Liner History – Newfoundland’s RED CROSS STEAMSHIP LINE

World War I – D Company, First Newfoundland Regiment, lining rails of S.S. Stephano, ready to leave for overseas, March 20, 1915.

From the late 1800s until 1929, the main passenger and freight-carrying service between St. John’s, Newfoundland and New York (via Halifax, Nova Scotia) was provided by Bowring Brothers Ltd (aka The Red Cross Line). This company was owned and operated by a long established and very successful merchant family of Newfoundland. The firm was founded, about 1811, by Benjamin Bowring, a watch and clock maker, and a former native of Exeter, England. The firm expanded steadily under Benjamin’s management in the early decades of the 1800s. It continued to grow and prosper throughout later decades, as Benjamin’s sons, and eventually his grandsons, took over and guided the business. Their shipping business included routes to England, India, New Zealand, Australia and the West Coast of America. By 1880, the company had built up a fleet of trans-oceanic steamships, and in 1888 formed a new company, the English & American Shipping Co. Ltd., to operate passenger and cargo services, mostly between Liverpool, St. John’s and New York.

In 1884, Bowring Brothers Ltd. formed the New York, Newfoundland and Halifax Steamship Company, offering luxury passenger liner service. Known as The Red Cross Line, this company ran a passenger and freight service along the eastern seaboard, between St. John’s and New York, with a stop-over at Halifax. This steamship line took its name from the Bowring house (or family) flag, which consisted of a red X (St. Andrew’s Cross), on a white background. This family ensign was prominently displayed on the black smokestack(s) of their steamships. In the days before wireless, as ships neared St. John’s Harbour, they were first spotted and identified by lookouts on Signal Hill, high above the entrance to the harbour. The ship’s imminent arrival and its “house” was quickly relayed, to the city’s residents below, by the raising of the appropriate flag, high atop Signal Hill. A cannon was also fired to alert the city’s residents to the presence of the newly raised signal flag. This tradition of flag signaling continued on Signal Hill until 1958. It is still used today to ceremoniously signal the arrival of cruise ships or other important ships.

The two original steamships of the Red Cross Line were the SS Portia and its sister ship the SS Miranda. They could reach New York from St. John’s in about five days, even with the Halifax stop-over. This was a very popular service, and it did much to stimulate trade between these ports. From the manifests, it is obvious that it also stimulated emigration by many Newfoundlanders in search of adventure, employment, or a new way of life. Navigating the North Atlantic can be treacherous at the best of times, so it is not surprising that, by the turn of the century, both of these ships had been wrecked. The SS Miranda was lost in 1894 and the SS Portia, five years later, in 1899.

A few months before the loss of the the SS Miranda, she was replaced on the St. John’s to New York run by the SS Silvia (the first). This ship was purchased in 1892 from the Persian Gulf SS Co., London, and like most of the ships owned by Bowring Brothers Ltd., she was used for multiple purposes. An advertisement in McAlpine’s Gazeteer of 1898 states ” Red Cross Line (Harvey & Co.) S.S. Portia and S.S. Silvia between St. John’s, Halifax and New York about every 12 days, and in summer months take in Pelley’s Island (Pyrite Mines)”. It appears that in addition to their use in the mainstay passenger service, these ships also doubled as ore carriers for a period of time. Pilley’s Island, Notre Dame Bay, now a quiet fishing community, was once a bustling mining community. The mine closed for good in 1908, the same year that the SS Silvia was wrecked in Vineyard Sound, off Massachusetts.

A few years after the loss of the SS Portia in 1899, the SS Silvia was joined on the New York run by the SS Rosalind (the first). In 1902, this ship, formerly named the Admiral, was sold by the German East Africa Line, Hamburg to Bowring Brothers Ltd., and renamed the Rosalind. This ship faired much better than its sister ships. In 1912, after a decade of passenger and freight service to the Red Cross Line, the SS Rosalind was sold to St. Lawrence Shipping Co, Montreal, and renamed City of Sydney.

A year after the loss of the SS Silvia in 1908, the Red Cross Line added to the New York run, the newest steamship of its fleet – the SS Florizel. The SS Florizel was built in 1909 by C. O’Connell & Co. Ltd., of Glasgow, for the New York, Newfoundland, and Halifax SS Co. This ship, considered as the pride of the Red Cross Line, was a modern ship, with the latest communication technology of its era, and additional structural details. When launched, she was the only ship of her class afloat (i.e. icebreaker), being specially constructed to contend with heavy ice conditions. She was outfitted with wireless, and detection equipment for submarine signals. The SS Florizel was used almost exclusively in the passenger and freight trade. However, during World War I, she was used as a troop transport ship on several occasions. Taking full advantage of her custom icebreaking capability, the SS Florizel was also used in the early spring, off the northern Newfoundland coast, as part of the annual seal hunting fleet.

With the sale of the SS Rosalind in 1912, the SS Florizel was joined on the New York run by another Red Cross ship, the SS Stephano. The SS Stephano, like its sister ship the SS Florizel, was mainly involved in the passenger and freight trade along the eastern seaboard, but saw service in the annual seal hunt as well. She too was used for the transport of Newfoundland troops to England in World War I. Revenge for her part in the British war effort came on October 8, 1916. On that date, the SS Stephano was torpedoed and sunk, off Nantucket, by the German submarine, U-53. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, since the passengers and crew were safely allowed to abandon the ship, after the ship was boarded and looted by the Germans. However, the outcome may have been more tragic, if not for the presence of several US destroyers. Although they immediately picked up the crew and passengers (most of them being US citizens), they did not interfere with the looting, nor take any action to prevent the U boat from sinking the SS Stephano.

In less than a year and a half after the sinking of the SS Stephano, the SS Florizel too met her tragic fate on an out-bound voyage from St. John’s to New York. This loss, however, was not at the hands of the German navy, but due to what was later ruled to be navigational errors. In the early hours of Sunday morning, February 24, 1918, still battling a winter storm, the SS Florizel’s captian, William Martin, altered course westward towards Halifax. Although uncertain of his exact position, he believed the ship had safely passed and cleared the headland at Cape Race, on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. A short while later, at full speed, the ship struck the rocks off Horn Head Point near CappaHayden, to the north, and well short of Cape Race. For the next day, the fury of the seas smashed the ship up against the rugged coastline, tragically taking 94 lives out of the SS Florizel’s 78 passengers and 60 crew members. It was not until the early morning of February 25, 1918, that rescuers where finally able to pluck the forty-four weary survivors from what remained of the ill-fated steamship.

With the loss of both the SS Stephano and the SS Florizel, continuance of the passenger service was handled on an interim basis by the sister ships SS Prospero and SS Portia (the second). Both of these ships, built at Glasgow in 1904 specifically for C.T. Bowering & Co., were being used primarily in the local Newfoundland coastal passenger and freight service. It was mainly the Prospero that filled the void until another ship, originally known as the Lady Gwendolen, was purchased in 1919. She was bought from the Dundee, Perth & London Shipping Co. Bowrings’ renamed this ship the SS Rosalind, the third ship in their fleet to carry that name. This ship continued on the New York run and eventually became part of the Furniss Whitty Red Cross Line. In 1922, the SS Rosalind was joined by another ship on the St. John’s to New York run. This ship renamed the SS Silvia (third), was built in 1909, and was formerly known as the Orel. She was purchased from the Russian Volunteer Fleet. In 1929, she was also part of the sale when Bowrings sold the Red Cross Line to the Bermuda & West Indies SS Co., Hamilton.

In addition to the heavy losses outlined above, many other ship losses were experienced globally by the Red Cross Line in the late 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s. In 1919, in what was probably an effort to recover from major financial setbacks to the Bowring’s business, the English & American Shipping Co. was liquidated, and a new company “The Bowring Steamship Co.” was formed. However, in 1929, the Bowrings’ Red Cross Line was sold and their ships transferred to Furness Withy & Co’s – Bermuda & West Indies SS Co. The passenger trade dropped about this time and the Bowrings decided to concentrate on their oil tanker, iron ore and freight business.

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