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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)
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