Cuba, “So Near And Yet So Foreign”: A Wolfsonian Glimpse Into An Era of Easy Access from the U.S. by Ship
Even as most travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba remained illegal, as early as the summer of 2013 the American tour company, Road Scholar, began offering U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned “people-to-people” trips to the island with educational and cultural exchange itineraries. Road Scholar visitors could travel by chartered flights, or could travel by ship from Jamaica and Miami to Havana. Now, after more than fifty years of a policy of embargo, the Obama Administration has restored diplomatic ties, reopened an American embassy in Havana, and signaled its receptivity to potentially lifting the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba sometime in the near future. Ironically, after so many years of isolation, the island has truly become for most Americans a destination “so near and yet so foreign.” Ironically, this was the slogan coined by the (pre-Castro) Cuban Tourist Commission, which was intent on playing up Cuba’s exoticism to attract American visitors in the 1940s and 1950s.
Today’s blog post will take a look at some promotional materials from this earlier era when travel to the island “only 90 miles from Key West” was a simple thing for American tourists.
As I prepared to launch a new Wolfsonian-FIU library exhibition, “Miami Beach: From Mangrove to Tourist Mecca,” I chanced across an old photograph while rummaged through the Washington Storage Archive. On the verso of the vintage photo of The City of Miami was a handwritten note dated 1920 claiming that this was “the only ship in 1920 running between Miami + Havana, Winters only.” It would not monopolize the trade for long.
THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU, WASHINGTON STORAGE COMPANY ARCHIVE
The Munson Steamship Line’s first passenger liner, the Munamar, had been built by Maryland Steel in Baltimore, and after the First World War served the eastern Cuba route. The New York based firm continued to offer cruises with stops in Nassau, Miami, and Havana until the company declared bankruptcy in 1937.
Eastern Steamship Line’s S.S. Evangeline, built in 1927 to accommodate more than 751 passengers, offered cruises of various lengths and regular weekly runs between the ports of New York, Nassau, Miami and Havana.
Clyde-Mallory Lines had a couple of ships providing direct overnight passenger service between Miami (“A Nation’s Winter Playland) and Havana (“Paris of the Western World”) during the winter season of 1929/30.
Even after the onset of the Great Depression, the Clyde-Mallory Lines’ S.S. Iroquois and S.S. Evangeline continued to offer summer vacation getaway packages with stops in Miami and Havana. In fact, the S.S. Evangeline’s sister ship, the S.S. Yarmouth, sailed out from the port of Havana on January 1, 1959, the same day that Fulgencio Batista formally resigned his position as head of state, and afterwards boarded a plane at 3 a.m. and flew to the Dominican Republic.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. LOAN
The P&O (Peninsular & Occidental) Steamship Company also had a couple of ships regularly sailing to our island neighbors to the south. The S.S. Cuba sailed to Havana, Cuba from Tampa, and returned by way of Key West, Florida.
Built in 1931 and capable of accommodating more than 600 passengers as well as automobiles, the P&O’s S.S. Florida was also sailing between Miami, Key West, and Havana in the thirties.
Passenger services were interrupted in the wake of the 1934 hurricane that destroyed the terminal and railway connections to Miami, and were suspended during the Second World War, but resumed in the postwar period until the Castro regime closed Cuba to cruise ships in 1960s. After that, the S.S. Florida sailed between Miami and the Bahamas.
THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU, VICKI GOLD LEVI COLLECTION
P&O even encouraged passengers taking the S.S. Florida to Cuba to explore the island in their own automobiles, as the ship was “equipped for safe and rapid automobile handling.”
Although primarily a cargo ship operation, the United Fruit Company’s “Great White Fleet” also carried tourists to “Cuba…pearl of the Antilles” and other ports of call.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT
United Fruit’s six great sister ships offered “Complete Facilities for Fun on Deck,” “spacious” public areas, and “attractive” staterooms for 95 passengers in “exclusively first class accommodations.”
The West India Fruit & Steamship Company’s City of Havana Special also provided convenient ferry service from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba.
In the years leading up to the Cuban revolution, the cruise line industry increasingly had to compete with airlines for passengers interested in visiting the island, but that will be the subject of a future post.