Passion for Transatlantic Passenger Liners

Famous Four-Stackers: SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (North German Lloyd)

When many people hear the term ‘ocean liner,’ one image comes to mind. They see a huge ship with four towering smokestacks and usually the name Titanic. Over the course of history, there have been in-fact fourteen grand ocean liners built that sport the famous four funnels. The very first of these was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

The German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II became quite jealous of Britain’s monopoly of transatlantic records when he toured the White Star Line’s RMS Teutonic in 1889 while attending a naval review at Spithead. Determined to show the world that the German Empire had what it took to hold its own in the race to trans-ocean dominance, work began on a new breed of ocean liner that would shatter records for size, glamor and speed. The North German Lloyd introduced the magnificent Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, which would eventually become known as the world’s first ‘superliner.’

This wonder of German engineering was born at the Vulcan Shipyard in Stettin and completed her maiden voyage from Bremerhaven to New York City on September 19, 1897. Thousands of people gathered at the shorelines to catch a glimpse of this new liner with so many funnels. This was the first ship they had ever seen with four smokestacks. Soon the number of funnels on a ship was associated by immigrants with the size and safety, to the point where passenger shipping companies would falsely advertise the amount of funnels a ship had, resulting in rioting on sailing day as people would refuse to board a ship unless it had the proper number of funnels.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was a big ship, but she did not have the distinction of being ‘the world’s largest ever built,’ thanks to the pride of Isambard Kingdom Brunel named Great Eastern. However, the giant Great Eastern was retired and broken up by 1889.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was fast, and she grabbed the Blue Riband speed award in November of 1897 eastbound, and then took the westbound record from Cunard Line’s Lucania in March of the next year. Germany would not give up the speed record until 1907, when Britain’s Cunard Liner Mauretania set a record that lasted for 20 years.

The exterior size and profile of this new German triumph were distinctive, but not as much so as her interior decor. For the first time in maritime history, one designer was called on to create the interiors of an entire ocean liner. Johannes Poppe chose a Baroque revival style that was taking Germany by storm. This style which embraced exaggerated ceiling heights and ornately carved and gilded accents bordered on the just plain gaudy. However, this decor was embraced by the transatlantic traveling masses and the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became very popular.

Just as many of the transatlantic liners throughout history, this new ship was designed with war in mind. Should the need arise, she could be transformed into a military auxiliary cruiser. She would eventually use this ability with the advent of the First World War. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse has the distinction of having the world’s very first commercial wireless telegraph system installed aboard in 1900, and it was demonstrated by Marconi using wireless systems aboard the Borkum Island lighthouse and Borkum Riff lightship as well as several British stations.

As liners grew bigger, the chances of accident grew as well. On June 30, 1900, a massive fire broke out at the German docks in Hoboken, New Jersey. This event, which would become known as the Great Hoboken Pier Fire of 1900, destroyed 3 German liners and a host of smaller craft as well as millions of dollars worth of property on the Hudson River. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse managed to escape the flames that killed over 300 people, but not without some damage. She was pulled away from her pier fifteen minutes after the fires broke out, and the small fires that did spread to the ship were quickly extinguished. The North German Lloyd vessels Bremen, Saale, and Maine were destroyed. In 1906, the Kaiser was damaged after trying to cross the path of the Royal Mail ship Orinoco. She was hit broadside, killing five passengers and leaving a 70 foot wide hole in her side. The court proceedings following the incident placed all blame on the commander of the Kaiser.

In 1914, the world plunged into the greatest war ever seen to that point. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was requisitioned by the German navy, Kaiserlich Marine, and transformed into an auxiliary cruiser. She sank two freighters and spared passenger ships when they were discovered to have women and children aboard. While refueling off the coast of the western African coast of the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro, she was surprised by the British cruiser HMS Highflyer. Severely outgunned and running low on ammunition, the commander of the Kaiser ordered her scuttled and sunk. She became the very first passenger ship sunk in World War One. Her remains were not scrapped until 1952.

  • Name:     Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
  • Launched:     May 4, 1897
  • Maiden Voyage:     September 19, 1897
  • Tonnage:     14,349 grt
  • Length:     655 feet or 200.1 meters
  • Beam:     65.8 feet or 20.1 meters
  • Propulsion:     Triple expansion reciprocating engines driving twin propellers
  • Speed:     22.5 knots
  • Passenger Capacity:     1506 passengers (206 first class, 226 second class, 1074 third class) 488 crew
  • FATE:     Scuttled at the Battle of Rio de Oro, August 26, 1914 wreck later scrapped in 1952 on the spot in the shallow waters
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7 responses

  1. WhyMe

    I’m very flattered to find my artwork being used to illustrate this truly great ship.
    Although I would suggest using a different version which is a bit more detailed and more polished overall: http://www.shipbucket.com/images.php?dir=Real%20Designs/Germany/SS%20KaiserWilhelmderGrosse.png

    July 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    • I hope you are not upset. I remember sending a permission request. I’ll have to look for the emails…I will update the illustration. I thought it was a fantastic representation, very detailed. Do you have any others also? I have gotten away from this blog a bit thanks to my life getting in the way, but I intend to return to this passion of mine.

      August 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm

      • WhyMe

        Feel free to contact me at whyme[at]gmx.us

        August 8, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  2. AW

    Thank you for this, this is the ship my family came over from Germany on!

    August 31, 2011 at 11:02 pm

  3. Just discovered your blog which sadly appears inactive. I hope you will revive it.

    May 20, 2013 at 4:35 am

    • I had been without internet for some time. At the moment I have a weak signal, and I may start doing some more maritime history blogging. There are some new developments with the SS United States, the steamboat Delta Queen and the USS Williamsburg. I had intended to cover nearly all of the famous liners and ships of state in this blog, but my reference library is currently in storage. I will try to pull most of it out in the next few days. I saw about half of it within reach.

      May 20, 2013 at 4:51 am

  4. moor

    the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse remain have been doscovered on September 2014 in Morocco
    (http://hespress.com/sciences-nature/90819.html)

    October 8, 2013 at 7:49 pm

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