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S.S. Columbia

Other Names: Belgic, Belgenland
Builder: Harland & Wolff, Belfast, yard number 391
Launched December 31, 1914; maiden voyage 1917; broken up in Bo'ness, 1936
Hull: length 670' 5"; beam 78' 5"; draught 20' 2"; 27,132 tons
Power: triple screws; 2 triple expansion engines and a low pressure turbine to the center screw, all engines by the builder, 3 cylinders, 35", 56", and 64" in diameter, stroke 60"; 215 p.s.i.; oil burner, 16 knots
Registered in Liverpool; official Number 140517

 

This very large ship was ordered in March 1912 as the Belgic for the White Star Line, and was the first liner built with a bulbous cruiser-style stern. Once launched however work on her was suspended because of the war, but was later resumed due to the desperate need for shipping. She was completed for use as a military transport in 1917 without her upper promenade deck and with three masts but only two funnels. After the war she was returned to her owners and completed as designed but she was assigned to the Red Star Line and christened Belgenland. From April 1923 she sailed on the Antwerp, Southampton, and New York route. She had accommodation for 500 first class passengers, 600 second class passengers and 1,500 third class passengers.

The Belgenland was a very large and well-appointed ship offering three swimming pools (two of them on deck) and two gymnasia. Clay-pigeon shooting and deck tennis were available and there was a playroom for children. She was "equipped with every modern device for safety and steadiness," and her "radio transmission established a record for distance for similar equipment."

She was operated temporarily by the Atlantic Transport Line on its London to New York service in April 1924 when the river Scheldt was obstructed and Antwerp was inaccessible. She sailed on short cruises from New York into international waters during the prohibition era, but these came to an end fairly abruptly when alcohol was once again freely available ashore. Most famously Belgenland sailed on an annual world cruise for the Red Star Line. Her fifth such cruise began in New York on December 17, 1928, and was scheduled to return on May 1, 1929, having passed through the Panama Canal and then westwards "with the sun" around the globe. The International Mercantile Marine Company treated Bernard N. Baker's widow Rosalie to a complimentary world cruise in 1931.

The Belgenland's regular Red Star Line services ended in June 1932. After her last Mediterranean cruise the International Mercantile Marine Company tried to unsuccessfully sell her and then had her refitted at Tilbury in December 1934. He hull was painted light grey, but her upper works remained white and her funnels continued to sport the Red Star livery. She was next transferred to U.S. registry and renamed Columbia to become the largest vessel flying the stars and stripes. The Columbia was assigned to the New York-Havana cruise service of the Panama Pacific Line (by then an International Mercantile Marine Company company) and she sailed under the command of John F. Jensen. As an American ship her ownership was assigned to the Atlantic Transport Company of West Virginia.

The Panama Pacific Line cruises failed to make money and the Columbia made less than ten voyages on this route. A much needed refit was likely to cost as much as $500,000 at a time when the U.S. government was at last offering subsidies for American shipbuilding and low interest loans. The International Mercantile Marine Company therefore decided to sell the ship, which had been built at a cost of $7 million, for $275,000 to Douglas & Ramsey of Port Glasgow as scrap. On April 11 Captain James Gentle and skeleton crew came to New York from England to bring her over and she arrived off Bo'ness on May 4. At high tide on May 22 she was run aground under her own power at McLellan's yard for breaking.

Vernon Finch, who served as a bell boy on Belgenland for three years has much to say about this ship, of which he was evidently very fond, in his book about the Red Star Line.

Sources: The Atlantic Transport Line, 1881-1931; wikipedia, The Ships List Merchant Fleets in Profile 2; the Ships of the Cunard, American, Red Star, Inman, Leyland, Dominion, Atlantic Transport and White Star Lines, Duncan Haws, 1979; A Century of Atlantic Travel: 1830-1930, Frank Charles Bowen, 1930; The Red Star Line and the International Mercantile Marine Company, Vernon E.W. Finch, Antwerp, 1988; A Cruise of the Seven Seas, International Mercantile Marine Company promotional book for the 5th World Cruise of the Belgenland, 1928 (Kinghorn)

A monochrome postcard of the Belgenland, 1920sBelgenland in the Panama Canal. From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)
A monochrome postcard of the Belgenland, 1920s and Belgenland in the Panama Canal. From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

A reproduction of a 1920s poster (Kinghorn)a Red Star Line postcard from the 1920s (Kinghorn)
A reproduction of a 1920s poster and a Red Star Line postcard from the 1920s (Kinghorn)

The Belgenland, from a photo postcard published by C. R. Hoffmann, Southampton (Ian Newson)
The Belgenland, from a photo postcard published by C. R. Hoffmann, Southampton (Ian Newson)

The promenade deck (showing public address system)
The promenade deck (showing public address system). From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

The great lounge is a room of splendid proportions, like those lovely salons of the old palaces of France
The great lounge is a room of splendid proportions, like those lovely salons of the old palaces of France, that
are big rooms, but gracious too….scene of the excited bridge tournaments, the brilliant amateur theatricals,
the lectures and travelogues and other gatherings that make up the rounds of the ship's social life."
From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

he Verandah Café, "another thoroughly modern spot, a bit of country club life transported to the deck of this super-yacht…The Dining Room accommodated all the cruise party at one sitting.
Left: the Verandah Café, "another thoroughly modern spot, a bit of country club life transported to the deck of this super-yacht ….
just next to the smoking room. It is a sheltered loggia with tall glass windows opening toward the stern. The room has always
the informality and the stimulus of an outdoor rendezvous." Right: The Dining Room accommodated all the cruise party at one
sitting. "And when all the party is assembled, the smart gowns, the profusion of fresh flowers, the snowy damask, the sparkling
table ornaments, all help to create an atmosphere as sophisticated as that of a fashionable Continental restaurant."
From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

the reception room, "which, with a crystal screen across its entire width, is a truly  exquisite apartment."
The reception room, "which, with a crystal screen across its entire width, is a truly
exquisite apartment." From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

the reception room, "which, with a crystal screen across its entire width, is a truly exquisite apartment."
Another view of the reception room. From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

The smoking room was described as, "a clubby room such as men of big affairs love to find retreat in."
The smoking room was described as, "a clubby room such as men of big affairs love to find retreat in."
From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

The Belgenland had two swimming pools on deck and a third inboard.
The Belgenland had two swimming pools on deck and a third inboard. "Every day the pools are drained
and filled again with crystal-clear sea water." From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

a sitting room on B deck
A sitting room on B deck, from a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise.
"There are also any number of single and double rooms with private baths, and many lesser priced rooms with
baths conveniently nearby. There is running hot and cold water in almost every room, and real beds instead
of berths. There are roomy clothes closets. There are extra outlets for electric curling irons. There are call buttons by
your bedside, so that you can get your breakfast before you get up. The blankets are light and fluffy and fragrant
with cleanliness. The sheets and counterpanes are always crisp and fresh. A whole row of snowy towels
is provided every time the room is visited by a steward or stewardess during the day." (Kinghorn)

Right: "the inevitable shuffleboard, so characteristically part of ocean life."
"The inevitable shuffleboard, so characteristically part of ocean life."
From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

Deck golf was possible only because of the ship's stability.
Deck golf was possible only because of the ship's stability. From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

A suite on B deck.
A suite on B deck. The Belgenland offered "an unusual number of private suites for relatives or friends traveling
en famille...including sitting room, one or more bedrooms, private bathroom, and if you would wish, a maid's
room and trunk room in addition." From a book promoting the ship's 1928 World Cruise (Kinghorn)

The Columbia at the breakers from "Shipping wonders of the world" c.1936
The Columbia at the breakers from "Shipping wonders of the world" c.1936

The Columbia at the breakers from "Shipping wonders of the world" c.1936
The Columbia at the breakers from "Shipping wonders of the world" c.1936

 

For more information ...

Kinghorn "The Atlantic Transport Line 1881 - 1931" McFarland, 2011

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