112 years of the Miami-Nassau route (I)
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112 years of the Miami-Nassau route (I)

The Bahamian Government has this year chosen NCL, which has been serving the Bahamas since 1966, as its Cruise Line of the Year. It might be therefore that the Norwegian Sky is the best ship operating in the 3- and 4-night trade from Miami, where she has been operating since July 2008.
The Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Majesty, also operate longer cruises to the Bahamas, and NCL has its own private island, Great Stirrup Cay, in the Bahamas.
The news that the Norwegian Sky has also just undergone a complete refurbishment after her stint under US flag in Hawaii leads us to have a look at the long history of the Miami-Nassau route. Although the first World Cruise was offered by the s.s. Cleveland in 1909, the history of the Miami-Nassau route goes back further, to 1897 in fact.
And the first Miami-Nassau cruises were offered almost 75 years ago, in 1935. Today, the Bahamas also benefit from four private islands and a shipyard for cruise ships in Freeport, as well as a ships' registry.

How Henry Flagler Started it all

By the mid-1890s, railway magnate Henry Flagler, who had established the Florida East Coast Railway and its network of railways, hotels and steamships throughout the state of Florida, had decided he wanted to expand to Nassau, where he set about acquiring some hotels. To serve these, his Florida East Coast Steamship Company would charter ships from Canadian owners (who didn't need them in the winter time) to cross the 190 miles between first Palm Beach, later Miami, and Nassau in the winter tourist season, which ran from January to April.

In January 1896, he chartered the five-year-old Prince Edward Island steamer Northumberland to run from the end of his railway at Palm Beach to Nassau. Two round voyages a week increased to three in high season (mid-January to mid-February), a pattern that would be followed for decades to come. But the Northumberland served for just one winter.

In January 1897, Flagler chartered another Canadian ship, the City of Monticello from the Bay of Fundy. An older vessel, she was an iron paddle steamer dating to 1866, but she was fast and had forty-two staterooms and forty dormitory berths. As his railway had now reached Miami, the old City of Monticello had the honour of opening the first regular service to operate between Miami and Nassau.

Chartering ships was only a temporary expedient, however, as Flagler soon ordered his own ship from the Cramp shipyards in Philadelphia. Launched on October 23, 1897, and running trials in December, his new Miami could carry 125 passengers when she was introduced in 1898. She had three decks and two tiers of staterooms with white mahogany panelling, each with running water. The twin-screw vessel was capable of 17 knots and began her schedule to Nassau after a banquet held in Miami on January 17, 1898.

With a subsidy from the Government of the Bahamas, which passed its Hotel and Steamship Act of 1898, the Florida East Coast Steamship Co had thus established the first regular service between Miami and Nassau. In July 1900, the route was taken over by the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Co (P&O), a joint company that the Flagler and Plant interests formed to merge their shipping interests in Florida.

The Munson Line

After more than a quarter century of service, P&O decided to retire the Miami in December 1925, and the Munson Line of New York, who now had experience of the Nassau hotel and tourist trade, secured the subsidy for the Miami-Nassau route. "The Literary Digest" said of the Munson Line in December 1926: "Opposite the Florida Coast, and less than two hundred miles distant from it, stretch the seven hundred islands of the Bahama Group. Nassau, on New Providence, is the capital, and tourist headquarters. It is noted for its equable climate (temperature averages 72 degrees December to May), superb bathing beaches, picturesque golf courses, its palm-shaded tennis courts, fishing, and polo. Weekly steamship service from New York is afforded by Munson Line steamers, and between Miami and Nassau by the same line, two to three times each week."

For the first two winters, the Munson Line chartered other ships for the Miami-Nassau route but in 1928 it managed to obtain the 18-month-old 150-passenger cruise ship New Northland from the Clarke Steamship Company of Quebec. The New Northland had been built to cruise the Gulf of St Lawrence by summer and in the winter of 1927, had offered weekly cruises from Palm Beach and Miami to Nassau and Havana, the first cruises ever operated from those ports. It seems that the Munson Line offer was a good one though as she would be used on the Miami-Nassau route for four winter seasons.

The Munson Line had roots in Cuba, and operated two ships of its own in a weekly service between New York and Nassau and Havana each winter. The Nassau service was an offshoot of its trade to Eastern Cuba and had replaced one that had been operated previously the Ward Line. The 295-passenger Munargo had opened the Munson Line's New York-Nassau-Eastern Cuba passenger service in 1922, with the 80-passenger Munamar backing her up to provide weekly service from New York.

The Munargo's schedule was soon changed however so that she sailed from New York every Friday by winter, and returned from Nassau on Mondays. Even the P&O brochure for 1925 had mentioned their New York service under the heading, with advice that: "The Munson Line will, as heretofore, operate the fast, finely appointed oil-burning steamer Munargo between New York and Nassau with weekly sailings during the months of January to April and fortnightly sailings during the balance of the year."

Nassau was an interesting winter station for Americans, as was borne out in an amusing article entitled "Last Swim" that had appeared in "Time" magazine on February 7, 1927: "Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, is a hard place to leave. Winter visitors 'miss the boat' (back to the US) surprisingly often. Nassau is warm. Nassau is wet. The sun, striking through Nassau's clear ocean shallows to coral bottom, paints them a variety of shore-sea greens and blues to which not even a penny postcard can do justice. When the Munson liner Munargo anchors outside the bar-guarded harbor and the stubby tender puts out from town with homegoers, people on shore feel sorry for people on the tender. People on the tender feel sorry for themselves."

Although ships the size of the Munargo had still had to dock outside, it was not long before Prince George's Wharf was opened and she too was able to berth inside the harbour, next to the New Northland to and from Miami.

The Great Depression and the End of Prohibition

The effect of Prohibition, which had started in 1919, had been good for the Bahamas. But with the market crash and the onset of the Depression in 1929, the Munson Line began to run into difficulties. These eventually forced it to drop the annual winter charter of the New Northland with the end of the 1931 season. Instead, it substituted a fortnightly New York-Nassau-Miami-Havana-Miami-Nassau-New York service with its own Munargo, meaning only one sailing in each direction every two weeks between Miami and Nassau, where the Bahamians had been used to two or three a week. Service declined.

As the end of American Prohibition approached in December 1933, however, Nassau was changing from a haven for bootleggers, with its levy of £1 ($5) for every bottle of liquor brought into the colony, into a more sophisticated tourist capital.
Sir Bede Clifford, the Governor, put it this way: "Well gentlemen, it amounts to this: if we can't take the liquor to the Americans, we must bring the Americans to the liquor."
For 1934, the matter of a regular Miami-Nassau service was resolved when the Bahamians contracted Canadian National's 335-passenger Prince David for the service, with American Express acting as agents in Miami. This ship proved to be too big for the trade, however, and lasted only one season.

Clarke Steamship Co Offers First Nassau Cruises in 1935

Meanwhile, the New Northland had been laid up at Quebec for two winters, and negotiations with the Bahamians soon led to a subsidy being negotiated under which the Clarke Steamship Co would run the New Northland between Miami and Nassau, starting in 1935, for its own account. Governor Clifford had visited her on a trade mission cruise in 1932 and had been impressed.
But there was an area of potential conflict. Up until now, all the ships that had operated between Miami and Nassau had operated as night boats, with passengers leaving the ship on arrival and staying in hotels ashore. But Clarke wanted to offer stay aboard cruises as well. A new kind of subsidy would be required to make sure any cruise trade did not keep out tourists.

In the end, the Bahamians agreed to a subsidy of £2,000 (or about $10,000), for a winter season of twice-weekly sailings, which would rise to £3,000 (or about $15,000) if the New Northland matched or exceeded the number of tourists carried by the Prince David in 1934. While Clarke wanted to introduce cruises to Nassau, the Bahamians wanted to increase their tourist trade. Only tourists, and not cruise passengers, were thus to count towards the subsidy. This at least guaranteed a minimum level of support to Clarke, while keeping the Bahamians happy that they would only pay the full amount if their tourist trade grew, or at least did not diminish.

The "New York Times" signalled the start of the new season on January 13, 1935: "The Nassau tourist season will reach its full stride next week, when several major activities are scheduled to take place. A championship tennis tournament will be held on the courts of the British Colonial Hotel from Wednesday - the day after the hotel is opened - to Sunday... Besides the British Colonial, the Fort Montagu Beach Hotel will be opened this week, on Monday. The New Northland of the Clarke Steamship Company will inaugurate a triweekly service between Nassau and Miami on Thursday."

On January 17, after an absence of three seasons, the New Northland was once more in Miami, casting off lines and setting course for the Bahamas in a new winter cruise service. The year was a signal one for Miami, as New Year's Day had seen the playing of football's first Orange Bowl.

Where in 1931, the New Northland's last season with the Munson Line, the Nassau brochure had read "Overnight from Miami" and "Sailing List and General Information," her 1935 Miami-Nassau brochure carried a colour portrait of the handsome white-hulled ship and offered "Inclusive cruises," with fares from $29.50 for three nights or $35 for four nights, in addition to the usual one-way and round-trip fares. While package tours had been offered in the past, these were the first true cruises offered from Miami to Nassau.

The brochure explained: "Passengers making round trip to Nassau on same sailing may purchase inclusive tour tickets which will enable them to use the ship as their hotel during the stay in Nassau, and which include all meals and stateroom accommodation from Miami back to Miami; these inclusive rates effect a considerable saving for passengers. Monday sailings provide a 30-hour stay in Nassau; Thursday sailings provide a 54-hour stay."

The cruise product offered a full program of shore excursions and entertainment, where night boats such as P&O's Miami, the Munson Line and the Prince David had not: "In addition to dance orchestra and entertainment provided on board, the following programme of shore excursions has been specially prepared for our passengers and may be included at time of purchasing passage ticket."

The New Northland would run both cruises and crossings between Miami and Nassau every winter up to and including 1939. And even when war came, a Clarke ship would continue the Miami-Nassau service for the military between 1942 and 1946.

Part II ... to be continued next week

(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)

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