National Lighthouse Museum Staten Island
Bill Miller Presents Floating Palaces - Tales of the Great Transatlantic Ships & Sea
National Lighthouse Museum - A Staten Island Treasure
At the end of January I made my way across the NYC harbor to the St. George Ferry Terminal. After just a few blocks walk to the east, along the St. George / Staten Island waterfront, I came upon my destination - the National Lighthouse Museum.
The National Lighthouse Museum is one of the oldest and yet newest cultural treasures of Staten Island. While the National Lighthouse Museum only opened on Staten Island in 2015, it is housed in buildings of the old St. George Coast Guard Station, which was built shortly after the American Civil War in the late 1860's.
The photo at right is one of the slides shown by Bill Miller in his informative lecture about transatlantic travel during the 20th century. Most of the photos that follow were taken at the lecture.
Bill Miller's Ocean Liner History - An NYC Treasure
Tonight we would listen to Bill Miller tell the tales of a century long history of transatlantic luxury ships and cruises. Miller's love of the cruise ships started while he was a youngster, watching the ships docking along the west side of Manhattan from across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
It wasn't long before Miller was crossing the Hudson himself, looking for adventure along the west side piers. Tonight he shared his lifelong passion with us, complete with details delving into the lives of the rich and famous, the food, the designer interiors and the ship engineering of the transatlantic cruise ships, which he affectionately calls Floating Palaces.
The photo at right shows Linda Dianto, Executive Director of the National Lighthouse Museum [at left] and guest speaker Bill Miller, aka Mr. Ocean Liner [at right] in late January 2020 speaking to the audience in attendance at the Floating Palaces lecture at the Staten Island museum.
• CLICK here to read the rest of our report, including a short video, about Bill Miller's Floating Palaces lecture at the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island.
National Lighthouse Museum Staten Island
Bill Miller Presents Floating Palaces - Tales of the Great Transatlantic Ships & Sea
The National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island
She provided me with a bit of background about the museum, noting that the,
" ... building 11 [in which] we are [standing] was once a mechanics shop and prior to that a foundry ... The grounds of the Museum ... was once a Quarantine Hospital, but was burned down when Staten Islanders realized sick people were being dropped off and bringing disease to Staten Island ... [this] freed up the land for the development of the US Lighthouse Service ... the General Depot for all lighthouse operations for the entire US ..."
Linda told me that sometime in the future the museum will move into the building next door, but they still need to raise $35 million to complete the work on it. In the photo at right is Linda Dianto, Executive Director of the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island.
To that end Linda Dianto and the National Lighthouse Museum organize regular boat tours and parties which provide a fun venue for raising funds. Tonight about 50 - 75 people had come to hear Bill Miller tell a whale of a tale about traversing the great North Atlantic sea on the transatlantic liners which he called Floating Palaces. Floating Palaces was also the title of his presentation.
Bill Miller - aka Mr. Ocean Liner - Presents 'Floating Palaces'
Bill was given an introduction befitting a nobleman. We were told that a film was been made about him that's entitled Mr. Ocean Liner - the Life and Times of Bill Miller. Bill's career as a professional ocean liner historian began some 45 years ago, which would put us back in the mid 1970's, which was a very different time. Since then Bill Miller has made an ocean liner presentation on more than 50 different ships, including all of the luxury name brand transatlantic boat lines, such as Cunard, Pinot, Holland America and so forth.
The photo at right shows some of the audience in attendance at Bill Miller's presentation of Floating Palaces at the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island.
As if that weren't enough, we were informed that Bill has written 107 books on maritime subjects, and that he participates on some of the National Lighthouse Museum tours and boat parties. Bill is a fan of the Art Deco style of architecture and design, as it appeals to his sense of taste, and he plays upon that interest when he gives his presentations. Bill has a collection of toy ships which reinforce his passion when he's home.
Bill Miller's accolades and associations are innumerable. Here's what Wikipedia tells us about him, most of which was also communicated to us at the National Lighthouse Museum.
" ... [Bill Miller] was chairman of the World Ship Society's Port of New York Branch from 1970 to 1976. He was deputy director of the New York Harbor Festival Foundation from 1979 to 1982. He was historian at the Museum of the American Merchant Marine in 1979 and creator of a course entitled "The Ocean Liner" at the New School of Social Research in Manhattan in 1981. He also created the passenger ship database for the Ellis Island Museum. He appeared in the documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. A documentary about his life and studies, Mr. Ocean Liner, premiered aboard RMS Queen Mary 2 on July 1, 2010 ... "
'Floating Palaces' Begins in Modern Times with the Cunard Line
Bill moved to the podium and began to tell us about how he'd become Mr. Ocean Liner. He spent twenty plus years working at the Calabro Elementary School in Hoboken. While still there, in 1978 - 1979, he published his first book on the subject of ships, The Guide to American Passenger Ships. The rest ... as conveyed above ... is history.
Bill started his lecture by talking about the 175th Anniversary of the Cunard Line. The Cunard Line was founded by Samuel Cunard, who came from Halifax Nova Scotia, and before that Pennsylvania. To celebrate the special occasion, the Cunard Line [which is now a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation], had arranged to have the three Queens sail together in Liverpool.
Many of the great transatlantic ships were built in four countries - Britain, France, Italy and Germany. The Cunard Line was generally one of the most competitive, as perhaps evidenced by its survival to this day.
Bill Miller told us that ships have to wow you. He told us that the Queens Mary 2 was perhaps the finest ship ever made. It was completed in 1998 / 2002 at a cost of $600 / $687 million and it replaced the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2004. The original Queen Mary cruised the Atlantic Ocean from 1936 - 1967. The original Queen Elizabeth ran from 1938 - 1969, while the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruised from 1969 - 2008.
'Floating Palaces' the History of over a Century of Transatlantic Ships
Bill began to take us back in time from present day cruise ships and the mid century ocean liners, to the great steam ships that traversed the Atlantic in the early part of the 20th century. Two of the great ships were the Mauretania and the Lusitania - both built for and run by the Cunard Line. Bill told us that these two steam ships could cross the Atlantic in six days. They had approximately 500 first class spots, 500 second class spots and 1,000 steerage spots.
The first class areas were well appointed with imported wood furnishings, silver and brass trimming, stained glass windows and partitions, so that it looked like a stately English home. At this time [early 1900's] they hadn't yet built ships with stabilizers so the homey interiors helped ward off sea sickness.
This was a time of luxury cruising, a bit comparable to the early days of flying, when this sort of travel was a luxury. As such passengers were required to dress up on all days except the first day of boarding and the last day while disembarking.
The steerage was the beginning of commoditizing transatlantic travel, as it cost $10 and Bill told us that about $5 - $6 of that was profit. It's worth remembering that in those days, the only way across the Atlantic Ocean was by ship, and Bill said that between 1892 - 1924 approximately 18 million immigrants came to our shores.
Bill Miller Talks Transatlantic Immigration at the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island
Bill Miller told us that the high point of immigration was in 1910 when immigrants were being admitted 12,000 per day. He went on to tell us that of the immigrants who landed on our shores, 98.5% of them were admitted.
The photo at right shows the laborers who kept the coal fired luxury ocean liners moving across the Atlantic.
Around the turn of the 20th century  the large transatlantic steam ships were coal fired. The boiler rooms became very hot and the funnels or smokestacks atop the deck were used to ventilate the extreme heat. At the time it was believed that the more stacks a steam ship had, the faster and safer it was. Thus, some of the steam ships were equipped with fake stacks which was more of a marketing gimmick than having anything to do with the engineering of the ship.
Bill Miller told us that generally it was the Irish who were tasked with shoveling the coal into the hot boilers. He said they were given on bottle of cheap whiskey each day so that 200 of them could shovel the 7000 tons of coal required to complete one transatlantic crossing which at its shortest was four days, and more likely five or six days. By the end of the trip the coal dust was covering everything on the deck and it took a day at the end of the trip just to clean it up again.
The Story of the HMS Titanic at the National Lighthouse Museum SI
The most famous of the transatlantic steam ships was the RMS Titanic. The Titanic was built by the Star Line, which was a British company that in 1871 launched the RMS Oceanic which was a transatlantic ship that was powered by both sail and steam, thus enabling the company to shorten the transatlantic crossing time.
In April 1912, just over forty years later, the Star Line launched the RMS Titanic into infamy. It was and still is one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters, as Bill told us that about 1,500 people died in the accident, while only 750 survived because the ship did not have enough lifeboats to accommodate all on board. Hundreds or more books, films and musical recordings have told the tale of the great hubris that preceded the great disaster.
There's a film entitled 'Raise the Titanic' which was made in 1980 and released in 1981. The company that produced the film created a $3 - $7 million 50 foot long replica of the Titanic, that Bill told us is still decaying in Malta. The film was a flop, but preceded the discovery of the location of the Titanic's remains in 1985. Bill noted that the cost of the replica was comparable to the original cost of the Titanic which was $7.5 million.
The Great Ocean Liners During World War I - The Lusitania
When the first and second World Wars broke out, the great transatlantic ships were inducted into national service to help with the war effort. One of the greatest WWI tragedies was the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The Germans had taken out ads in the U.S. warning passengers that the Cunard Line's ship might be torpedoed and they should not travel on it.
The Germans claimed the Lusitania was carrying a large cargo of munitions and thus torpedoed the ship off the southern coast of Ireland. The carrying of cargo munitions was long denied, but I've seen recent reports that now appear to confirm it. Over 1,000 passengers died in the assault, which was believed in part to be because of the clumsy lifeboat configuration. Given over 100 Americans died in the tragedy, it was used to motivate the American government to get involved in WWI on the British side.
America did join the war and in 1917 siezed the Vaterland, a large German ocean liner. It was renamed the Leviathan and repurposed for war use.
The Great Ocean Liners - From Luxury & Immigration to Tourist Class & GI's
In the early 1900's, the great transatlantic ships were built with an eye toward luxury, using fashion, food and design. The French lines were reputed to serve the best food, while all of the others began upgrading their interiors with plush carpeting, polished metal and warm wooden paneling.
Bill seemed fluent with the names of many of the great transatlantic steam ships, including the Leviathan that was built in Germany. Royals and celebrities were recruited to cross the Atlantic on them in order to add a certain sense of excitement to the other passengers' trips.
Bill told us that after the large surge and then decline in immigration, tourism began to take root. He said that by 1924 immigration had fallen from numbers closer to a million during the first two decades, to 100,000. Thus steerage, which had been used to transport immigrants, was converted to tourist class.
The Great Ocean Liners - Luxury, Design, Fashion & the Famous
In time [beginning 1930's and 1940's] stabilizers were added to the ocean going vessels and then swimming pools. The ocean liner companies began recruiting royals and celebrities to cross on their ships and would release the guest lists in order to entice their fans.
In the 1920's the Art Deco style of design began to be used on the ships. In 1927 the Ile de France set sail, complete with modern interiors with Art Deco design. The designers included modern Greek Temple design characteristics in the dining room, adding a theatrical air to eating dinner. The subdued lighting made everyone look better and it became a huge success.
The Germans followed suit with the launch of the SS Bremen which could reach a cruising speed of 28 - 32 knots, enabling the transatlantic crossing within about five days, so that the shipping company could cross the Atlantic weekly. It was around this time that boat planes came into use to expedite the carrying of mail and eventually well heeled passengers. Bill Miller told us that these new technologies were also used to generate publicity.
Luxury, glamour, pampered dogs, and tennis courts continued to up the ante. Eventually the shipping companies started doing short trips, like from Liverpool to South Hampton in Britain, in order to entice customers to take a longer voyage.
The Great Transatlantic Ocean Liners World War II
During WWII these great ships were again inducted into public service. Between 1939 and 1945 half of all liner ships were destroyed. In 1939 all sailing across the Atlantic stopped because of the outbreak of the war. Only the U.S. traversed the seas as it was a neutral country. Thus the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth ships stayed in the NYC harbor.
Eventually these ocean liners, once equipped to accommodate 2000 passengers, were converted to troop transports for some 15,000 soldiers. Bill told us a lot of the retrofitting of these ocean liners took place along the piers on the west side of Manhattan. One of them, the SS Normandie, capsized in 1942 while being retrofitted and was lost. The SS Normandie was built by the French, launched in 1935, and held the transatlantic crossing speed record for ocean liners [a bit over four days] until 1952, when eclipses by the SS United States. During WWII these ocean liners transported 2.5 million G.I.s to Europe. A two bedroom suite would carry 24 soldiers.
To accommodate the large passenger population, the food was served in eight sessions each day for both breakfast and dinner - no lunch. The ocean liners were refitted for service at the piers 48th street.
Luxury Liner Row - The Piers on the West Side of Manhattan
Following the war in 1940's and 1950's, the ocean liner business boomed. It was during this time that Bill Miller developed his love of these big behemoths as they traveled up and down the Hudson docking on the west side of Manhattan.
Bill told us that if you subtract 40 from the NYC Pier numbers, you'll find the street that the pier is on. For example Pier 84 - 40 - is on 44th Street.
The ships generally departed on Wednesdays, traveling 4 - 5 days across the Atlantic, arriving on Sunday. It cost $400 for first class, and $175 for tourist class. While 2,000 people were passengers, around 5,000 people would come down to the ships to see them off and / or greet them. As mentioned previously, part of the attraction was seeing celebrities who were recruited for the voyages. At least one of them brought 90 pieces of luggage for the voyage.
In 1952 the SS United States was launched. It was larger than the Titanic and became the fastest transatlantic ocean liner on her first transatlantic crossing. Today she is a museum, which is seeking to retain the history of the seas, and is located in Pier 82 in Philadelphia, along the Delaware River. Bill told us folks can help preserve this behemoth and that its website is www.ssusc.org.
All Good Things Must Come to an End: Air Liners Eclipse Ocean Liners
In October of 1958 the first transatlantic passenger flight was completed by PanAm Airways. If I caught this right, Bill told us that two thirds of the transatlantic travel migrated to air within the first year. Within six years 98% of all transatlantic travel was by air. In 2008 the Cunard Line retired the Queen Elizabeth 2 after 39 years. They had serviced the transatlantic travel for 39 years.
In 2006, shortly before the Queen Elizabeth retirement, both she and the Queen Mary 2 docked at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.
It was at this juncture that our journey with Bill Miller began to wind down. But like the great transatlantic ocean liner crossings we had enjoyed a wonderful voyage, but alas, would soon have to get our land legs to begin our journey home.
The National Lighthouse Museum hosts guest lecture events like this on a periodic basis, as well as boat cruises and other related events. You can find them at www.lighthousemuseum.org. Many thanks to Linda Dianto the Executive Director of the museum and Bill Miller aka Mr. Ocean Liner.
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