For almost 100 years United States Lines was the premier American carrier on the North Atlantic. Its fleet of liners were continually in the headlines. In the company’s heyday, the Leviathan was the largest ship in the world; the United States was the fastest; its Challenger I class the fastest cargo ships; the Challenger IIs were the first keel-up built containerships; and, finally, the 12 Econ ships of the 1980s were the largest containerships in the world, carrying 4,614 twenty-foot containers.
The company’s ships took part in many of the famous rescues of their times. The President Roosevelt rescued all the personnel from the sinking British grain ship Antinoe in 1926, and the American Shipper was the primary rescue ship during the 1928 sinking of the liner Vestris.
Although its lavish passenger fleet garnered most of the headlines, the company maintained a large fleet of cargo liners that bore the prefix American, followed by a trade-related name such as Farmer, Merchant, Banker or Shipper. Typical for these generations of cargo liners was the name American Shipper.
The first American Shipper was one of the so-called “Hog Island” transports that were built at Hog Island, the present-day location of the Philadelphia International Airport. This vessel was one of 122 built by the American International Shipbuilding Co. during World War I and delivered to the U.S. government in 1920 under the name Tours. In May 1926, the vessel commenced its first commercial voyage as the American Shipper, the last of five sister ships assigned to the company. These ships could carry 90 passengers, as well as 8,000 tons of refrigerated and general cargo. Although they were the smallest passenger-cargo liners on the North Atlantic, the vessels were well received by passengers and cargo shippers alike.
In November 1939, in response to the war in Europe, Congress passed the Neutrality Act, which forbade U.S. ships access to warring nations. This was the formal end of U.S. liner service to Europe.
In 1940, the five sister ships were sold to Societe Maritime Anversiose and placed under the Belgian flag. The American Shipper was renamed Ville De Mons and sunk by enemy action shortly thereafter.
American Shipper II
In 1938, the U.S. Maritime Commission and U.S. Lines, believing there would be a resurgence of U.S.-Europe trade after peace was achieved, contracted with Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to replace the Hog Island ships with four passenger-cargo liners of the C3-P type. However, after the first keel was laid, it was obvious the war would not be over soon, so the ship was sold to Farrell Lines for use on the South African service. The vessel was launched as the African Meteor in 1942. As the vessel’s delivery date approached, the U.S. Navy required transports. Upon delivery in February 1943, the vessel bore the name USS Samuel Chase (AP56). After a long military career, the vessel was scrapped at Brownsville, Texas, in 1973.
American Shipper III
Thinking the war in Europe would end shortly, U.S. Lines tried again in 1941 for another American Shipper and three sister ships for a North Atlantic service. Once again, the U.S. military stepped in and the ship was launched as the transport Pass Christian and completed as the Army transport Fred C. Ainsworth in June 1943. The ship was later transferred to and operated by the U.S. Navy until its scrapping at Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 1963. Neither the second nor third American Shipper made a commercial voyage, although both served the country gallantly for many years.
American Shipper IV
In December 1945, an American Shipper was delivered to U.S. Lines from a shipyard at Wilmington, N.C., for use on the North Atlantic. The vessel had about 40 sister ships instead of the four earlier in the century. These C2-type cargo ships carried 12 passengers and were primarily cargo liners. They had a cargo capacity of 10,400 tons. This American Shipper plied the Atlantic trades for 23 years before being sold in 1968.
The story of U.S. Lines and the American Shipper vessels is fitting since this publication bears the same name and is dedicated to the interests of the American shipper.
U.S. Lines traces its roots to 1872 and has operated under various names and owners. It operated many liners and cargo ships in the 1920s and 1930s and hundreds of ships during World War II. The longtime headquarters was located at One Broadway in New York City.
Although U.S. Lines had a good head start in the containership era, competition from Sea-Land Service, and later foreign operators, spelled the end for this once great company. Bankruptcy was filed in 1986 and the fleet was auctioned off shortly thereafter.
Capt. James McNamara, who is retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau, currently serves as historian of the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and remains active in the maritime industry. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.