Back When Cruising Was Real Luxury
Morgan family yacht brought well heeled visitors to Alaska in late 40s
By DAVE KIFFER
May 03, 2018
Once upon a time, most visitors came in cramped steamships that were more a relic of the 19th Century than the modern cruise ships of the 21th Century. Passage was much more utilitarian back then. Unless you were on the Corsair IV, a world famous luxury yacht that briefly presaged the modern era of more luxurious cruising back in the late 1940s.
To refer to the Corsair IV, which operated in Alaska for Pacific Cruise Lines in 1948 and 1949, as a luxury yacht is entirely appropriate, because that's what she was.
The Corsair IV started out her seagoing life as the luxury yacht of the J.P. Morgan family, one of the richest families in the world. To accurately place the Corsair IV in its proper standing, you only have to look it up on the internet to come across a 2008 story about the ship in the online version of the "New York Social Register."
The Morgan family owned four different "Corsair" yachts over the years. The building and commissioning of each one was front page news. One of the earlier Corsair's was so luxurious that it was responsible for the most famous statement ever made about money in American history. A reporter had asked the family patriarch, J.P. Morgan, how much his new yacht cost to operate.
"Sir, if you have to ask, you can't afford it," Morgan legendarily replied.
The elder J.P. Morgan - considered preeminent American banker/industrialist at the turn of the 20th Century - was long gone by the time the Corsair IV was commissioned in 1930 by his son J.P. Morgan Jr.
The Corsair IV, a turbo-electric driven ship, was built at the famous Bath shipyard in Maine in 1930, during the first years of The Depression. The $2.5 million cost then translates to $60 million today, but one suspects it would cost 10 times that much to replicate a ship that would held be in similar esteem today. At 343 feet in length and more than 2,000 tons, it was, at the time, the largest yacht that had ever been built in the United States.
According to Michael Grace's 2008 story on the "New York Social Diary " website, J.P. Morgan Jr. brought three railcars of friends and family to Maine just to watch the ship launching in 1930. The launch itself was covered in the pages of numerous newspapers including the New York Times.
The yacht served the family for a decade where it was primarily used in the Caribbean. The ship also set a handful of cross Atlantic speed records before being turned over to the British Government in 1940 to take part in the War effort.
During the war the ship was used in the British Isles for important meetings and other ceremonial tasks. Winston Churchill reportedly took a liking to the Corsair IV and used it on several occasions, but generally it spent most of the war at the dock.
Following World War II, the steamship industry was slow to recover from having nearly all of its major assets - it's ships - involved in the war effort. For example, liner service between countries in the Pacific was very slow to reestablish itself. Commercial avation began to take off and that was a factor as well. By the early 1950s, steamship travel to Alaska was still just a shadow of what it was prior to the war.
But the steam lines also recognized that while other industries such as barge or airline companies were taking over the day to day needs of transportation, there was a largely untapped market, tourism, that had growth potential. The Alaska Steamship Company - which had always had an active tourism component - created Pacific Cruise Lines in 1946. Looking to stake its claim to the luxury cruise ship market, it purchased the Corsair IV for an undisclosed amount.
The name was changed from the Corsair IV to the Corsair and it was overhauled at Todd Shipyards in New York and the Victoria Machinery Depot in Victoria B.C.
Grace wrote that no expense was spared in the ship's conversion from luxury yacht to luxury cruise ship.
"In charge of her interior was the firm of William F. Schorn Associates of New York. Schorn was also responsible for giving the pre-war Moore-McCormick Liners cruising from New York to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay a much more contemporary look....This was not just a paint job but a total conversion...to create elegant surroundings for the line's future passengers."
And, compared to modern ships, there would not be many passengers, only 82, but they had significantly larger staterooms than in the normal classes today. The ship was the first of the "cruise ships" to feature beds and not berths and each stateroom had its own bath.
"The steward's department alone numbered more than 40," Grace wrote in 2008. "Each was responsible for the sole purpose of catering to the slightest desire of the carriage trade passengers. All public rooms were completely carpeted and air conditioned (as were) all bedrooms, sitting rooms and suites. Top European chefts were hired to create haute cuisine."
All told, there 76 crew members, nearly a 1-1 ratio with the passengers.
In September of 1947, the Corsair began offering two week cruises between Long Beach, California and Acapulco, Mexico. The standard rate was $600 or more than $6,700 in 2018 dollars.
Despite the cost, Grace noted that the company placed ads in national publications and demand was high enough to create a wait list. "Cruising" had become a thing, for those that could afford it.
In the summer of 1948, the Corsair began operating two-week cruises up the Inside Passage from Vancouver, British Columbia to Whittier, Alaska. From Whittier, passengers could ride a special train to Anchorage and on to what was then called Mt. McKinley National Park. Rates on the Alaska cruises ranged from $500 to $800 and once again they were popular enough to generate a waiting list for the better dates.
The next spring, the Mexico cruises were expanded to include visits to Havana, Cuba. In the summer of 1949, the ship returned again to the Inside Passage.
In October of 1949, it was back on its California to Mexico runs and that's where the story of the Morgan Yacht that became a cruise ship sadly ends.
On November 12, 1949 it struck a rock near Acapulco and was seriously damaged. All the crew and passengers were safely evacuated but the ship was deemed a total loss.
Even today, as cruise ships tout their high end accommodations and even the "cheap" berths on the ships maintain a level of sophistication that would be completely foreign to the old steam ships, there is no question that true "luxury" on the Inside Passage run began and ended with the Morgan's Corsair.
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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at email@example.com
Dave Kiffer ©2018
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