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A rare photograph of the Persia before she became the Minnewaska

S.S. Minnewaska

Other names: Persia, USAT Thomas
Sisters: Prussia, Dominion
Builder: Harland & Wolff, Belfast, yard number 282
Launched May 8, 1894; delivered: July 15, 1894; broken up 1929
Hull: length 445' 6"; beam 50' 2"; 5,713 tons; 1 funnel; 4 masts
Power: twin screws; triple expansion engines by builder with cylinders of 22 ½", 36 ½", and 60" diameter, stroke 48"; 499 n.h.p.
Steam pressure 165 lbs.; coal consumption 60 tons per day; 14 knots
Registered in London; official number 108287

 

This ship was built as the Persia for the Hamburg America Line's service to New York. She was bought by the Atlantic Transport Line in 1897 because she was "practically a sister" to the Massachusetts class of ships. She was renamed Minnewaska (which means “clear water”) and employed on the Atlantic Transport Line's New York service. She is recorded in the Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals making just three voyages between March and May 1898. In that same year of 1898 Country Life published a brief article about the Atlantic Transport Line's new stables at the Albert Docks, which also describes a luncheon given on board the Minnewaska and a tour of her accommodation for horses.

The Minnewaska was one of six Atlantic Transport Line ships bought by the U.S. government for service as transports during the Spanish-American War. She was purchased on July 26, 1898 for $660,000. In June 1898, immediately before her sale, Minnewaska was under the command of Captain Richard Griffiths, commodore of the line.

The Minnewaska was ready to sail when the sales were agreed and was permitted to make her voyage before she was handed over. Her conversion to a transport was not completed in time for her to serve during the war, but she was retained afterwards for the new Army transport service. She was refitted for this long-term role, was renamed Thomas after General George Henry Thomas, a hero of the Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, and allocated to the Pacific fleet.

The Thomas could accommodate 100 officers, 1,200 men and 1,000 horses as well as a large amount of cargo including refrigerated meat. She was soon employed on the regular service connecting San Francisco with Manila. At this time vessels going to and from the Philippines made a point of stopping and raising the American flag on Wake Island before it was formally annexed by the United States in 1899. One of these, in July 1898, was the Thomas. The Peace Corps tradition was arguably started by the Thomasites, a group of educators who got their name from the Thomas. This ship brought the first batch of 540 American teachers and some of their family members to initiate a new era of public education in the Philippines in August 1901.

On October 12, 1922, a fire broke out on board the Los Angeles Steamship Company liner City of Honolulu about 600 miles from California. Captain Lester gave the order to abandon ship at 8 a.m. The disaster was dubbed "ship wreck de luxe" because the ship's orchestra played jazz as passengers were loaded into the boats, which the chief steward had provisioned with roast chicken, delicacies from the galley, and copious supplies of drink and cigarettes. The passengers and crew were picked up by a freighter, but as it had no accommodation for them they were all transferred to the Thomas when she arrived at the scene. The Thomas was heading for San Francisco, but Harry Chandler, the owner of the line, had her diverted to Los Angeles to avoid the waiting newspaper reporters and avert a media disaster.

The Thomas made several trips to the orient from New York via the Panama Canal, but was used mainly on the Manila run, stopping at Honolulu and Guam on the westward trip, and Nagasaki and Chinwantago in China on the return voyage. She was the last of the more than 50 transports acquired by the U.S. government in 1898 to remain in service and was eventually sold for scrap in July 1928.

Sources: The Atlantic Transport Line, 1881-1931; The Ships List; Passenger Ships of the World Past and Present, Eugene W. Smith, Massachusetts, 1977; The Transport Service, by Patrick McSherry; http://peacecorpsonline.org; www.maritimematters.com; The New York Times, June 25, 1898

A rare photograph of the Persia before she became the Minnewaska
A rare photograph of the Persia before she became the Minnewaska

Photo of Thomas at sea, belching smoke, and close to home judging by the crowds on deck (Kinghorn)
The Thomas at sea, belching smoke, and close to home judging by the crowds on deck (Kinghorn)

A tinted postcard showing a group of mechanics posing with the Thomas in the dockyard in Oakland, California (Kinghorn)
A tinted postcard showing a group of mechanics posing with the Thomas in the dockyard in Oakland, California (Kinghorn)

This wonderful tinted postcard of the (pre earthquake?) waterfront at San Francisco shows an unladen Thomas tied up at the U.S. Army pier (Kinghorn)
This wonderful tinted postcard of the (pre earthquake?) waterfront at San Francisco shows an unladen Thomas tied up at the U.S. Army pier (Kinghorn)

Photo poatcars of a transport coalng at Nagasaki, possibly Thomas
A photo postcard of the Thomas at the pier in Manila (Kinghorn).

Photo poatcars of a transport coalng at Nagasaki, possibly Thomas
A photo postcard of a U.S. army transport — which appears to be the Thomas — coaling at Nagasaki c.1910 (Kinghorn).

Tinted photo postcard of Thomas coaling at Nagasakiphoto postcard of Thomas coaling
Two photo postcards of the Thomas coaling in Nagasaki (eBay)

Photo poatcars of a transport coalng at Nagasaki, possibly ThomasPhoto postcard of the Thomas at sea
Two postcards of the Thomas at sea, the one to the right mailed on Hawaii in 1909 (Both eBay)

 

For more information ...

Kinghorn "The Atlantic Transport Line 1881 - 1931" McFarland, 2011

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