military, knowing it was carrying civilians, most importantly, Americans. When the torpedo hit, the damage didn’t seem to be too severe at first.lusitania_2898342k

Then there was a second, enormous explosion. To this day, the exact cause of this explosion is unknown. There were rumors that Lusitania was carrying ammunition to the Allies. Some say it was a boiler explosion. Whatever it was, it spelled certain doom. *Note: Upon exploring the wreck of the Lusitania, Robert Ballard discovered the secondary explosion was likely caused by combustible coal dust in an empty bunker.

Lusitania immediately developed a pronounced list to starboard. This list prevented many of the lifeboats from being able to be used. Eighteen minutes after being struck by the torpedo, Lusitania slipped beneath the sea, taking 1,198 people with her, including 114 American citizens.


RMS Lusitania

RMS Mauretania

RMS_Mauretania_cardWhile Lusitania was built in Scotland, Mauretania was built in England. Completed in 1907, Mauretania was named for an ancient Roman province on the northwest African coast. She was big and she was fast. Immediately, she captured the speed record for both east and westbound Atlantic crossings. She would hold this record for over twenty years. Sumptuous interiors and speedy travel made Mauretania loved by the traveling masses. At the outbreak of The Great War, the Mauretania was called on to be first an armed merchant cruiser. It was later decided she would be better suited as a troop ship. She was painted battleship gray and began carrying soldiers to the front lines. After Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, she was painted in hospital ship livery and became a floating hospital ship. She then carried over 15,000 wounded soldiers back home.


Mauretania as a hospital ship


Mauretania as a troop transport

After the loss of Lusitania, a running mate was needed for Mauretania. Cunard answered this need with another four funneled liner named Aquitania. More on her on another entry.

Mauretania continued carrying transatlantic passengers until 1923 when she was painted white and sent out cruising. By this time, she had served as a speedy ocean liner, an armed merchant cruiser, a hospital ship, a troop transport, and now a cruise ship. She maintained her popularity with the public and gained the nickname ‘The Grand Old Lady.’

In 1929, Mauretania’s speed was bested by a new German liner named Bremen. A few attempts were made to regain this record, but this old ship had pretty much seen her day as the fastest in the world. She began ‘booze cruises’ during the prohibition, solidly retaining her popularity. Mauretania was retired in 1934. She joined the aging Olympic at the scrapyard in Rosyth.





Brunel Creations



IK Brunel is one of the most celebrated civil and mechanical engineers of the 19th century. His celebrated works include building twenty-five railways lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships and a pre-fabricated army field hospital. He was also the key designer of the Thames Tunnel, which passed beneath the Thames river in London, UK. He is celebrated to this day for is ingenious designs. In 1837, Brunel launched the first of his steamships:

The Great Western:


When launched in 1837, the SS Great Western was the very first ship built specifically for transatlantic service. She was built of oak and had two side positioned paddlewheels. She was designed to compete with the SS Sirius. Her maiden voyage was marred by a fire in the engine room. Brunel himself was inujured in the incident. The Sirius ran out of coal and the crew burned anything flammable on board to complete the voyage. The Great Western did not run out of coal and only a day after Sirius, even though Sirius had a four day head start due to the fire aboard the Great Western. This ship was deemed so successful, that Cunard’s first ship Britannia was just a smaller version of Great Western. The ship was quite profitable and continued crossing the Atlantic at regular intervals.


In autumn of 1846, Great Western ran aground due to a navigation error. The company stopped her service and went out of business. In 1847, she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and ran West Indies service. She then served as a troop ship in the Crimean War. In 1856, she was scrapped in Millbank.

The lasting legacy of the Great Western was seen for over one hundred years after her destruction. Transatlantic crossings became a highly competitive business. It all began with an idea by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The Great Britain:

The SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's finest ship

The next experiment in ship design by Brunel was a major milestone. An English channel packet ship named Rainbow paid a visit to Bristol. Rainbow’s hull was constructed of iron. Brunel sent colleagues to sail on this ship and report back their opinions. These men were convinced iron was superior to wood construction. Brunel scrapped his plans to build a wooden ship and persuaded the company directors to build an iron-hulled ship. When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat, and iron construction made this possible.

A visit to Bristol by another ship named SS Archimedes intrigued Brunel. This ship was driven by screw propeller. The owner of the Archimedes lent him the ship in hopes of obtaining a new customer. There were many advantages to using screw propulsion, the most important being that it stays submerged regardless of how light the load.

This resulted in the Great Britain being the very first iron-hulled screw driven ship built for transatlantic travel. This was revolutionary as it opened the door for the larger and faster ships to come.

The Great Britain was floated out in a ceremony of great fanfare on July 19, 1843. After this great to-do of her introduction, Great Britain became stuck because she was larger than the lock into the Thames. The lock had to be enlarged for her to fit through, only for her to be trapped again by the second set of locks into the Avon. She actually became stuck and it took some doing to set her free. The next high tide allowed her through. She was the largest ship built up to that point and there were not proper preparations made for her.

The Great Britain was plagued with many different issues in her career. Her engines were overhauled twice. She ran aground in Dundram Bay in Ireland, where she remained for over a year. She was sold. She was sold again. She caught fire after being converted into only sail, she caught fire. She was used as a storage barge and then scuttled.


In 1970, the Great Britain was refloated and restored. She became a National Historic Engineering Landmark. In 1998 it was determined that she was corroding and extra measures had to be taken. She was then dry docked and put on display. SS Great Britain is now a museum in Bristol, UK.

The Great Eastern:


The SS Great Eastern was a monster in her time. She is also a story of failure and minimal success. This ship was by far the largest ship built in her time and kept this designation for nearly 50 years.

I.K. Brunel was a dreamer in the grandest scale. In 1852, Brunel made a sketch in his diary of a behemoth which he labeled 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft. He showed this sketch to a fellow engineer named Russell and it was deemed feasible, but would require 8,500 horse power to steam at 14 knots. Brunel and Russell approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company with their proposal. After much deliberation, the proposal was accepted.

Construction began in 1854 after a terrible time deciding where she would be built. She was so large, it posed a unique problem. Due to her length, she could not be launched the traditional way. It was decided to launch this monster sideways. It took three attempts to push the Great Eastern into the water. This was the first of many problems to befall Brunel’s greatest project.

The Great Eastern’s construction cost was well over budget. Her fitting out was also considerably over budget. This ship was turning out to be very expensive.

On her maiden voyage, there was a huge boiler explosion aboard Great Eastern. It blew the number one funnel completely off the ship and killed five and injured that many more. The ship’s very strong bulkheads contained and controlled most of the blast, causing only a minimal amount of structural damage.

Even though she was designed for the far east run, Great Eastern ended up serving a transatlantic route. She was not really fast enough to compete in transatlantic service, but the eastern route’s traffic wasn’t heavy enough to warrant her service there. She at one time served as a troop ship on a single voyage, carrying 2500 people.

In 1861, the Great Eastern was caught up in a terrible gale. She rolled and pitched something terrible. Her port paddlewheel was completely lost. Her starboard paddle was damaged. She lost use of her rudder and when the sails were raised it tore them to shreds. She was adrift until the storm passed five days later. No lives were lost in this storm, but the passengers were quite shaken up. In 1862, she struck an uncharted rock while avoiding Sandy Hook on approach to New York. The Great Eastern was damaged and was removed from service for repairs. She did not resume service until mid-1863, making two more trips, but bankrupting her operating company.

The Great Eastern was used for troop transport during the American Civil War, transporting Canadian border reinforcements.

After being sold at auction, the Great Eastern refit to cary thousands of miles of coiled cable. She was charted for the monumental purpose of laying the transatlantic telegraph cable, and a cable across the Indian ocean. She went into the history books for this feat and will forever be known for intiating communication between continents.

Following the laying of the telegraph cable, the Great Eastern was laid up and became an exhibition center for Lewis’s Department Store. She was an embarrassment at this point. She was scrapped using a wrecking ball in 1889. Pieces of her still remain. Her funnel that was blown off in the boiler explosion is on display in a museum in Bristol, UK.