The scrapping of sister passenger- and cargo-carrying vessels marked the end of an era.
Ever since the Black Ball packet ship James Monroe sailed from Pier 23 in New York on Jan. 5, 1818, American-flag passenger liners have plied the oceans.
To be considered a liner, a ship must adhere to a fixed schedule, sailing from one port to another, not to be confused with cruise ships that usually return to their port of departure. Further, most all passenger liners carried cargo, which included the mail.
Today, only two American liners are still with us, although they no longer sail: the United States in Philadelphia and idled since 1969, and the nuclear-powered ship Savannah in Baltimore and idled since 1970.
The story of the Santa Magdalena and its three sisters begins in the mid-1950s when the Grace Line, founded in 1869, made the decision to replace their fleet of 1946-built cargo liners. These ships sailed between New York and other East Coast ports to the Caribbean and South America’s West Coast. Recognizing the jet plane was now in competition with passenger ships, Grace conducted an operational analysis of the trade route. What resulted was a ship designed to carry 125 passengers, all first class, along with 175 20-foot containers, 1,000 tons of bulk liquids, automobiles, and refrigerated cargo, all of which amounted to about 8,000 tons of cargo. To accommodate this blend of cargoes, the ships were fitted with an elaborate system of conveyors, elevators and side ports.
(Left to Right) A Grace Line container being lifted by the Santa Magdalena’s forward crane, while bananas were discharged from the No. 1 hold through the side port (ca. 1963) at Port Newark, N.J.; four banana conveyors working the ship’s side ports; and a container being lifted at the No. 3 hatch, while pallets of cargo were moved through the side port.
Naval architect George Sharp was contracted by Grace Line to design the four ships, which would be constructed at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore, starting in 1960. The cost of each ship was $17.5 million dollars.
The Grace passenger-cargo ships were each 547 feet long and 79 feet in beam. They were measured 14,442 gross tons and their lifting capacity was 9,200 tons. Their steam turbines produced 18,000 horsepower, which easily propelled the ships at 20 knots. The ships were easily recognized by their four large gantry deck cranes and lack of a proper smoke stack. (In 1967, traditional smoke stacks were added to each ship.) The 55 passenger cabins were reported to be the largest aboard any ship at the time.
The Santa Mariana on its maiden voyage in 1963. Note the non-descript smoke “stalk,” which all four ships initially had. Traditional looking smoke stacks were added to the ships in 1967.
By 1969, Prudential Lines of New York purchased Grace Line and the company was renamed Prudential Grace Line. In 1970, the economics of the trade route, coupled with rising labor costs, forced the company to cease carrying passengers, thus reducing the crew size from 114 to 40 on each ship.
The Santa Mercedes and its three sister ships were operated as part of Prudential Lines from 1969 to 1979.
Two years later, the four ships were transferred to the West Coast, where they operated from the Port of San Francisco. They were renovated and updated, and once again welcomed passengers. The ships called West Coast ports, before circumnavigating South America. The voyage, which took 55 days, called for a great deal of interport cargoes and occasional lengthy port visits.
In 1979. Prudential bareboat chartered the ships to Delta Line of New Orleans, and three years later, Holiday Inns Corp., which owned Delta Line, sold the four ships to Crowley Maritime. The ships were finally laid up in 1984.
The four ships were bareboat chartered to Delta Line on the West Coast in 1979. The Santa Mercedes is shown departing the Port of San Francisco.
The first to go was the Santa Mercedes, which shortly thereafter became the training ship, Patriot State, for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
The Santa Magdalena, which was the first of the four ships to be built, was the last to go. When it returned to San Francisco on Dec. 4, 1984, the ship was laid up next to the Santa Maria and Santa Mariana. The three sisters were towed to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for scrapping in 1988, thus marking the end of the age of the American-flag passenger ships after 166 years.