Retirement of the SS Cristobal

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The Retirement of the SS Cristobal
September 19, 1981
After 42 years of government service...

SS Cristobal - The End of the Line From The Panama Canal Review - October 1, 1981

Not all of the noteworthy happenings on the Cristobal were traumatic, as in the case of the hurricane. Some were merely exasperating, others poignant and a few, downright funny.

Once, for example, the Cristobal was northbound off the coast of Nicaragua when a small boat signaled the ship to slow down. Thinking the boat was in distress, the Cristobal reduced speed, at which point the boat's occupants held up lobsters they wanted to sell or trade.

On another voyage, the steward asked a young soldier who subsisted solely upon the snacks served on deck at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the third day out why he didn't go to the dining room for meals. He replied that he didn't have the money to pay for them.

Passengers also provided some humorous moments aboard ship. One woman who boarded in Haiti wore a life jacket and slept in a chair on the promenade deck the entire trip from Port-au-Prince to New York City.

Beginning in 1961, when the Panama Line's terminus was moved from New York, the Canal's business in New Orleans was handled by representatives of three Panama Canal divisions; Water Transportation, Procurement and Accounting. For 20 years the careful judgments and intelligent decisions made in the New Orleans office were responsible for the smooth and economical flow of all goods, from groceries to paper clips, to the Panama Canal.

Working with their counterparts in the Water Transportation Division's Cristobal office, the members of the New Orleans shore staff also had responsibility for assisting the Cristobal’ S passengers in clearing customs and immigration and getting their baggage, pets and vehicles off the vessel without delay.

The SS Cristobal leaving Panama in her glory days... government service...

Sometimes it took more than one try to accomplish that task. Cargo specialist Jean Piedescalzo, who numbered among her duties the job of getting Cristobal passengers and their belongings from the ship to the terminal, recalls one particular man who debarked with six dogs in tow. In the confusion of getting the dogs off the ship and into Jean's waiting van, the man forgot his wife. Jean had to make another trip back to the ship to pick her up. Patience and good humor have been characteristics of other staff members who served the Panama Canal community in such ways as helping to find lost shipments of household goods and arranging hotel reservations and air transportation for passengers who missed the Cristobal’ S sailing.

On one occasion the staff went so far as to track down a bejeweled pet poodle that had jumped from the arms of a boarding woman passenger into the Mississippi River and had swum upstream against the current until he was out of sight. The crews aboard two tugboats went out to search for the dog, but came back empty handed. It took reassurances from the shore staff that everything possible would be done to find the dog to convince the hysterical woman to board the Cristobal without her beloved pet. Food was put in various areas of the port, and on the third day the pooch appeared, apparently no worse for his taste of life on the Mississippi. The poodle was sent by plane to his mistress on the Isthmus.

Heading up the shore staff was general agent Joseph Quintas, who had regular dealings with local employees of the Storehouse and Water Transportation divisions in expediting supplies to the Canal.

With the retirement of the Cristobal, the job of carrying supplies to the Panama Canal and its employees and transporting their vehicles and household goods has been taken over by a vessel under contract with the Defense Transportation System. The Water Transportation Division has been abolished, but the New Orleans office continues many of its past functions as part of the Storehouse Division.

While it's the end of the line for the 42-year-old Cristobal, the memories she left with Canal employees will last a lifetime.

The retirement of the SS Cristobal this year brings to an end 133 years of U.S. Government sponsored steamship service between the United States and the Isthmus of Panama, a service that had its beginnings in March 1848, a year before the discovery of gold in California. Even then, the Congress of the United States realized the value of the Isthmus of Panama in providing a rapid means of communication between the east and west coasts of the country (which at that time numbered 29 states) and authorized the Navy to contract for the carrying of mail by steamer from New York and New Orleans to California and Oregon, via the Isthmus.

The same realization of the value of the Isthmus as a convenient route to the west coast led the following year, in 1849, to the commencement of work on a railroad across the Isthmus. The Panama Railroad Company was, however, a private corporation, established under an act of the New York legislature and incorporated under the laws of New York. One can imagine the jubilation of the stockholders when the news came later that year that gold had been discovered in California.

During the construction of the railroad, the company chartered more than 100 vessels to carry supplies and soon realized that it would be convenient to have ships of its own. One of its first maritime ventures was in 1850, when it began operating two small steamers on the Chagres River. One of them was used to tow barges in connection with the construction work, but the other was put to work carrying passengers upriver to a point below Gorgona, about halfway across the Isthmus, from which point travelers rode mules or walked the rest of the way.

The Panama Railroad Company was a moneymaker from the start, and travelers paid $5 just to walk the right of way before the trains started running. Soon after the railroad opened, in 1855, the company saw a need for its own steamship line to serve shippers and to promote business for the railroad. The next year the company founded the Central American Line, which in time operated steamers on a route, which included all of the Pacific coast ports between Panama and Acapulco.

In 1881, the French Canal Company obtained control of the Panama Railroad Company, but the company continued to function under principally United States management. The Railroad got out of the steamship business for a while, content to depend upon the services of the Pacific Mail Company, a private, government subsidized line; but in 1893 the Railroad started the Columbian Line between New York and Colon, and in 1896, it was renamed the Panama Railroad Steamship Line.

Among the ships acquired when the Columbian Line was founded were the Allianca, the Advance, and the Finance, which ten years later were to transport thousands of workers to the Isthmus to take part in the construction of the Canal. In 1904, when the United States purchased the French holdings, the railroad and its steam ships became the property of the United States. In 1905, the steamers Mexico and Havana were purchased from the Ward Line and renamed Colon and Panama, and in 1908, the freighters Shawmut and Tremont were purchased from the Boston Steamship Company and renamed Ancon and Cristobal.

These namesakes of the last three Panama Canal ships were used in those early days to carry heavy cargoes of machinery, cement and other building materials for the construction effort. The Ancon made history when she left Cristobal pier on the morning of August 15, 1914, to make the first official transit of the Panama Canal. Actually, her sister ship the Cristobal had transited the Canal some days earlier, on August 3, in an unpublicized test to make sure that everything would work. Credit also goes to the Allianca, which was the first ship put through a lock. She was locked through Gatun Locks from sea level to Gatun Lake and back on June 8, 1914.

A slump in world trade in the early 1920s, together with the decline in cargo to the Canal Zone following the end of the construction of the Canal, resulted in a reduction in the fleet of the Panama Railroad Steamship Line. The Allianca and Advance were taken out of service. The Finance had sunk in New York harbor in 1908.

The Ancon and Cristobal, reconditioned for passenger/cargo service at a cost of $1 million each, continued to provide service from New York to the Isthmus until 1939, That year they were replaced by three first-class, cargo/passenger ships, the Cristobal, the Panama and the Ancon. These sister ships were constructed by the Shipbuilding Division of Bethlehem Steel at Quincy, Mass, at an approximate cost of $4 million each, paid for out of the earnings of the Panama Railroad.

The Cristobal, the third and last of the ships to be constructed, slipped into the water on March 4, 1939, after Mrs. Clarence S. Ridley, wife of the Canal Zone Governor, shattered a bottle of champagne on her bow. The Cristobal sailed from New York in late August, her arrival eagerly awaited by many an Isthmian ready to make the return trip to attend the World's Fair.

The new ships were the first to be built in an American shipyard under the stringent safety regulations outlined by the United States Maritime Commission. Widely acclaimed as the safest and most modern of their time, the vessels were, in the words of the Panama Railroad Steamship Line's Vice President T. H. Ross bottom, "a fleet of ships as beautiful and modern and advanced in New World comforts as American skill and ingenuity could make them."

Completely fireproof from stem to stern, they marked the beginning of a new era in shipbuilding in world standards of safety, efficiency, and attractiveness and were unique in the spaciousness and comfort of passenger accommodations. Differing only in their interior decor, they featured air-conditioned public rooms, a bathroom for each stateroom, and furnishings of fireproof materials. They had eight veranda suites overlooking the sea, with a cluster of four large staterooms around each veranda; unusually wide, glass-enclosed promenades; spacious sun decks; a tiled swimming pool; a children's playroom, and many other innovations seen only on the transatlantic luxury liners of the day.

The vessels, each with its dove grey hull, white superstructure and tan funnel with silver bands, were the cooperative effort of well-known naval architect George Sharp and Raymond Loewy, a famous industrial engineer of his time.

In the years prior to the acquisition of the three new vessels, the old Ancon and old Cristobal had offered 10-day, round-trip voyages between Cristobal and New York, with Portau-Prince, Haiti as a port of call on both southbound and northbound sailings.

When the new ships were put into service, the Panama Railroad Steamship Line shortened its name to the Panama Line and for the first time advertised its steamship service to lure the tourist trade. The New York to Panama cruises featuring sightseeing tours of Port-au-Prince became very popular. In addition to passengers, the ships carried tons of bananas from Central America and raw cotton, coffee, sugar, plantains and lumber that were loaded on at Port-au-Prince. The vessels were earning their keep.

The ACG-4 USS Ancon in hazy gray war paint during the war years.
Here she locks through northbound at Miraflores Locks.

When the war came, the Panama and Cristobal were taken over by the U.S. Army Transport Service and converted to troop carriers. But probably no American merchant ship had a more distinguished war career than the Ancon. She was the first and best known of the U.S. Navy communications ships and for two years was the only headquarters communications vessel in the European Theater. She traveled further, was in more major operations and carried more famous political and military leaders than any other ship of her type. The Ancon had many close calls in combat, but, miraculously, while ships alongside her were torpedoed and sunk, she was never hit.

She participated in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and Normandy. When the war ended in Europe, she was converted for Pacific duty, miles of wire and tons of sensitive radio devices installed below and above deck. She took an active part in the Okinawa campaign and on September 2, 1945, it was from the Ancon that the news of the final surrender of Japan was flashed to the world from Tokyo Bay. Aboard were 90 war correspondents, photographers and newsreel men representing the United States, England, China and Australia. Among them were John Mason Brown, who write "To All Hands," a summary of invasion experiences on the Ancon, and Quintin Reynolds, who wrote about the Ancon in "The Curtain Rises." With a glorious record of service to her country, the Ancon was returned to the Panama Line on February 25, 1946.

The Panama, renamed the James Parker, called frequently at Cristobal during the first part of the war. Later, she was on the Atlantic run as far as South Africa and then operated between the United States and the Atlantic Theater of War. Just before her return to civilian service, the vessel was again converted, this time for carrying brides and babies. On one voyage, the Panama also brought back $80 million worth of paintings that the Germans had looted from various European capitals, Space was made for the art works in the air conditioned dining room, and later they were delivered to the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

When the Panama was returned to the line after the war, passengers and cargo went aboard for the first postwar sailing out of New York on September 20, 1946. Half an hour before sailing time, a maritime strike was called and the Panama was held port. For 14 days the passengers lived aboard the ship courtesy of the Panama Line.

The Cristobal was returned on June 14, 1946, after four years and five months of military service. The vessel's first war duty was to carry troops to Australia, where she reloaded and carried field artillery to New Caledonia. She transported troops to Suez and took part in the invasion of Casablanca and operated in the Mediterranean area, landing troops at Utah Beach after the Normandy Invasion. When the war ended, the Cristobal transported the wounded and war brides and children of 17 different nationalities to the United States.

On July 1, 1951, following 102 years of service, the Panama Railroad Company was abolished by executive order of President Truman. As the result of an administrative reorganization, the railroad and the steamship line became separate divisions of the Panama Canal Company.

The Panama Line was affected by a general decline in world shipping and began to lose money. The 16-year-old Panama was withdrawn in the interest of economy and sold in 1956 to American President Lines to become the President Hoover. The Panama was later sold to Demetrius Chandris, a London-based, Greek ship owner of cruise vessels, and sails under the new name of Regina Prima.

Through the years, there was opposition by the steamship industry to the U.S. Government's operation of the Panama Line. However, Congress accepted the argument that the strategic Canal needed its own supply service that could readily be rerouted in an emergency and kept under the Canal company's control at all times. In 1932, President Hoover recommended that the line be abolished, but the House voted to retain it. The old controversy continued, however, and after months of heated hearings, on December 24, 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the Canal organization to stop carrying commercial cargoes and non- government passengers, effective February 10, 1961.

Ten days later, the Ancon sailed out of New York for the last time. The Panama Line's terminus was moved from Pier 64, North River to facilities made available by the U.S. Army Transportation Terminal at Poland and Dauphine streets in New Orleans. A new and shorter run between the Isthmus and New Orleans was inaugurated by the Ancon, renewing old ties that had been established before the Gold Rush days.

In June 1961, the Ancon was retired and a year later was turned over to the Maine Maritime Academy, where she served as a training ship for 10 years. In 1973, the once proud "Mighty A," as she was known during the war, was dismantled, her machinery and equipment sold and her hull cut up for scrap.

The Cristobal took up the service between Cristobal and New Orleans that was begun by the Ancon, and the rest is Canal history.

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