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The National Steam Navigation Co. Ltd., better known as the National Line, was founded in Liverpool in 1863. The original design of the proprietors was to operate services to the south of the United States but the Civil War led instead to the establishment of a line to New York. The company operated a fleet of large iron screw steamers for the cargo and emigrant trade and became a well known carrier. In 1870 the line shipped 33,500 steerage passengers and 395,000 tons of cargo, more than Cunard, Guion, and the Anchor Lines, and only slightly less than the Inman Line. In that same year a bi-weekly London to New York line was introduced and the company also made occasional voyages to Boston. One of its ships, the America, even held the Blue Ribband briefly in 1884 with a time of 6 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes.
The line prospered until about 1880, and grew to a fleet of twelve vessels, but then the business started to fail and no measures it seems were able to stop this process. There were several attempts to establish new services and the years 1887 to 1889 were reasonably profitable. But then there was an alarming drop in traffic in 1890 and the Liverpool passenger service was ended in 1892 (although here was one sailing in 1894) and replaced with a cargo-only London-New York service. The line lost two steamers in rapid succession when Erin disappeared in December 1889 and Egypt burned at sea in July of 1890. This would not have been a serious blow had the line carried insurance, but it did not, and the losses wiped out the sinking fund it maintained to cover losses in lieu of insurance. When the Atlantic Transport Line set up its London to New York line in 1892 it did so according to Frank Bowen, in direct competition to the ailing National Line. The development of the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line added to the competition and in 1896 the National Line, now in serious trouble, scrapped several of its obsolete ships.
When the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line made a generous offer to buy the National Line in 1896 the shareholders stubbornly refused to accept it. But the company was bankrupt and the directors were desperate to avoid loosing everything. A report in the New York Times noted that while the National Line was in the process of being liquidated the Directors met to consider several proposals, including one from "Col. Baker of the Atlantic Transport Line" offering 8s for each share of common stock, and £2 18s for each of the preference shares. With no better alternatives now open to them, the directors of the National Line reluctantly accepted Bernard N. Baker's rather less generous offer.
The National Line's two remaining ships were, to quote one source, "slow, and engaged mostly in the emigrant trade," and they were augmented through the transfer of two of the older Atlantic Transport Line ships to enable it to provide a more balanced service. According to Frank Bowen, Baker's interest in the National Line was understood by Herr Ballin of the Hamburg Amerika Line, who "saw that the Atlantic Transport - National service might be worked up into a very big thing."
But these bright prospects did not come to pass and in 1907, according to Frank Bowen, the line "came within sight of its inevitable end and transferred America and Europe to the Atlantic Transport as the Memphis and Mobile, leaving themselves with only two ships and worse prospects than ever." The National Line struggled on under the Atlantic Transport Line as an independent freight business until 1914, when it went into voluntary liquidation.
The National Line Fleet, 1896 - 1914
America, 5,158 tons, launched 1891: Transferred to the Atlantic Transport Line in 1907 as the Memphis (II) and scrapped in 1908.
Europe, 5,302 tons, launched 1891: Transferred to the Atlantic Transport Line. in 1907 and renamed Mobile (II). She was sold to Norwegian owners in 1911.
Manhattan, 8,404 tons, launched 1898: Transferred from the Atlantic Transport Line in 1898, chartered to the Phoenix Line 1911-14 and transferred back to the Atlantic Transport Line thereafter. Manhattan was scrapped in Italy in 1927.
Michigan (II), 3,722 tons, launched 1890: Built for the Atlantic Transport Line and transferred to the National Line in 1896. She was sold to the U.S. Government for use as a military transport in 1898 and renamed Kilpatrick. She was broken up in Italy in 1924.
Michigan (IV), 8,001 tons, launched 1897: Built as the Monmouth for Elder Dempster & Company for the New Orleans service, she was purchased by the Dominion Line in 1898 and renamed Irishman. Purchased in 1903, this ship was chartered to the Phoenix Line 1911-1914, and transferred to the Atlantic Transport Line thereafter. She was sold to Italian owners in 1926 and renamed Candido.
Mississippi, 3,732 tons, launched 1890: Transferred from the Atlantic Transport Line in 1898 and almost immediately sold to the U.S. Government for use as a military transport. She was renamed Buford and in her final years infamously transported suspected communists to Russia and famously starred in Buster Keaton'e movie The Navigator. This ship was scrapped in Japan in 1929.
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