12.09pm, Sunday 14th October, Fells Point, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
OK folks, we’re back in Baltimore, but today it’s definitely Raventown! Black and purple co ours everywhere as the Ravens play the Dallas Cowboys here at home.
But I’ve been back in 1893 with our Fred Caley Smith – Yalumba’s Indiana Jones horticulturalist – because yesterday morning whilst I was still in New York, I trekked Downtown to the old dock area across from Manhattan’s ‘Meatpacking District’ around west 12th to 14th streets. Why? Because this is where our Fred sailed on the White Star Line steamer SS Britannic from Pier 54 for Liverpool on the 12th of December, 1893. This was after he had been doing business in the United States promoting the Yalumba enterprise of the time during that year, from the West Coast across to the East Coast via Canada. These days, there’s not a lot left of the docks that once upon a time made up the berths for ships running the Transatlantic passenger trade between the United Kingdom and Ireland with the United States. But there is a leftover piece of Pier 54 still there though – you’ll recognize it by the one massive steel beam archway that carries the extremely faded letters of the Cunard and White Star shipping lines, and this stands as a rusting guard in front of a lonely single finger of concrete laid on top of a solid old timber wharf extending out into the Hudson – directly opposite the ferry building at Hoboken.
Now here’s where it all got a bit interesting. Here’s what I can gather on the White Star Line, the SS Britannic, Pier 54 and how it all converges at the time that Fred would have been right there in the middle of it all. See what you think.
It looks like the White Star Line was founded in Liverpool, England in 1845 – 4 years before our first vintage at Yalumba actually – and it built a major part of it’s business by servicing the avalanche of folks flocking to the Australian goldfields. The rush was on! In those days, it was a 10 week voyage from Mother England down to The Antipodes, and it was via the ‘clipper’ ships under sail. As competition crept into the passenger and freight on this route, come the 1860s, steamships were introduced into the White Star fleet. So even though the clippers looked magnificent in full sail, they were too slow. The steamers could plough on regardless and meet set time schedules, which put them at a distinct advantage over the weather dependent clippers. About this time, the White Star Line started to run steamships on the Transatlantic run to New York from Liverpool, and Samuel Cunard – a Canadian based up in Nova Scotia – won the contract to run the Royal Mail from Great Britain to the United States.
So the steamer traffic on this route was established and increasing, and in the 1870s, the White Star Line shifted it’s focus and started building ships with luxury travel in mind. They introduced the tradition of grand dining saloons and amusements on board ship – including the addition of passenger walking areas above decks – or promenades. Up until that point in time, seagoing accommodation had been pretty rough and ready. Now, they were even thinking of putting electricity and running water into individual cabins!
Fast forward to 1893 when our Fred Caley Smith makes his way from New York to Liverpool, White Star and Cunard were rivals. However, much later in the day, 1934 saw the two shipping companies combine due to several factors – not overlooking the influence of the fledgling Transatlantic air travel industry – thanks very much Charles Lindbergh! They ran as the Cunard and White Star Line until 1947.
Which brings me back to the steel beam arch on the old Pier 54 and those faded letters that you can just see. I would have taken a better photo, but that would have put me right in the middle of the Westway Highway traffic – not good! But that arch is solid folks, hand riveted mild steel, from the days when America built things completely from scratch. The remnants of the old timbers underneath the Pier itself look like they’re in surprisingly good shape, but I’m not sure how much of it is original, as a fire all but destroyed Pier 54 in 1932. This seems to be the reason why a new luxury liner row was built further up river between West 47th and West 54th streets. For the repaired Pier 54 – it was used as a troopship berth during the second world war, and as a freight wharf afterwards. In 1991 most of the buildings around the Pier were pulled down to build the Westway Highway, and the single remaining steel arch And the deck behind are the end of it all.
OK, so that’s the Pier. Now to the ship. The SS Britannic that Fred took from New York to Liverpool was the first of 3 White Star Line ships to bear that name. She was a steamship equipped with sails as well, and carried 266 saloon or first class passengers, with 1500 more folks traveling steerage. Now it looks like that in 1893 when Fred was on board was part of the SS Britannic’s glory years. Two years earlier, she had recorded her fastest crossing between England and America – 7 days 6 hours and 52 minutes. And what happened to the SS Britannic after Fred’s ride across the Atlantic?? In 1899 the ship was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and she became HMT ( Her Majesty’s Troopship) 62 – taking troops to the Boer War in South Africa. When that finished at the end of 1902, she was shot to bits, condemned, towed to Hamburg, and broken up for scrap in 1903. But once upon a time – in 1876 – she was the only White Star Line ship to hold the Blue Riband – awarded to the vessel making the quickest Transatlantic crossing time – westbound and eastbound simultaneously! So that’s the SS Britannic, she sailed from New York on the 12th of December from Pier 54, bound for .Liverpool, and our Fred Caley Smith was on board!
Last word. Fred stayed at The Palace hotel before sailing, which apparently was ‘adjacent to the White Star wharf’. Now, I took a photo of what looks like a possible candidate, but I’m not 100 % sure. See what you think.