July 8, 2023

The legendary voyages of 2 steamships in their glory days


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Every week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

This article comes from the July 1975 issue of American Shipper and shows a historic story of the golden days of steamships.

S/S Olivette & S/S Mascotte saved Ybor City cigar industry, then helped return survivors of Battleship Maine

The last month of 1887, Olivette, under Captain McKay, cleared directly with Havana and, as usual, spent the winter months on the familiar Tampa, Key West, Havana route with Mascotte.

In May 1888 she returned to New York with a consignment from Key West for C. H. Mallory & Company. In the summer of that year she was advertised as running to Bay Harbor, Maine, along with Pilgrim. The Marine Journal on September 1st was induced to report “when Olivette leaves port (Bar Harbor) the wharf is crowded with people, which reminds one of the departure of a trans-Atlantic steamship. It is a pleasure to note that the establishment of an ocean route between Boston and Bar Harbor had proved a success the first season. The Olivette was the steamer above all others to make the experiment, as she is known all over the country through the part she took in the International races and by her splendid record between Tampa, Key West and Havana.”

In late October she left for Tampa after loading at the Mallory piers. In November she set a new record for running time between Morro Castle (Havana) and Sand Key (Gulf of Florida) by a 4-hour, 58-minute passage. Later on in mid-December, between Egmont and Key West, Olivette made the 183-knot distance in 11 1/2 hours, beating all previous records by half an hour. Her new chief Engineer at that time was Thomas Devlin.

President Cleveland

In March 1893, ex-President Grover Cleveland and several members of his presidential cabinet were passengers from Tampa to Havana as guests of Mr. Plant. Cleveland had this to say about the experience, “I enjoyed the trip to Cuba greatly and do not know of a more delightful voyage than that from Port Tampa down the coast to Key West and across the channel to Havana. I was never seasick, and could not have been on this voyage, there being perfectly smooth, and understand is nearly always so. It would seem to me that those who suffer from seasickness would choose so short a route in their visits to the Island of Cuba.”

In April of 1889 Olivette went to New Orleans to be drydocked and painted. Upon her return, it was noted that she made the run of 586 miles in 31 hours and 50 minutes, an average of 18.4 miles per hour, the best time on record between Tampa and New Orleans. In May 1889, it was announced she would go north for the summer season from Boston to Bar Harbor. For her first Bar Harbor trip in 1889, she left Boston on June 22 on time, arriving at Bar Harbor (200 miles from Boston) thirteen hours later. Olivette had a full load of passengers and freight as well as 17 horses. She left Bar Harbor that same day, arriving in Eastport five hours later. The Eastport trip was to be made once a week. Later on, in September, it was reported that a newly installed propeller took two hours off the Bar Harbor schedule.

On July 29, while in a dense fog from Boston to Bar Harbor, when entering Frenchman’s Bay, she struck and sunk a fishing boat at anchor (value $75 and fortunately unoccupied). About the first of October she returned to New York and went to the Erie Basin to fit out for her winter travels. In mid-October, she was scraped and painted before going south.

In 1890 the Bar Harbor season was about the same, but Olivette did experience an unfortunate occurrence. On July 16, at 2:15 a.m., she ran into the schooner Edward H. Blake, cutting her in half near her stem. No lives were lost; the Blake was abandoned. The Olivette lost her top foremast and ten feet of rail. The fishing schooner Storm King towed in the smaller portion of the Blake and received an $800 salvage award for doing so. The tug Bismarck towed the large forward part into Seal Harbor after finding it adrift a few days afterward. Edward H. Blake was a new craft, in fact only a day out on its maiden voyage. Built by J. E. Sawyer and Sons of Millbridge, Maine, she was bound from Bangor to New York. The schooner was built and re-launched in late October at the Brewer, Maine yard of E. and I. K. Nickerson. Her owners had reportedly refused an offer of $23,000 in settlement.

Embargo Tobacco

Early in 1896, the Spanish general, “Butcher” Weyler, in an effort to stop the flow of money and munitions from Tampa to Cuba, declared an embargo on tobacco exports from Cuba to the U.S., thus hoping that the cigar factories would have to be shut down. In coping with this emergency, Vicente Ybor of Tampa and others persuaded Henry Plant to send Olivette and Mascotte to Havana for cargoes of tobacco before the embargo deadline. They beat the deadline and brought back tremendous cargoes of tobacco; even their staterooms were piled high with Havana leaf, thus saving the Tampa-based cigar industry.

Survivors of USS Maine

On February 15, 1898, the U.S. Navy ship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. An aftermath of this was that Olivette was chosen to bring the survivors of the Maine disaster back to the states. She landed them at Tampa on March 28, 1898, where a great crowd greeted them. The Olivette was chartered by the U.S. Quartermaster Department to evacuate American citizens from Cuba on April 3. In the summer, she was a hospital ship accompanying troops to Cuba. She is listed as U.S. Army Transport No. 11. Only July 16, 1898, she landed at New York with 300 troops from Santiago. Not a man was lost on the trip.

Mascotte and Olivette obviously were premium ships as Plant had commissioned them, and as new vessels in a new service with many years of service thereafter, they were obviously very satisfactory.

By March of 1899 (or before), Mascotte was off and the Whitney had taken her place. Whitney was not a stranger to the route and took a once a week round trip leaving Port Tampa on a Saturday departure schedule.

That year, due to the heavy interest in Cuba, a direct service was run from Key West to Tampa by the Plant Steamship Company. For that purpose, the British-built Yarmouth, which was chartered from the Yarmouth Steamship Company of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Yarmouth was a steel screw vessel built 12 years before in Dumbarton, Scotland by A. McMillan and Son. She was 1452 tons gross and 725 net, 220.3 ft. long, 35.2 ft. breadth, and had a deep hold depth of 21.7 ft. Her triple-expansion engines had cylinders of 26, 41, and 65 inches diameter and the stroke was 42 inches. Yarmouth ran a twice a week service, leaving on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Plant’s Steamship Line came to an abrupt end just as it was expanding vigorously after the Spanish-American War. In July 1899, Henry Plant died. He had desired his properties to continue on as a unit, but his widow and others contested his will pertaining to this, and his wishes were not followed. The various entities of his large transportation empire were spun off and sold.

P&O SS is Formed. The Plant Steamship Line’s Port Tampa-Key West-Havana elements were combined with the Miami-based Flagler, headed by Florida East Coast Steamship Company, and a merger accomplished in mid-1900. This combined service focusing upon Havana was destined to become a shipping company that served Cuba for over five decades until forced out of business by Castro. The Peninsular and Occidental Steamship Company was the proud progeny of the two stout pioneer parents. The redoubtable Plant tradition reinforced by Flagler’s presence carried on and grew with the years.


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