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 was
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.
There was a fierce competition between Queen Mary and her French rival Normandie for size and speed. Upon the start of service for Mary, Normandie held the speed record. In August of 1938, Queen Mary took the award, just to have it taken back. Several times back and forth, the record passed between the two ships.
Just a few years after Queen Mary made her debut, the European international situation was turning dire. A madman had risen to power in Germany. In 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.
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. More 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. Even 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.
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. Queen 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.
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.
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.