S.S. Leviathan (ex-Vaterland) 1914-1938

This article originally appeared in the September, 1937, edition of Fortune magazine.


The Leviathan

A Portfolio by Margaret Bourke-White

Hoboken is a grimy patch of waterfront on the Jersey shore of the Hudson River across from Manhattan.  There in 1917 government agents boarded the four-year-old Hamburg-American liner Vaterland and seized her from the enemies of the United States.  A few months later, bearing a Hebraic name (Leviathan) and humbled beneath an alien flag, the great ship began carrying American soldiers in loads of 10,000 to fight against her gray armies.  After the War the U.S. Shipping Board reconditioned the Leviathan at a cost of about $10,000,000 and operated her as a passenger liner until 1929.  Thereafter, through a succession of frenzied deals, she passed to the present U.S. Lines, for which she consistently lost money.  After losing $500,000 on five voyage in 1934, the company tied her up, preferring to pay the government a $500,000 fine for not sailing her in 1935 and 1936 rather than try to compete with her modern rivals.  Last December the sailing contract with the government expired, but the U.S. Lines must maintain the Leviathan (at a cost of $150,000 per year) until it builds a replacement ship.  Meanwhile at Hoboken―Pier Four―in indecent view of travelers on liners and commuter ferries, lies the old "Levi"―scorned, neglected, decayed; her paint blistered, her plates rust-pocked, her anchors ignominiously fouled by nesting birds.

"She found a home...beneath the New World's star...and as the Summer sunbeams on her fall, she bids us all from care to find release."  Thus in 1923 Commissioner Edward C. Plummer (Maine) of the Shipping Board apostrophized the Leviathan.  The summer sunbeams of 1937 found her ready for the scrap heap; but the government, mindful of the Leviathan's prodigious performance as a troop transport, will not hear of abandonment until a replacement is built.  Of numerous schemes for her disposal, the most likely is conversion to a training ship.  Meanwhile a standby crew of twenty-two men is required to maintain her hull and engines in good condition and to keep up a small head of steam in winter. Above decks, the funnels alone are kept painted, not for esthetic effect but because the metal is so thin the rust would quickly eat holes in it.  Some of the crew live in the old officers' quarters above, without running water.


The splendor that was the Leviathan: Grand Salon and Palm Gardens

The incredibly depressing aspect of the Leviathan today is well suggested by the accompanying pictures.  Observe the watchman making his hourly round, groping through the murk by flashlight.  (Figure 10.)  (The single electric cable from shore lights only a few odd corners.  The pictures were made by the photographer's flash.)  Elsewhere in the ship's interior the privileged prowler would note the crumbling tile in the swimming pool; the wall clocks stopped at various hours, like confused epitaphs; the house flag lying crumpled and stained under a lard pail; a cat lapping milk from the ship's china; the absurd signs warning against professional gamblers; and the player piano in the salon, heaped with record rolls, of which the topmost, too impossibly, is entitled The Song Has Ended.


For First-Class Passengers Only

The standby crew aboard the Leviathan detest their assignment.  The work is drudgery, the surroundings a bore, living conditions are far from pleasant.  Being good seafaring men, they suffer with the shame of their ship's degradation and resent its exhibition.  Thus they muster what pride they can, in pointing out the suite once occupied by Rumania's Queen Marie and the very bed she slept in.  (Figure 11.)  The finger tracings in the dust of the washbowl, by a bored crew man, represent Her Majesty and one of her entourage.  (Figure 12.)


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Images are from the Eric Sauder Collection.


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