Morro Castle, Mohawk and the End of the Ward Line : Part One

2. Meeting the British Challenge


American Firm Planning to meet Competition of British Line.

As an answer to the entry of British tonnage on the New York-Havana run, the Ward Steamship Line, American owned, today announced it had let contacts to the Newport News Shipbuilding Company to build two new twenty knot turbo-electric liners. The two ships will represent and investment of almost $10,000,000.00. It is expected that they will be completed by November 1, 1930.



The shipping board already had loaned the liner President Roosevelt to the Ward Line to compete with the Cunard liner Caronia, which is now on her first trip to Cuba. Cunard officials said they did so because they thought that there was a demand for such a ship on that run.

The two new vessels, when completed are to replace the Siboney and Orizaba, which will then be placed in the New York-Mexico service.

The new vessels will be twin screw, 15,000 gross tons each, with accommodations for 468 passengers.

(January 2, 1929)

So began the story of the Ward Line’s greatest achievement, the 1930 introduction of the Morro Castle and Oriente.


An earlier Morro Castle

The Ward Line, more formally known as the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Company was 49 years old in 1929, and for just short of half a century had been providing dependable service to Cuba and Mexico. The line’s previous “golden years” had been at the turn of the century when a fleet of nine progressively larger and more elaborate ships was constructed, beginning with the 360′ Havana in 1899, and culminating with the 430′ Saratoga in 1907. In that year, the line was taken over along with the Clyde, Porto Rico and Mallory lines by C.W. Morse who was attempting to create an I.M.M.-like corporation. The resulting company, Atlantic Gulf and West Indies Line (AGWI) survived the notorious collapse of Morse’s empire after less than a year, but it would be over a decade before another Ward liner was built.


Steamships “ORIZABA and SIBONEY”
14,000 Tons — Length 443 Feet — Beam 60 Feet — Depth 35 Feet.

The Siboney and Orizaba of 1918, twin funneled liners of 444′ with a capacity of 444 passengers in two classes were launched and completed just in time to be requisitioned for war duty. Both served with distinction through 1918 [Troopship Orizaba 1918] and 1919, and were returned to the Ward Line in time to enter service in 1920. Their respective first years were spent in service between New York City and Bilbao, Spain, but in September 1921 they were transferred to the New York – Havana – Vera Cruz run.

A Voyage on the Siboney or Orizaba

Taste, of course, is entirely subjective and viewed though present-day eyes the interiors of Orizaba and Siboney seem refreshingly light and spacious in comparison to those of most of their contemporaries.

oriente_mexico morro_castle_mexico_p1 morro_castle_mexico_p2 morro_castle_mexico_p3 morro_castle_mexico_p4

Mexico Cruise Brochure

orizaba_passenger_list wl1a ward_line_cigarette_lighter_gm

Orizaba Passenger List, Ward Line Publicity, Souvenir Lighter

The two deck Lounge and Music Room on each ship prefigured Art Deco by half a decade and, were it not for the fluted Doric columns which defined the perimeter of the central well, the room could have fit comfortably on a vessel of the late 1930s. Similarly, there were Doric columns in their dining rooms, but the overall impression was made by the geometric precision of the room rather than by its sparing use of applied ornament. The interiors were predominantly white painted, there was an emphasis on natural light, and a refreshing lack of clutter. However, one cannot escape the impression that, by 1921 standards, what now appears to be smart minimalism probably looked plain, cheap and ‘incomplete’ compared to the richly decorated late Edwardian interiors of most other liners. However, the food was excellent, the service described as informal but competent, and the ships dependable.

PHIL shipbuilder pre MORRO CASTLE 31 PHIL shipbuilder pre MORRO CASTLE 41 PHIL shipbuilder pre MORRO CASTLE ward line 51 PHIL shipbuilder pre MORRO CASTLE 6

A 1926 letter written aboard the Orizaba and mailed from Durban, South Africa, reads:

My Very Dear:

I seem to be really awake for the first time since leaving New York- we had a grand first night on board and yesterday slept most of the 24 hours. Today is grand- the crowd is a bit conglomerate! Mostly females, but enough of the opposite sex to spur you to activities- deck sports, horse racing & you know what are offered at various times during the day with some dancing at night.

Our stateroom is A. no. 1 – cool & spacious with a private bath so this is ‘no kick’ cruising.

We discovered one of my pals from Vassar, which was pleasant.

We are due in Havana tomorrow for half a day and we hope to make Sloppy Joe’s at least. We should be in Mexico City by the 3rd if we don’t get marooned at Sloppy Joe’s.

The boat is comfortable & food good. It is not de luxe, but very satisfactory. The officers are ‘passing fair’ but you should see the cruise director! My word!

Corinne and I are getting along well. My deck- or the desk at which I am writing is in a very jittery spot. It seems the Orizaba has one peculiar screw which does odd things as it turns-but they say it is okay!

I was glad to get your letter after we left- for I do miss you! I’ll send you further missives from other ports and in the mean time all my love-


The line ‘not de luxe but very satisfactory’ sums up the problem the Ward Line faced when Cunard announced that they were entering the Cuba service. Only two units of the Ward fleet dated from after 1910, and although the Caronia was as old as most of the Ward Line vessels she offered a perceived level of elegance and maintained an aura of ‘class’ that even the best of the American-based line could not hope to match.

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