The Great Ocean Liners

British steamship Lusitania

The British steamship Lusitania is shown here departing from New York on its last trip in 1915. During this voyage a German submarine torpedoed the ship off the Irish coast, causing it to sink in 20 minutes; 128 Americans were killed. The sinking became pivotal in changing U.S. attitudes toward the war in Europe and was a factor in Americas decision to enter World War I.

Toward the end of the 19th century the enormous flow of emigration from Europe to the United States made transatlantic passenger service a booming business.

Companies competed with each other to attract first- and second-class passengers, whose high fares provided the bulk of an ocean liner's operating costs. They built ships with lavish passenger accommodations and opulent decor. The 128-m (420-ft) Oceanic, built in 1871 for the White Star Line passenger service company, set the standard for all ocean liners. Oceanic was steel-hulled, propeller-driven with auxiliary sails, and had a passenger deck with cabins lining the ship's sides, rather than tucked below decks or in windowless, inner compartments.

In addition to lavish passenger accommodations, companies also sought ways to decrease the crossing time between Europe and the United States. The Cunard Line was the first to fit an ocean liner with steam turbines. Cunard commissioned two of the greatest liners ever built, the Mauretania and the Lusitania, which both launched in 1906. Each 240-m (790-ft), 28,000-ton vessel was powered by four coal-fired steam turbines that drove four propellers. These engines moved the sister ships through the water at an impressive 27 knots.

The White Star Line upstaged the other lines when it ordered two new ships for the Atlantic passage-the Olympic and the Titanic. At 260 m (852 ft) and 46,000 tons, these were the greatest ships afloat. Watertight bulkheads divided their hulls into 16 compartments, a design that was said to make the ships "unsinkable." However, Titanic sank on its maiden voyage when it struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, off Newfoundland (Titanic Disaster). A severe shortage of lifeboats contributed to the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

The Titanic was not the only ocean liner to meet a tragic end. The Lusitania's service ended when the ship was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat in 1915. World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) claimed many of the great ocean liners. Great Britain requisitioned Cunard's prize liner Mauretania in 1914 to transport troops between England and the Mediterranean. Cunard's Queen Mary, 310 m (1,018 ft) long and capable of over 30 knots, and its sister ship Queen Elizabeth were both stripped down, painted gray, and used as troop transports in World War II. The elegant French ocean liner Normandie met a similar fate. The state-of-the-art ship measured 314 m (1,029 ft), made 30 knots, and showcased some of the most celebrated art nouveau decor in the world. The Normandie was laid up in New York when World War II erupted in Europe in 1939. The United States government requisitioned the luxury liner to serve as a troop ship. The Normandie caught fire while being converted to a utilitarian troop transport, and the ship capsized from the water pumped onto it by firefighters.

The luxury liner industry never recovered after the war. Although many more liners were built, labor problems and rising fuel costs limited their profits. The final blow to the once-thriving transatlantic passenger liner industry came with the widespread use of jet airplanes, which revolutionized the air transport industry and cut deeply into passenger liner profits. By 1958 more people crossed the Atlantic by air than by sea, and most of the once-mighty liners had fallen into disrepair or found other roles. The Queen Mary is now a hotel and conference center in Long Beach, California. The Queen Elizabeth was moved to Hong Kong and converted into a floating university. In 1972 the ship caught fire and sank to the bottom of Hong Kong Harbor.

The last passenger liner still active is the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2), launched by Cunard Lines in 1967 as an heir and tribute to the great ocean liners of the first half of the 20th century. QE2 measures 294 m (963 ft) long and travels at about 30 knots. The grand old ship, considered the last of its era, makes transatlantic crossings in the summer months and serves as a cruise ship during the winter.

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