During the 1800s, U.S. trade with Cuba flourished and the major ocean carrier in the trade was the Ward Line of New York. However, with the significant network of railroads reaching all corners of the U.S., Henry Flagler, president of the Florida East Coast Railroad, foresaw Cuba to be a natural extension of his railroad. He ordered three ships from the Cramp Shipyard in Philadelphia based on the design of the Great Lakes rail ferries. Thus, in 1915, the Florida East Coast Railroad commenced sailings from Key West to Havana.
At the time, the railroads of the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Cuba all maintained the standard gauge trackage, which facilitated an easy interchange of equipment. Flagler’s ships could carry 30 large railcars on four sets of parallel tracks on the main deck. Additionally, access to three cargo holds was obtained via sideports in the hull, available for 900 tons of breakbulk cargo.
The Florida East Coast Railroad’s ships ran a regular and profitable service from 1915 to 1940. Southbound the ships carried machinery, vehicles and general cargo, while northbound the cargoes included fruit, tobacco, tomatoes, molasses and pineapple, enabling the most perishable cargoes to reach New York within four days after leaving Havana.
Left: The Grand Rapids, a typical Great Lakes rail ferry.
Right: The Grand Haven was built in 1903 for the Grand Trunk Railway. The ship sailed until 1962, when it was finally scrapped.
Due to the success of the service, Seatrain Lines of New York also entered the trade with its trainship in 1929.
The USS Salem, a Cuban rail ferry, was camouflaged as a mine layer during World War II.
After serving gallantly during World War II, the railcar-ferrying ships were released by the U.S. government in 1946. However, the Florida East Coast Railroad decided to sell the Cuban service.
At the time, the West India Fruit and Steamship Co., which was owned by the four Taylor brothers of Norfolk, Va., became interested in the trade. They acquired a laid-up Great Lakes rail ferry built in 1903 named Grand Haven and resumed the service from Florida to Havana.
As the service got into high gear, two of the original three ferries were acquired from the U.S. government, and seven sailings per week were offered. The 272-mile trip to Havana averaged 24 hours.
Loading railcars at night.
The Taylor brothers’ business to Havana grew and another trainship was acquired — the 1951-built New Grand Haven. In 1959, the yacht-like, 485-foot-long City of New Orleans, which was built in Japan and had a capacity of 62 railcars, joined the fleet. Throughout the 1950s, the traffic continued to grow along with the Cuban economy.
The State Department employed the company to evacuate American personnel. The evacuation onboard the rail ferries included the U.S. ambassador, NASA personnel and other governmental employees. The ships were only certified for 12 passengers, but they carried hundreds of people at a time.
Even after the U.S. embargo, the West India Fruit and Steamship Co. continued to operate for a few months. It had about 1,000 railcars stranded throughout the 3,100 miles of Cuban trackage and got all but 100 of them out of the country before it ceased operations in 1961. At this point, the rail ferries were laid up in Florida ports.
The City of New Orleans could carry 62 railcars at 18 knots.
The City of New Orleans, the flagship of the fleet, had made only 185 trips before being laid up and was in excellent condition. In 1963, the ship was purchased by the Alaska Trainship Corp., a subsidiary of the old Alaska Steamship Co. of Seattle.
Since the Jones Act forbids foreign-built and -flagged ships from entering domestic trades, an exemption was sought for the Japan-built, Liberian-flagged City of New of Orleans ship. After a long period of negotiations, it was decided to operate the ship out of New Westminster, British Columbia, to Whittier, Alaska. After some structural modifications to the ship, the 5,600-gross-ton Alaska sailed its maiden voyage on June 13, 1964.
The Alaska, the second career for the City of New Orleans, included a new protective stern door.
The ship began its third career in 1982 under the ownership of Gulf Canada Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia. With the new name, Gulf Kelugak, it served as a supply ship and sported a large helicopter deck in the Beaufort Sea. In 1984, the ship’s engines and propeller were removed, and it was converted to a barge and renamed Munakee. After three years, the former City of New Orleans sank off the Sakhalin Islands.
Although the people and the ships of this early and perhaps first intermodal service are no longer with us, the railroad tracks are. It is our hope that someday a new generation of rail ferries will once again sail across the Florida Straits to rejoin the U.S. and Cuba.
McNamara, who is retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau, currently serves as historian of the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and remains active in the maritime industry.