Amazing Grace

Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Genevieve Rossin, a Florida International University History department graduate student researcher here at The Wolfsonian whose position has been funded through the generosity of museum library supporter and cruise ship line aficionado, Thomas C. Ragan. Ms. Rossin has been processing various cruise-related items to the collection, including a substantial donation of Grace Line materials recently gifted by Elise Grace Holloway and her late brother, William Grace Holloway III. Here is her report: 

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As an intern working at The Wolfsonian–FIU, each day seems to present a unique and exciting glimpse into the past as I process everything from advertisements clipped from Time Magazine to cruise line industry brochures, deck plans, and souvenirs. Each artifact plays a role in providing scholars with a more complete historical narrative. Having the opportunity to process, catalogue, and prepare for digitization a substantial new collection of ocean liner materials donated to the museum by Elise Grace Holloway and her brother, William Grace Holloway III, I have come away with a greater understanding of luxury passenger travel in the 20th century. Heir to one of America’s most prominent merchant lines, Elise Grace Holloway gifted enough Grace Line printed ephemera, porcelain, glass, and silverware to The Wolfsonian as to make any ship enthusiast giddy!

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The most revealing item in the collection is a 16-page document produced by Grace Line’s Public Relations Department tracing its history back to the 1850s. It is from this newsletter, dated March 20, 1956, that I gained an understanding of Grace Line’s values and the integral role they played in shaping transportation in the Americas. Grace Line’s story begins with the W. R. Grace and the M. P. Grace. These Down Easter ships were known for their speed—outpacing the competition by completing the route from New York to San Francisco in less than the standard four-month time span.

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Grace Line built their business through transporting both people and goods between the Americas, and doing it with speed. Although many cruise-line enthusiasts remember Grace Line’s luxurious “Santa” cruise ships, passenger travel only made up 30% of their revenue prior to the 1930s. In their early years, imports and exports dominated Grace Line’s business model, as the company made sizable investments in the textile, lumber, and coffee industries. In fact, the company claimed to have carried most of the lumber to the New York harbor used in the construction of the city’s subway system. To improve their routes and travel times, Grace Line, along with other merchant shipping companies, were early advocates for the United States’ completion of the Panama Canal. With the completion of the canal in 1914,  Grace Line’s very own Santa Clara became one of the first commercial ships to pass through, months before its official opening. The canal remained integral to the success of Grace Line’s routes and was proudly advertised on their brochures and pamphlets well into the 1950s and 1960s.

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Although Grace Line ships did carry passengers on many of their early merchant vessels, it was not until 1928—with the passage of the Jones-White Act—that Grace Line shifted their attention to passenger accommodations. The Jones-White Act allowed American merchant companies to obtain ship-construction loans, marine insurance, and long-term mail contracts that helped support domestic shipbuilding and the shipping industry.

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With funds acquired through this act, four new Santa ships were built to serve as Grace Line’s earliest fleet of passenger liners. Once again, Grace Line ships were lauded for their speed. The new Santa Clara received plenty of praise from the New York Times after reaching the Panama Canal in less than 5 days after her departure from New York. These new “Santa” ships held upwards of 200 passengers and offered the finest in accommodations. During their voyages in the Western Hemisphere, guests enjoyed deluxe suites with living rooms and private baths; dined and danced in luxurious dining rooms and dance halls; drank cocktails and smoked tobacco products in swank bars and lounges; and swam in outdoor pools.

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It was also during this period that Grace Line found it in its best interest to join its newest competitors from the air. In 1928, Grace Line partnered with Pan American Airways to create Pan-American Grace Airways, or Panagra. As part of this agreement, New York-based Grace Line and Miami-based Pan American Airways entered a non-competition clause, which limited Grace Line’s opportunities for growth in South Florida. Panagra flights were coordinated with the arrival and departures of Grace Line’s cruise ships and linked New York to the great coastal cities of South America.

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It was not always smooth sailing for Grace Line. In September, 1935, the Santa Barbara collided with the lightship Ambrose off the coast of Staten Island. Despite sustaining three holes in her hull, the Santa Barbara made it safely to the pier in the Hudson River, with none of her passengers hurt.

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Perhaps the most intriguing part of Grace Line’s history is its involvement in the Second World War. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Santa Paula sailed to Dakar on secret orders to transport equipment and able technicians. Grace Line’s ships played crucial roles in the invasion of North Africa and the Normandy landings. Assisting in an Allied victory in Egypt, the Santa Rosa helped deliver tanks while Santa Paula carried troops and equipment to the battlefront. Their efforts were not without loss. The Santa Elena was hit by torpedoes off the coast of Algeria, the Santa Lucia sank off the coast of Morocco, and the Santa Clara was struck by mines on the coast of Normandy. Following the conclusion of the war, Grace Line was applauded for its faithful service and the Santa Rosa and the Santa Paula returned in heroic form.

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In the postwar period, Grace Line returned to the world of luxurious cruise line travel. The company remained prominent players in transportation and communication between the Americas until its acquisition by Prudential Line in 1970. Still today, admirers reminisce about the days when the green, white, and black funnels of Grace’s “Santa” ships sailed the sea.

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~ by "The Chief" on February 15, 2018.

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