Queen of Sea Routes - SSHA/Purple Mountain Press


by Edward A. Mueller
Edwin L. Dunbaugh, Contributing Editor

From Chapter XIII, Merchants and Miners Ships at War, 1942-1945:

"Dorchester, also assigned to the Greenland route, was to meet a far more tragic end. The government took possession of Dorchester on November 1, 1941, more than a month before the United States entered the war. Her conversion into an Army troopship involved adding several gun tubs on her open decks. During 1942 Dorchester made several successful runs from New York or Boston to Greenland through the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic.

On what turned out to be her last trip Dorchester left New York on January 23, 1943, and headed north to Newfoundland. On January 29, she steamed out of St. Johns, Newfoundland, as part of Convoy SG-19, headed for Greenland by way of the outside route on the Atlantic side of Labrador rather than through the Belle Isle Strait. Aboard her were 751 military personnel and others, plus her crew of 130, and twenty-three members of the Navy Armed Guard, a total of 904 people. In her hold she was carrying about 1,000 tons of cargo and sixty bags of mail and packages. Among the other vessels in Convoy SG-19 were two cargo ships, Oslo and Lutz, and three Coast Guard cutters, Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche, serving as escorts.

As the convoy was making its way northward toward Greenland in the dark of the early morning of February 3, a torpedo struck Dorchester on her starboard side. With her hull open to the sea, Dorchester slowly rolled over on her side and then sank in about twenty-five minutes. When his ship was hit, Captain Hans Jorgen immediately ordered "Abandon Ship," but only two of the fourteen lifeboats on board could be successfully lowered. The crew cut several life rafts loose, so that they would float free as the ship went under. Some of those aboard the sinking vessel jumped overboard, but in these freezing waters they had little chance of survival. Of the 904 aboard Dorchester, 675 lost their lives. Only 229 survived.

As Dorchester was going down, the heroic actions of four army chaplains aboard who sacrificed their own lives to save others became one of the legends of this terrible war. All four of the chaplains were First Lieutenants, and three of them had only recently been appointed to military duty. Pastor Clark V. Poling of the Reformed Church of America was from Philadelphia; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was from Washington, D.C.; Father John P. Washington was from Newark, New Jersey; and George L. Fox, a Methodist minister, was from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. As Dorchester was sinking, the chaplains were assisting in handing out life jackets. When they saw that there were no more life jackets, each of the four gave his jacket to one of the men. According to one of the survivors, the four chaplains "led those on board the vessel in prayer, and gave their own life jackets to others, creating a saga of faith and heroism that will long remain an inspiration to all those who believe in God and love their country."

As recently as the early decades of the twentieth century an exciting adventure available to Americans was a short ocean voyage aboard one of the ships of the Merchants and Miners LIne. Standing at the railing of a Merchants and Miners ship as she pulled slowly away from her wharf in Boston or Baltimore to start a cruise of two or three days to Charleston, Jacksonville, or Miami, could be as exhilarating as a departure aboard one of the large liners sailing from Europe. The first history of this important passenger and freight line has been published by Purple Mountain Press and the Steamship Historical Society of American of Providence, Rhode Island.

The home port of the Merchants and Miners Line was Baltimore, and although company ships also steamed into Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston, Jacksonville, and even Miami, it was one of the few major coastal lines that did not regularly serve the port of New York. The first trip of a Merchants and Miners vessel was in 1852 when a group of Baltimore "Merchants" decided to start a steamship line between Baltimore and Boston. One local product in demand by New England factories was coal mined in the western part of Maryland and areas farther west. This accounted for the "Miners" in the name of the new company. Promotional pieces called the company "The Queen of Sea Routes."

Service began with two small wooden sidewheel steamships. The line was so prosperous from the start that soon much larger steamships were needed, and within a few years the Merchants and Miners Line initiated a second route between Baltimore and Providence, Rhode Island.

Although most of its fleet was taken for service in teh Civil War, after the war ended business was better than ever, and many new and larger vessels were added. During the post-war years new routes were established to Charleston and other southern ports. By the early twentieth century the Merchants and Miners Line, one of the largest and most successful coastal steamship lines in America, was operating a large fleet of modern steel-hulled passenger and freight steamships to ports along the American coast. When southern Florida became a winter resort, short ocean cruises aboard Merchants and Miners steamships became a popular way for families to travel from Boston, Philadelphia, or Baltimore to the sunshine, beaches, and elegant hotels of Miami or Palm Beach.

The decline of business in the 1930s was due only in part to the Depression. The increasing use of trucks for freight and private automobiles for passengers also hurt. German submarines began sinking American vessels along our coast after the United States entered World War II in 1941, and it was no longer possible for the Merchants and Miners Line to remain in business.

During World War II all of the Merchants and Miners fleet served our country carrying troops and supplies to Europe and the Pacific. Many of these ships were lost, including the Dorchester with its four chaplains--a priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers--who gave up their life jackets and went down with the ship so more of the young American soldiers onboard could be saved.

By the time the war ended, few Merchants and Miners Line ships had survived, and even the survivors were no longer fit for peacetime service. The cost of reconditioning ships became prohibitive due to post-war inflation. In 1952 the once-famous line, that offered short, relaxing, and inexpensive cruises, gave up after 100 years. Today there are no American passenger ships at all operating to our ports along the Atlantic Coast.

185 pages, 175 illustrations, 8.5 x 11, index, 1999
$37.50 hardcover
A Purple Mountain Press-Steamship Historical Society of America original

Copyright © 2000 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.