Cruising down the Chesapeake Bay

Baltimore Glimpses

June 11, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER and FRED RASMUSSEN

THE mood about cruises out of Baltimore is quite upbeat, according to Harriet Segal, head of the port's customer relations, with cruises scheduled for departure to Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada and South America. Indeed, more passenger ships are scheduled to call at the Port of Baltimore this season than at any time in the past 15 years, say port officials. But the port will have to beef up its passenger business a whole lot to match or surpass the volume before World War II.

In 1930, you could go direct weekly from Pier 11 in Canton to Le Havre, France. The trip took 18 days. The round-trip fare: $180!

There were five ships in the service provided by the Baltimore-owned Baltimore Mail Line: City of Baltimore, City of Hamburg, City of Le Havre, City of Norfolk, City of Newport News.

The ambitious enterprise was launched amid much fanfare on July 2, 1931, at Pier 11. A band played and hundreds of people cheered as Mayor Howard W. Jackson presented the captain of the City of Baltimore a beautiful silver service. Later that evening, the City of Baltimore backed into the stream and turned south down the bay, headed for France.

Shipboard life was not what it is today. No band, no dancing, no entertainment -- no social director. One passenger, Samuel S. Strouse, recalled, "There wasn't much to do. During the day, if the weather was fine, you sat outside on the deck and read. After dinner, you moved inside -- and read."

The line suspended its European service in 1938. In 1940, the Navy bought all five ships for $7 million, and they were pressed into service in World War II. The City of Le Havre was sunk in the Pacific. The others eventually were moth-balled or scrapped.

The Baltimore Mail Line was one of several lines that served Baltimore before the war. Ships from the North German Lloyd and Cunard lines stopped in Baltimore on trans-Atlantic runs (and Cunard is still calling occasionally with the Queen Elizabeth 2, the only liner left that makes regular trans-Atlantic crossings). The Merchants and Miners and Clyde-Mallory lines served ports on the East Coast. The Ericsson Line took passengers from Pratt and Light streets through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to Philadelphia. The Old Bay Line (Baltimore Steam Packet Co.) served Norfolk -- and lasted until 1963.

One relic from the City of Baltimore survives -- that silver service. It's on exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. For Baltimoreans who took the Baltimore-to-France crossings half a century ago, it ought to bring back some memories.

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