Headline: The Atlantic Transort Line 

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A Short History

When Bernard N. Baker founded the Atlantic Transport Line in 1881 the American mercantile marine had been in decline for 50 years and stood, in the words of a contemporary authority, "at its lowest ebb." The line was a conscious attempt at reversing this trend and reestablishing Baltimore as a focus for transatlantic trade.

Career Change
Baker was a brilliant executive who came from a wealthy dynasty of Baltimore merchants. His grandfather had established a successful glassworks in the city and Baker was groomed to continue in that business. He identified himself as a glass maker in the census of 1881, but his career was already moving in an entirely different direction.

Photo: Bernard N. BakerThe Canton Chemical Company works in Baltimore, 1873

Left: A studio portrait of Bernard N. Baker. Right: The Canton Chemical Company's works in Canton, Maryland

Among his many business interests Baker's father was president of the Canton Chemical Company, which made fertilizers and sulfuric acid at a prime location in Baltimore's inner harbor. When he finished his studies at college Baker was appointed secretary of the company and took over the management of the works. Unlike most consumers in the city, the company used semi-bituminous coal from Clearfield County in Pennsylvania and Baker was soon very impressed by the quality of this fuel. In 1876 he went into partnership with James Stone Whiteley to mine it and to distribute in in Baltimore. This company operated few lighters and tugs, and survived as an independent business in Baltimore harbor until 1980. Significantly, one of the principal activities of Baker, Whiteley & Co. was the coaling of steamers in the harbor.

In 1879 Baker left the family glass works to establish another business in Baltimore harbor with capital of $50,000. The Baltimore Storage and Lighterage Company operated scows (lighters) and a cold storage facility. It proved to be a very successful enterprise and Baker's income began to grow impressively. Within a few short years he would be regarded as one of the richest men in the Baltimore area.

Origins of the Line
With New York City inexorably becoming the focus of transatlantic trade the railway companies serving other east coast ports were keen to develop steamship lines sailing to and from them. Baker had become interested in international trade and in 1881 he was able to establish a new maritime operation with the support of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Under the aegis of the Baltimore Storage and Lighterage Company it would run freight lines from Philadelphia and Baltimore to Europe that would be promoted as "the Atlantic Transport Line."

American flagged steamships however were very expensive both to build and to operate, and could not compete successfully with cheaper European rivals. This was one of the principal causes of the decline of the American mercantile marine, and Baker campaigned tirelessly for many years to change this situation. His answer in 1881 was to operate under a flag of convenience and to use British built, flagged, and manned steamers based in the UK. He hoped that one day American costs and navigation laws would change and enable him to transfer his fleet to American registry. (They never did.)

Baker chose to focus his line on London and chose the shipping agents Hooper, Murrell & Williams to run his operation there for him. They built up the line cautiously with one 300 foot long single screw steamer, the Surrey, ordered in 1881 for chartering to Baker. Two sister ships were added to their fleet over the next two years. A separate company was established to own each of these steamers to limit the line's liability in the event of a disaster. These little ships built up "quite a respectable business" but the Sussex was wrecked in 1885 and the Suffolk was lost in 1886.

The pre-1898 Atlantic Transport Line. flag, from an 1896 passenger list (Kinghorn collection)Photo: The wreck of the Surrey, 1886

Left: The original flag of the Atlantic Transport Line, from a passenger list of 1896 (Kinghorn). Right: Suffolk breaking up shortly after she hit the Lizard (Gibson's of Scilly)

Asserting American Ownership
In 1886 Baker decided that he needed to recapitalize and restructure the whole business to position it for greater growth. He also wanted Americas to run the operation in London to ensure closer American control of the business. Hooper, Murrell & Williams were bought out and a new firm of agents was set up specifically to manage the line. It was created by Alfred Strover Williams, the junior partner in the old firm. He was joined by two Americans: Thomas L. Feild, a shipping broker from North Carolina, and Charles F. Torrey, whose soon-to-be brother-in-law (the coal millionaire E. J. Berwind) was probably the source of much of Baker's new capital. Williams, Torrey & Feild proved to be much more successful managers than their predecessors.

The American ownership of the line and the enhanced American control of its operation were underscored at this time by the adoption of a new house style for its ship names. Instead of English counties beginning with "S" the fleet was to carry American names beginning with "M." The Surrey was rechristened Michigan and the Swansea, the first of the ships ordered to replace the wrecked vessels, became the Maine. All of the line's later ships followed this naming style. When a limited liability company, the Atlantic Transport Company Ltd., was incorporated by the line's agents in London in 1889 the old single ship companies were wound up and absorbed into it.

Chamber pot with early A.T.L. flag (eBay)Chamber pot with early A.T.L. flag (eBay)

This chamber pot, marked with the early company flag and the initials of the Baltimore Storage and Lighterage Company, was presumably made for use by passengers.
In its formative years the company carried a few passengers but this business really developed after a regular service from New York was initiated in 1892. (eBay)

A Successful Business
The first Atlantic Transport Line steamers were modest three-masted single screw vessels. They carried general freight and livestock as well as small numbers of passengers. The line quickly became well known as a reliable carrier of cattle but it also shipped horses and mules. As its reputation for the safe handling of livestock grew the line became the preferred shipper for racehorses and other valuable thoroughbred livestock. It also happily carried all manner of exotic creatures such as zoo and circus animals. Illustrating the care taken of these animals by the line, Country Life published a brief article about the its new stables at the Albert Docks in 1898 and McLure's Magazine published a wonderful account of a voyage from New York to London in 1897 with Barnum & Bailey's circus, which used the line regularly.

Engraving of a cattle boat from Scribner's Magazine, 1891
This image of a cattle boat published by Scribner's Magazine in 1891 looks much like Atlantic Transport Line steamers of the day


Baby elephants from Barnum & Bailey's Circus being shipped to London on the Massachusetts in 1897 (McLures's Magazine)

Under its dynamic new management the Atlantic Transport Line prospered and the fleet grew as additional steamers were acquired. By 1890 the line had developed a preference for ships built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and was ordering ever larger twin-screw vessels. Many of these were among the biggest merchant vessels in the world when they were launched. In 1902 the fleet of the Atlantic Transport Line and its subsidiary National Line numbered 17 vessels, the highest total in its history.

A major step forward was taken late in 1891 when a new line was established from New York City directly to London. The addition of a full-scale passenger service from New York to London in the spring of 1892 was probably the most important step the line ever made. Unusually, it decided to carry only saloon (first class) passengers. The service offered was truly excellent and the fares charged were moderate. The venture was a great success, and the line is today best remembered for it.

War-Related Development
The Spanish American War of 1898 saw the U.S. government desperate to find American owned ships it could use as military transports. After every suitable American registered steamer had been chartered the U.S. government bought seven of the Atlantic Transport Line's ten ships for $4 million. Bernard N. Baker had tried earlier in the year to buy five new ships from the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line. With cash in his pocket he raised his offer and tried again. This time the purchase was successful and the ships were to have a major impact on the development of the business. One of them however was wrecked almost immediately. The Mohegan took a wrong course and struck a notorious reef off the Cornish coast early in her second voyage. She sank in about 12 minutes with the loss of 106 lives — by far the worst accident in the line's history.

During the Spanish American War Bernard N. Baker lent one of his few remaining ships, the Missouri, to the U.S. government for use as a hospital ship. When the Boer War broke out in 1899 Baker was quick to offer another of his older ships, the Maine, to the British government for use as a hospital ship. She was handed over to a group of American ladies led by Winston Churchill's mother. After a quick and effective fundraising campaign the Maine was at sea heading for South Africa just 60 days after she had been accepted. Baker paid for the crew and other operating expenses for both ships while they were in government service, and gave the Maine to the Admiralty in 1902.

The new flag adopted by the Atlantic Transport Line in 1898

Left: The line adopted a new flag when the Atlantic Transport Company of West Virginia was incorporated in 1898 to assert American
ownership of the line's British assets. (Kinghorn). Right: An Officer's cap badge, from a cigarette card of c.1930 (Kinghorn)

A Change of Ownership
The late 1890s were a boom time for shipping but rivalry between the major operators led to ever bigger, faster, and more expensive ships, cutthroat competition, low rates, and a growing surplus of tonnage on the North Atlantic. Baker did not have access to the vast amounts of capital necessary to keep up with the competition and he negotiated the sale of the Atlantic Transport Line to his principal British rival, the Leyland Line. At the last moment however he was persuaded to pull out of the deal and instead to merge his line into Clement Griscom's International Navigation Company, the American owners of the American Line and the Belgian-flagged Red Star Line.

To cut a long story short, Griscom was keen to develop a huge shipping Trust through which Americans might control as transatlantic shipping as possible. He got J.P. Morgan interested in the idea, and with Morgan's blessing (and cash) Baker and Griscom bought the Leyland Line. They also bought the most prestigious and most profitable British steamship company, the White Star Line and acquired the Dominion Line. In October 1902 the International Navigation Company was transformed into the International Mercantile Marine Company and began operating all of these lines in concert. Baker resigned as president of the Atlantic Transport Line at this time and retired (temporarily) from the shipping business.


A captain, quartermaster and navigating officer on the bridge of a Minne class ship, from a brochure of c.1900 (Kinghorn)

These developments caused panic in Europe and Cunard obtained a huge loan from the British government for the construction of two turbine-powered super greyhounds with which to dominate the North Atlantic - the Lusitania and the Mauritania. These ships in turn goaded the IMM into ordering the Titanic and her sisters for the White Star Line. But the International Mercantile Marine Company was never in fact very successful, and for most of its long history it lost money. It was one of the few ventures J.P. Morgan got involved in that did not work out.

War Losses and Uncertain Recovery
For the Atlantic Transport Line the Belle Époque, the gilded decade and a half before World War One, was its heyday. It was justly renowned for the comfortable first class London to New York passenger service maintained by its celebrated Minne class ships. During the war the Atlantic Transport Line kept its freight service running and lost only one of its freight steamers, but all four of the much bigger and vastly more significant Minne class ships were sunk. Three of them served as military transports and were torpedoed or mined in the Mediterranean and Minnehaha was torpedoed while operating as a freighter on the London to New York line.

After the war everyone expected normal conditions to be resumed and four new, bigger and better, Minne class ships were planned for the Atlantic Transport Line and the first pair was ordered. But the post-war recovery was a long and difficult process. Freight was scarce and profits negligible. The Atlantic Transport Line was not authorized to reintroduce its London to New York passenger service until 1923 and it proved to be disappointing; the second pair of super Minne class ships was never ordered.

London New York artwork used in Atlantic Transport Line brochures in the 1920s
Artwork used in Atlantic Transport Line brochures in the 1920s Kinghorn)

By 1925 the line's old and obsolete freighters had been disposed of and Minnekahda (II) was transferred back to the Atlantic Transport Line to operate a tourist third class service between London and New York. This was successful, and in 1927 the elderly Red Star Line steamer Zeeland was handed over to the line as a tourist third class ship (renamed Minnesota) to complete the quartet of ships needed to operate a balanced weekly transatlantic service.

A New Strategy
During World War One it had become clear to the president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, Bernard N. Baker's former right hand man P.A.S. Franklin, that the company needed to divest itself of its foreign-flagged shipping and build up its U.S. registered fleet to secure the support of the U.S. government that it needed. The sale of the White Star Line in 1926 marked the start of this process. Buyers were sought for the International Mercantile Marine Company's other British lines, including the Atlantic Transport Line but in the growing depression that followed the Wall Street Crash any hopes of finding new owners for them vanished and they were instead liquidated. The Atlantic Transport Line's remaining freighters were laid up and then disposed of, the Minnesota (III) and the Minnekahda (II) were scrapped, and the two super Minne class ships were transferred to the Red Star Line and then scrapped also.

Atlantic Transport Line services ceased in 1931, but the last of its laid up ships were not sold until 1935. In that same year the line's holding company, the Atlantic Transport Company of West Virginia, briefly became the legal owners of the large ex-Red Star line steamer Belgenland for the International Mercantile Marine Company. This magnificent ship was transferred to U.S. Registry as the Columbia and was operated by the Panama Pacific Line under the command of a former Atlantic Transport Line captain. Her career under the Stars and Stripes proved however to be very brief, and she too was sold for scrap in 1936. Under the leadership of P.A.S. Franklin's son (until his retirement in 1967) the International Mercantile Marine Company steadily developed its U.S. flagged fleets and ultimately morphed into the United States Lines.

 

For more information ...

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

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