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Queen Mary

Then and Now

by Alan Walker

If you're planning to cruise on the Queen Mary, and your plane is running late, don't sweat it because the Queen Mary hasn't left Long Beach Harbor since it docked there 31 years ago.

It seems there has been a resurgence of interest in the "grand era of sailing" in the last few years. Of course, the Titanic movie has had a big effect, but even prior to that, TV programs like "Floating Palaces" brought new awareness of the classic days of trans-Atlantic travel before the advent of jet planes.

The real purpose of this article is to relate to those SeaLetter readers who haven't had the chance to see the Queen Mary as she is today sitting at Long Beach, what a fascinating experience it is to visit. Any time you are about to cruise from Los Angeles north to Vancouver and Alaska, south to Mexico or the Panama Canal, or even west to Hawaii, consider spending a few hours - or better still - a whole night, at the Queen Mary, only a short taxi ride from the Los Angeles cruise terminal at San Pedro.

The Queen Mary would have been famous in any event, but her great tradition is enhanced by the fact that she is the only passenger liner now surviving that cruised in the glory years between 1930 and the late 1960's.

Queen Mary in Long Beach
The Queen Mary today. Only the specially-designed breakwater gives away that the Queen Mary is permanently docked.

How Old Is She?

A ship's age can be measured a number of different ways: commencement of construction (usually called "laying of the keel"), launching, or her inaugural cruise. The Queen Mary had a slower start than most. As far back as 1926, the British shipping line, Cunard, started planning for two giant liners who could make weekly crossings between New York and Southampton, but it wasn't until December 31, 1930, that work started on the first of the ships, the Queen Mary, at the John Brown Shipyards on the Clyde River in Scotland. The ship, at 81,237 tons and 1,019 feet in length, was to be far larger than anything else afloat - and with a few exceptions, the Queen Mary still is. The Titanic, by comparison, was 46,328 tons, and the original Love Boat, the Pacific Princess, is only 20,000 tons.

The worldwide depression of the 1930's caused Cunard to shut down construction just a year later until, in March of 1934, upon the amalgamation of Britain's White Star Line with Cunard, the British government provided a subsidy to allow work to continue. In the meantime, the French government had funded the building of the Normandie, slightly smaller than the Queen Mary at 79,280 tons, but a little longer at 1,027 feet. More on the Normandie later.


Queen Mary was launched on September 26, 1934, and towed to Southampton for the installation of her engines and other equipment. May 14, 1936, saw her inaugural cruise, and that same year the Queen Mary claimed the "Blue Riband", the mythical award for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic. The Queen Mary's average speed was almost 32 knots, about 37 miles an hour. Although the Queen Mary subsequently lost the award to the Normandie, she regained the honour in 1938 and held it until 1952 when the SS United States took it (for perhaps all time).

Observation Bar
Part of the first class Art Deco lounge,
now called the Observation Bar.

The Glory Days

The finest years for the Queen Mary were its first three years with no rivals, other than the Normandie. Many at the time said the Normandie was the classier ship - the French decor was new and exciting compared to the dowdy Queen Mary. The French were also able to claim that the Normandie was the bigger ship, because a large deckhouse was subsequently built on one of her aft decks, increasing her tonnage to 83,000 (as most probably know, the "tonnage" of a passenger ship is a measure of her enclosed volume, not her weight).


The Queen Elizabeth

The outbreak of World War II saw both the Queen Mary and the Normandie holed up in New York, and subsequently the Queen Mary's sister ship, the larger Queen Elizabeth (at 83,673 tons) joined them. But only the Queen Mary survived. The Queen Elizabeth had the bad luck to be still under construction at the start of the war. She was secretly sailed in March of 1940 to New York for finishing, and then became a troop ship. It wasn't until 1946 that the Queen Elizabeth finally got to be a passenger cruise ship, and by that time, some of her 1930's furnishings made her look past her prime. Although the Queen Elizabeth paired very successfully with the Queen Mary on trans-Atlantic crossings for the next 20 years, the advances in air travel with jet service doomed the Queen Elizabeth, and most other great liners of that era. To finish up the Queen Elizabeth's story, it was sold to Hong Kong interests who planned to turn the her into a floating university. But a fire in 1972 (in suspicious circumstances) destroyed the Queen Elizabeth - not because of the fire itself, but because the ship capsized from all the water poured on to her by fire boats. I'm told that you can take a tour in Hong Kong and see the Queen Elizabeth in her final underwater resting place.

The Normandie

The Normandie suffered a similar fate as the Queen Elizabeth, but much earlier. After the U.S. entered World War II, the U.S. government claimed the Normandie from the Vichy French, and renamed her the USS Lafayette. In February of 1942 while modifications to the Normandie were taking place in order to convert her to a troop carrier, a welding accident started a fire, and she capsized 12 hours later from all of the water that the fire boats poured into her. Although salvaged some 20 months later, the Normandie never sailed again, and was sold for scrap in 1945.

The Queen Mary in World War II

Shorn of her fancy pre-war furnishings, and fitted instead with thousands of bunks and hammocks, the Queen Mary sailed as a troop ship between Australia, the Middle East, England and the U.S. Despite a reward offered by the Germans, the Queen Mary - mostly due to her speed - escaped destruction by U-boats. When not carrying GI's and other allied servicemen to war, the Queen Mary acted as a hospital ship and as a prison ship (bringing German prisoners to POW camps in Canada). Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, said that the troop-carrying activities of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth shortened the war by at least a year. On one trip, the Queen Mary carried almost 17,000 troops - the ship was so crowded that passageways were marked "one way"! Following the war, the Queen Mary was used to repatriate Allied soldiers, and subsequently war brides (the English wives of American and Canadian servicemen).

Post-War Cruising

It was not until July of 1947 that the Queen Mary, following a major refurbishment, got back to cruising. She, and her Queen sister ship, were very successful twins for Cunard, with little competition in their class, thanks to the demise of the Normandie.

Alan Walker on Queen Mary
The author (far left) today appears little different from this photo,
other than the wear and tear of 40 subsequent years.

The biggest event in the Queen Mary's 20-year post-war cruising was when I traveled on her in 1959 -- New York to Southampton via Cherbourg. I've discussed that trip before in The SeaLetter in Cruising in the Fifties. The financial rewards to Cunard from the two Queens started to diminish just after my cruise, with the success of the jet liner in luring away trans-Atlantic passengers. Within the next 10 years, all trans-Atlantic cruise liners began to lose money, and both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were withdrawn from service by 1967.

Retirement in Long Beach

While one of her major ports of call, Southampton or New York, may have been a more appropriate retirement home for the Queen Mary, the City of Long Beach was the successful bidder (out of 18 contenders) for the purchase of the Queen Mary when it was put up for sale. Cunard seemed happy to sell the ship for $3.45 million, when her scrap value was only $2 million. The Queen Mary's voyage to Long Beach via Cape Horn was a nostalgic one for the many cruise buffs on board. Drastic alterations were made to the Queen Mary during the next three years to make it suitable as a tourist attraction, including removing some 20,000 tons of machinery and structural items. Much criticism has since been leveled at this unnecessary gutting. Mistakes and delays led to the original estimate of $8.75 million for renovations to be almost quadrupled before the ship opened to the public in May of 1971.

The Queen Mary Today

Queen Mary Cabin
A former first-class stateroom with the hideous contrast
of the 1930's decor and the modern TV

For a modest admission price, you can now tour the Queen Mary any day of the week - either a guided tour, or on your own. In addition to seeing some of the lounges, restaurants, passageways, lobbies and cabins as they were originally built, you also have the opportunity to visit areas that were denied to most passengers - or impossible to see - during her sailing years. Those areas include the bridge, the officers' quarters, the radio room, the engine room, and one of her remaining four propellers (weighing 35 tons), courtesy of an underwater viewing area. Posters of famous former passengers have been placed on the covered promenade deck, and dozens of displays have Queen Mary memorabilia. But to truly immerse yourself in the history of the Queen Mary and the era of the grand trans-Atlantic cruise, you need to stay at least one night aboard, and treat yourself to one of the suites which were once the exclusive preserve of the rich and the famous.

A suite on the Queen Mary will cost about the same as any superior hotel in Long Beach, but the experience is unique. The cabins are hugely evocative of the 1930's, with some modern intrusions, such as TV's and mini-bars. The marquetry (decorative wood veneers) from some 56 varieties of rare woods, are the most outstanding feature of the decor of the cabins and public rooms, and are a vivid reminder of the exquisite workmanship of the early 1930's when labor costs were not a concern. During a recent stay at the Queen Mary Hotel, my wife and I overheard a lady saying to her friend "Did you also get one of the OLD rooms?" The 365 restored original First Class staterooms are ALL old!

Dining Aboard

There are a number of dining venues on board, including the semi-formal restaurant, Sir Winston's, open for dinners, the Chelsea, open for lunch and dinner, and the Promenade Cafe, open all day. To capture some real nostalgia, you really need to attend the spectacular brunch in the Grand Salon (the original first class dining room), but unfortunately Sunday is the only day that that happens at the moment. The observation bar, the original first class Art Deco lounge, is a great place for a drink or two while marvelling at the original bar, or checking out the shoreline while sitting at the tables outside.

Other Events

The Queen Mary and its adjacent complex feature other events. A Titanic exhibit, featuring Titanic artifacts, is presently running for an indefinite period. Special events also take place throughout the year, including "Shipwreck", a Halloween tradition of "Four Horrific Mazes" (including 'Decks of the Dead' and 'Haunted Hull of Horror').

The Scorpion

ScorpionConsidering that the Queen Mary escaped destruction from submarines during World War II, it's ironic that an "enemy" submarine is now docked right under the Queen Mary's bow - but it's a Russian sub - not a German one. The 2,500 ton Soviet Fox-Trot class submarine B-427, code named "Scorpion", a veteran of the Soviet Navy Pacific Fleet for 22 years, is now open for public inspection.

The Final Word

The final word for the Queen Mary has not yet been written. Despite its survival, unlike its contemporaries the Queen Elizabeth and the Normandie, the Queen Mary has had an uneven history as a permanently-docked cruise ship. Problems have included many changes of management, and ongoing financial crises because of the cost of upkeep. Recently there was a proposal to tow the Queen Mary to Japan, so it could be exhibited there for several years. Many believed that there was a great risk that the Queen Mary could be lost on the long tow to Japan. Fortunately, that proposal seems now to have been killed. A non-profit society, the Queen Mary Foundation, now keeps an eye on the preservation of the Queen Mary as a Long Beach seamark. The Foundation has a website at http://www.queenmary.org/ and the company that actually operates the Queen Mary Hotel has its website at http://www.queenmary.com/.

This short article can hardly do justice to this great ship. Many books have been written about her including Long Live the Queen Mary, by C.W.R. Winter, in 1994 and Queen Mary by James Steele in 1995.

If your cruising experiences have given you an interest in the history of cruising, don't miss the Queen Mary, have another look at that classic movie, the "Poseidon Adventure", and you'll see lots of shots of the Queen Mary that you'll recognize.


Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Alan Walker" as your search phrase.

Alan is also a member of the Cruise Staff of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: AGWalker@compuserve.com.

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